Web Branding: Take It Personally

It started with pop stars. They went to court fighting for their online names. Everyone, from Madonna to Britney Spears, won their cases and appeared on the Net, their flashy Web presences promoting their brands. It soon became apparent these sites were more than glossy catalogs of bios, pictures, and sound samples. They became direct lines to the stars’ audiences. Mariah Carey went online and spoke of her depression. Others followed suit, and pop stars became accessible in a new way.

Following the pop stars came authors and gurus from the world of business writing. Tom Peters, Faith Popcorn, and Sergio Zyman created their own Web presences. They started with glossy, passive sites and later introduced dialogue that made the host personalities accessible in an unprecedented manner. Faith Popcorn asked visitors to help write her next book, “Dictionary of the Future.” Patricia Seybold invites readers to join her in live discussions about her opinions. Tom Peters invites visitors to his Brand Caf&eacute to share their experiences.

The trend in personal Web sites hasn’t stopped with celebrities. Millions of kids and teenagers have been creating their own personal Web presences. Years ago, your telephone number was your point of contact with friends. Then, the email address took over. Now, you can’t survive socially without having your own, cool site that reveals a total picture of your life, complete with quotes and poems from friends and heroes.

What these site concepts have in common is they promote real people, tell real (well, maybe not always) stories, reflect real feelings, and, most important, engage their fans, friends, and families in a real way.

Let’s consider the corporate brand Web sites. Pepsi, Disney, M&Ms, Wrigley’s… you name it. Have any of these sites changed dramatically over the years? Do they tell real stories, reflect real feelings, and engage fans, friends, and families in a real way? Sorry, but they don’t.

Over the seven years of the Web’s existence, brand Web sites, for some reason, stopped developing. The rest of the world has overtaken them. Brands are like people: A strong brand has feelings, expresses opinions, engages in dialogue, and has moods, an identifiable look, and behaviors we know and recognize. Do me a favor. Visit just three Web sites hosted by brands you really like. Note the personality of the brand you were able to observe. Not the personality you thought you knew before visiting the site, but the personality you learned about from your visit. Did your visit reveal a clear brand personality? Did the site reflect any personality at all? Or was it a corporate site with an anonymous voice that tried to appeal to everyone — by not committing to a personality of its own?

Then, take an objective look at your own site and conduct the same test. If your site has a clear personality, if its language is unique, if its style is identifiably its own, if its tone of voice is personal and particular to your brand, you’re getting there.

If you feel your site is weak in these areas, visit a few of the millions of teen sites out there — or the thousands of pop star, movie star, or author sites — and find inspiration in them. For some reason, branding talk has had the effect of making brand sites too corporate and too impersonal. Ironic, because that’s not what branding’s about. Branding is about making your brand so personal you can’t live without it.

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