Web Branding for Dummies

People call me a Luddite. People say I hate design. People say I have no understanding of branding. People say I don’t “get” the Web. And all because of last week’s column in which I wrote about Web designers being much more concerned about what their mates in the pub think than about what their customers think, designing Web sites that are cool but useless.

One irate reader berated me for small-mindedness. I was informed that broadband was “just around the corner.” Another barked at me that it’s the job of designers to stretch the technology, to experiment.

Sorry, folks, but that’s not your job. First and foremost, your job is to create a Web site that achieves the objectives of the organization paying for it. Experimentation is what made boo.com the laughingstock of the world. Experiments should be done in a lab environment. If I come to your Web site, I am not there as some “lab rat” to test out your latest fixation.

Five years ago, I heard that “broadband was just around the corner.” What I wasn’t told was that the corner was miles and miles and miles off in the distance. Anyone designing broadband Web sites today, when the vast majority of customers still have limited bandwidth, should be fired. Not only is it a waste of time and money, but it’s also a guaranteed way to insult and lose customers.

People who champion the importance of branding on the Web usually don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Managers beware: If you get a lecture on Web branding, be suspicious.

I’m into branding. I studied it. Since the Web emerged in 1993, I’ve had a keen interest in how branding would evolve in the new medium. Done right, you can build or enhance a brand using the Web. Done wrong, it’s a joke.

In the attention economy, brands scream for attention. On the Web, brands are supposed to give attention. The difference is like night and day. You walk into a bookstore news section. Two hundred brands call out to you — they are colorful, teasing, and provocative. They yearn for you to pick them up.

What’s the first thing you do when you want to go to a Web site? You type in the brand (e.g., www.yahoo.com, www.microsoft.com, www.napster.com, www.ibm.com, www.aol.com, www.ebay.com)! The brand has already gotten your attention. You go to the Web site to do something. The last thing you want is a big, swirling logo. Go to the Web sites mentioned above. See how little space on the page the logo takes up.

You brand on the Web with content. Yahoo didn’t spend a penny on advertising before it went public. Viral (“word of mouth”) marketing spread its brand. Yahoo didn’t become a huge brand because of traditional visual-driven marketing, but because it was a great place to find stuff.

The same with Napster. Napster is a music Web site. How come when you go to Napster you don’t see and hear Limp Bizkit screaming over riffing guitars: “Napster rules! So cool! Wow! Download music now!”? Because it would be a totally stupid thing to do. The Napster Web site is purely functional. Its logo looks like it was designed on the back of a beer mat. The Web site won’t win any design awards. But is Napster a brand?

Sorry, folks. The Web isn’t MTV. It’s boring, boring, boring. Most of us may think we know branding, but on the Web, we’re clueless, clueless, clueless. Managers: Keep your sites simple, functional, and focused on what your customers need to do once they get there.

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