Smash Your Web Site

Some 70 years ago, Coca-Cola gave its designer a special brief: Design a bottle that no matter how smashed could always be recognized among all the thousands of glass shards on the street. Obviously, the incisive designer fulfilled the brief successfully, and today we can still recognize the distinctive Coke bottle.

Imagine that we performed the same test on your Web site. Imagine we smashed it by searching through every page and deleting the brand and any references to it — and then asked the consumer to visit the site without knowing what its brand was. Do you think your site would pass the Coke test? In most cases, I doubt it. But isn’t this what true branding is? Integrated, consistent elements that, even in isolation, are signifiers of a brand but together create the full brand identity?

Now, I know a logo can be nice because it pithily states identity and leaves consumers with no questions about what they’re dealing with. But the reality is that consumers don’t usually sit and watch your logo on your site. Customers visit, presumably, for information or service. They read text, look at pictures, fill out forms, ask questions, and try some of the interactivity the site offers. All these elements should, by principle, communicate branded experiences that together establish a full picture of your brand.

So my message is this: Every element of your site counts. Consider waiting time. Long waiting time tears down your brand. An Australian bank recently conducted a test that showed the long waiting time on the bank’s site was parallel, in the customers’ estimation, to tedious queuing in the real-world bank. Comments such as “I’m not surprised. The banks have adapted long queues to the Internet” reflected customer ire. The same study showed that spelling errors on the site also weakened the brand’s credibility. Customers felt that they couldn’t trust a bank that wasn’t professional enough to identify and eliminate spelling errors: “How can I trust a bank to handle my money if it’s sloppy with spelling?”

The customer’s experience of your site is enhanced or devalued by every one of its elements, including the emails you send. Your wording, tone of voice, and the message’s objective all reflect your brand’s position. And your handling of these elements should be taken just as seriously as the production of an advertisement. If you’re clever, you’ll test your emails before sending them to half a million people — an ill-judged communication (such as a letter) can be more harmful than your least successful advertisement.

For example, a well-known, high-class car company used John Cleese to promote its brand on television and the Internet. The promotion was a major success; consumers loved Cleese on the site. However, a problem arose. Once the campaign ended, it was discovered that brand awareness hadn’t changed a single percent. And sales even decreased. The John Cleese element did not express the brand’s core values. Even though TV viewers and site visitors loved his comedic character, they had difficulty associating him with the brand he was representing. Additionally, Cleese was perceived as such a strong brand himself that his persona blocked the car brand’s exposure, leaving it the loser in the campaign.

I once visited a major translation company’s Web site. Upon reading the introductory text, I found five spelling errors and two grammatical mistakes. This very famous company, a leader in its field, was offering English translation services by exhibiting rank amateurism on its own Web site. Do you think I’d have felt confident engaging its services? Of course not.

Brand building on the Internet means much more than getting your logo right. Because we can’t satisfy our senses of smell, taste, and touch on the Net, we compensate by employing “brand translation.” We translate visual and aural impressions to gain a virtual sense of a product or promise. Every element on a Web site — color, copy, font, image, sound — builds your brand and leaves impressions in consumers’ minds. Impressions that are formed by their liking of the brand, their trust in it, and their potential reliance on it.

Chances are, the conclusions they draw are based on less-forgiving assessment processes than consumers apply in the real world. Sensory deprivation, anonymity, and isolation are factors that impinge upon the consumer’s Net experience. This is simply the nature of the medium. Your brand needs to work extra hard to compensate for these experiential gaps.

So do me a favor: Smash your Web site just as Coca-Cola smashed its bottle. Let consumers determine if they can reconstruct your site’s message and purpose piece by piece. You’d better hope they can restore the full picture of your brand.

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