Round-Up At The Branding Ranch

Branding is a critical — indeed, an indispensable — element of strategic and tactical marketing for the web.

Consider these excerpts from Ernst & Young’s most recent Internet Shopping Survey

  1. 42 percent of online buyers plan their purchase and know what brand they want and/or the merchant they want to buy from (the recently released 10th GVU Survey.)
  2. 82 percent said knowing a product’s brand name would be important or very important in their decision to buy online.

Creating buyer preference — gaining mind share of the purchasing netizen through effective branding — is essential for web business success.

But the web is the wrong place to do it.

How Do You Brand A Cow?

Imagine you’re Proctor & Gamble. When do you begin the branding campaign for Tide or Oxydol or Gain or Cheer or Bold? When the customers pull into the supermarket parking lot? As they walk through the automatic doors? Inside the store?

The answer is, of course, No to all of these. You begin (and conclude) the branding campaign long before your customers get near the store. By the time they’re at the market, they’ve either made up their minds (because you’ve already built brand identity for your products) or are on a hunt for information (like ingredients, price and in-store specials). They’re just not listening to branding messages anymore.

Now, let’s make some analogies:

  1. Parking lot = logging on.
  2. Automatic doors = entering a URL.
  3. The store = a web site.

When do you begin branding on the web? The answer is the same — you don’t. By the time your potential customers log on, they already know what they’re looking for, and they often know from whom they want to buy it. They’re on the hunt for information.

They’re just not listening to branding messages anymore.

All Cows Look Grey In The Dark

Branding is about differentiation. Its purpose is not to inform, but to indoctrinate through relentlessness.

Differentiation is a marketing tactic for creating artificial distinctions between products when no inherent distinctions exist. You don’t need to differentiate a Rolls Royce — it is inherently branded. But you do have to create differentiation between laundry detergents — since they are basically all the same.

Branding — done well — helps an uninformed marketplace make a consistent buying decision. It supplies buying criteria that have nothing to with the real characteristics of the product. I know nothing about laundry detergent. But as soon as I see those red and orange swirls and those giant sans serif italics, my buying decision is made: Tide is my brand of detergent.

And it’s my brand because the P&G brand managers and agencies have created a sustainable impression in my mind. They’ve done that by delivering high-impact, repetitive messages to me over time, before I ever got near the store. And the messages they’ve pounded in to me were delivered over media like TV and print where I’m receptive to them — not at the store, where I’m not.

On The Web, People Know Each Cow By Name

Let’s listen to Ernst & Young again:

  1. Only 10 percent of consumers said they used the web often (or all the time) to purchase products or services, while 37 percent said they used the web often or all the time to research items that they might purchase later.
  2. Web purchases are mostly “considered” purchases done after at least some thought and information gathering.

In other words, the web is where people come to learn: Where they move into the world of the informed marketplace. They’re comparing products, looking up specifications, examining characteristics, checking price and availability. If your brand isn’t already in their mind, you’re not going to get it there on the web. People may still find you — and do business with you. But it will be because of affinity links, or search engine and directory placement, or word of mouth.

P&G doesn’t have much of a branding presence on the web–I can count the Tide banners I’ve seen this year with one finger. (Use Namestake and enter “laundry detergent” in the banner search box — I daresay you’ll be reloading a long time before you see a P&G banner.) P&G informs and interacts on the web.

Take a look at the contents of Tide’s online FAQs — and the rest of its web site for that matter. You’ll find information about getting out stains, environmental packaging, optimum water temperature for each wash cycle, front-loading vs. top-loading machines.

Have you ever seen them talk about that in a commercial or print ad? Of course not it’s information — and information is way too boring for branding.

A New Pasture Every 57 Seconds

The other half of branding — relentless repetition — is something the web simply doesn’t offer.

The web is not a presentation experience, it’s a hunt. People don’t come to sit back, relax and watch the show. They come to click — people on the web are on the move. You can’t deliver an effective branding message to people that don’t sit still. If you want to create high-impact, repetitive branding messages under those circumstances, you’re going to have to get right in the way of the user — as Geocities and AOL do with their shameful popups.

NetRatings reports that the average web user sees 333 banners a month (and clicks on just 2.5, by the way). They spend (also from NetRatings) an average of just under a minute on each page (and you know that most of that time is spent reading content, not taking in branding messages). The average TV viewer (according to Creative Selling) sees 50 hours of television a month — that’s as much as 13.5 hours of commercials (some of that is no doubt non-commercial viewing).

You decide which has impact and which does not.

Enough With The Cows Here’s What Works

As far as branding through the Internet (not the web) goes, here are some things that work:

  1. Email marketing is something that (finally!) is getting the attention it deserves. The sterling newsletter ICONOCAST offers permanence and relevant placement — critical branding elements. I print the issues out, archive them and refer to them — and I see those “flags” every time.
  2. Add sponsorship to that mix and you’ve got a real winner. Consider the folks here at ClickZ, whose sponsorship messages come to me every day via email. I may not have time to head to the site, but I always read the email. I don’t know who advertises in the rotating banners atop the page, but I can tell you who the sponsors are.
  3. Build brand through content. I’ve peppered this article with hyperlinks to companies. Those of you who are interested in this topic will (or should) follow those links. Apply that notion to your email marketing program — replacing links to company names with links to topic concepts. A few attractive click-through statistics (what if more of you go to the sites mentioned here than to the banner advertiser’s site at the top of this page) might turn email text phrases into profitable sponsorship venues — and create brand awareness and loyalty at the same time. (Might not be a bad web advertising idea, either.)
  4. But offline branding is still the most successful. And cost-effective too. A quick look through the SRDS books will make it clear that there is no significant difference between buying a page-dominant, four-color ad each month in most trade books, and buying enough online banner impressions to have any effect. Successful branding means increasing your offline advertising budgets.

My advice? Use traditional media like print and broadcast, and online media like email, for what they do best: pounding out high-impact, sustainable messages. Use the web to do what it does best: Providing compelling, action-oriented learning environments — in other words, delivering the goods.

A final note. I know what I’ve said here is against the current. I’m ready for all those responses that start with “bull.” But since, as always, it’s dialog and not victory I’m after, I encourage you to check out the other side of the story as well. Rex Briggs and the team at Millward Brown Interactive make as compelling and persuasive an argument for web branding as I’ve found — and nary a word about cows.

Related reading