The Brand Catch-22

Over the last six years, brand building on the Internet has been struggling to find the balance between the consumer’s perception of a brand and whether the Internet was a vehicle for delivering that brand.

Heaps of hype in the early days persuaded brand builders to believe that the Internet was a medium they had to be a part of, but many brand builders have found that consumers who favor particular brands have been keenly disappointed by their brands’ online performance.

E-tailing felt the crush of this reality during a cold Northern Hemisphere holiday season simply because e-tailers and brand builders weren’t well prepared. So many brands fell into the hype trap by grasping the online lifeline and promising their customers all the “usual” services they offered offline.

In retrospect, this was a gamble, one that caused a giant like Toys “R” Us so much grief that it had to look laterally to find a new business model. So Toys “R” Us teamed with Amazon.com. The idea was a good one because it diverted the possibility of any future brand crises. Amazon.com had the online experience and preparedness to make the online operations of Toys “R” Us workable.

But have we learned from the Toys “R” Us experience? It seems not. There are plenty of other giant brands lining up their Net strategies, brands we know and love for what they are: Mars, Snickers, Pepsi, and Nike, just to name a few. And what do these brands have in common that causes us to know and love them for what they are? They all have incredibly well-developed offline brand equity — and very little else online.

You see, that’s the problem. The Internet is not for everyone, just as any medium is not always for every brand. Some brands are more successful online just as others are more successful on television or in magazine advertising. Procter & Gamble figured this principle out in the fifties. It assessed that television suited any products that benefited from demonstrations. And for Procter & Gamble, that covered everything from soap to general household products. Nescafi recognized that sampling was the way to success, so the company shared its product through magazines all over the world.

Let’s agree that the best medium for brand building varies from product to product and that the Internet isn’t a vehicle for everyone. Given this hypothesis, can you tell me what the online role is for brands like Pepsi, Nike, and Mars? Do they really have to be online today? What advantage are these brands gaining from Net exposure? Should they wait until technology allows them to meet consumer expectations online? Does an online presence that falls below consumer expectations add to its brand equity or take away from it?

The crucial factor is consumer expectations. So let’s examine this further. What would you expect from, say, a Pepsi web site? That it would be cool? Fun? Interactive? Innovative? These are Pepsi’s core brand values. But nominating these qualities doesn’t get at the heart of consumer expectations of Pepsi’s online role. What on earth can Pepsi offer on its site to fulfill consumer expectations? Games? Probably not. Games don’t have much to do with the brand. Free tickets to concerts? Hmmm… Would that be a point of differentiation, or could that gimmick just as easily belong to some other site?

It’s hard, very hard, for many brands to go online without looking foolish. There’s no doubt that consumer expectations are high, so there’s no room for online mistakes. Should some brands avoid going online? How should brands negotiate the brand Catch-22?

Perhaps Pepsi could do damage to its reputation by not having an online presence. One of its core values is innovation, and a large part of its market is young people. So an innovative brand like Pepsi will be compelled to be where young people are: on the Internet. There’s the brand Catch-22: For brands like Mars or Pepsi, going online is dangerous. Almost anything the brands do online won’t meet their markets’ expectations. Yet avoiding an online strategy will create just as much criticism, with consumers questioning what’s going on with these brands, wondering if these brands have fallen by the wayside.

I’m afraid there’s only one way to deal with the brand Catch-22: Keep thinking of new ways to deliver the old message, and deliver that message only when it’s ready. And by “ready” I mean tested on and accepted by the consumer. By venturing online without a plan, as the Toys “R” Us experience showed us, you’re exposing your brand to a dangerous gamble. And once you’re online, you can’t switch your web site off because this sends bad vibes as well.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will the Internet be. As I’ve always said, it’s better to have no online presence than to be online without knowing why; however, this doesn’t quite solve the brand Catch-22, which is a big problem for every brand marketer.

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