Nothing But Brand

Unless you’ve been a “Survivor” contestant for the past year, you’ve probably noticed the spate of television commercials for Internet companies that don’t seem to have a product or service. With some fancy graphics and the company’s name on the TV screen or worse, wacky irreverence suggestive of those oh-so-crazy morning drive-time radio DJs we get a vague sense that it’s a dot-com, but that’s it.

Despite the gratuitous references to “solutions” in high-tech-company press releases, these spots don’t lead us to believe that these dot-coms can help solve any of our problems. By the end of the commercial, most of us still aren’t even sure if the dot-com even has a web site.

Take Inktomi’s recent Essential TV ad campaign. Need a company name? Start by scavenging for bargains at a domain-name garage sale. Need a place to shed some of those unsightly dot-com cash balances? Buy some TV airtime, throw up a colorful test pattern and some groovy background music, and voil`!: “Inktomi: essentially vague and pointless.”

With millions of viewers left scratching their heads, it’s a wonder that we haven’t seen more follow-up commercials for dandruff shampoo.

In advertising parlance, these are called image spots. They serve to do nothing more than build name recognition (often confused with any real branding). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Apparently, it’s never premature to be building a name for yourself before your audience even knows what you do.

All Image, All the Time

Thus grew the inspiration for our new company: iFacade. With the appropriate-sounding name, and available dot-com domain, our new company will be based entirely on image, name, and (quite possibly) brand.

We’re going to plaster the iFacade name with some great graphics on every square inch of Silicon Valley, Alley, Prairie, Swamp, and Parking Lot. People will find us on billboards, bus wraps, TV, Internet industry magazine ads, bills posted at urban construction sites… everything but radio, since that would force us to actually say something.

Naturally, the explicit purpose of the campaign is to make iFacade a well-recognized brand name, a name that is easily recognized in focus groups and market research both aided and unaided.

And why is all this brand recognition important? Because that’s all we’ll do. Talk about focus, our strategy is to become the leaders in the ultimate frictionless business in the new economy: a name-recognition pure play. Without things like inventory, products, services, and dare we suggest even customers to weigh us down, we’ll be a lean, mean image machine optimally adapted for a nimble economy running on Internet time.

The idea may seem radical at first, but is it really? The Internet pioneered the notion that you don’t have to make any money as long you are popular. We’re simply taking this concept to the next level of e-business evolution: First we’ll establish a well-recognized brand name through a massive awareness campaign, and maybe then we might consider launching a web site.

Who knows? We may even think of a way to make money off all of this at some point.

The original strategy of “Steves” Jobs and Wozniak for taking a garage-based, high-tech company to Fortune 500 stature no longer applies. In today’s economy, we propose, first you create the logo, then you purchase the TV ad space, and then you create a product or service.

Companies have stockpiled trademarked names far in advance of developing the products to adopt them, and Nike has built a multibillion-dollar athletic shoe empire without making a single shoe. By building name recognition first, we’ll establish a defensible competitive barrier for whatever we decide to do with it.

But Seriously, Folks

Of course, we’re being facetious. Or are we? The Industry Standard recently reported on an aspiring investment bank, IPO Connection, that’s rooted in the model of going public before you even have a business.

If we look past the Internet’s absurd and obscene for the moment, the truth for many of these dot-coms is that they, and their industry, are so brand new that there are no best practices when it comes to building an online brand. As a result, consumers are subjected to a sort of (expensive) laboratory experiment.

Industry peers intensify this experiment with a lemming-like fear of being the last one in the pool. Many dot-coms also seek a sort of public validation of their businesses through mainstream media even if they risk the message passing completely over everyone’s heads.

While competition is fierce and there may be no road map for building an online brand, there’s something to be said about testing the waters before committing. In fact, we suggest that you test and retest mercilessly.

Instead of going straight for the Hail Mary pass of a multimillion-dollar Super Bowl television ad, it’s a lot cheaper to make your mistakes on, and learn from, smaller steps. And when you do that, it couldn’t hurt to tell people just exactly what it is that you do.

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