Branding On The Web: A Real Revolution? - NicholasInd.com

Branding on the Web: A Real Revolution?

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Journal of Brand Management, 2001 (with Maria Riondino)

 

The impact of the web on brands and vice versa has been much discussed in journals and magazines during the last couple of years. The tone of these writings has varied between the euphoric and the deeply pessimistic. Our feeling is that neither extreme is reflective of the real changes taking place. To understand what is going on, we have undertaken a series of one to one qualitative interviews with companies in the UK and Italy, including traditional companies, dot coms and consultancies.

 

This paper not only demonstrates the difference in attitude to the web in the two countries, but also indicates that dot coms and traditional businesses place a different emphasis on the web. Overall the findings demonstrate the French adage ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose,’ which roughly translates as ‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.’ The essence of the argument is that at one level the web has changed everything for brands. Although brand charts have traditionally placed the customer at the centre, this has often been an ideal which has not the reality. The web because of its interactivity and community building potential gives the customer far greater power and extends the influence that customers have over each other. In any purchase decision of importance, customers are searching after the truth – deconstructing organisational messages, seeking independent views, looking at fellow consumers and sampling the product, if they can. Now, the web enables people to obtain the views of many, either by e-mailing a trusted authority, taking part in a chat room discussion or looking at peer reviews. This is the web as a social network and as a guide to decision making – an anxiety reducer.

 

The question for the brand owner is the degree to which they can and should control the customer dialogue. Our sense is that companies tend to like control and that the autonomy granted by the web is uncomfortable. For example, should the company allow positive and negative criticism of itself on its own site. The preference is to filter out the negatives, but invariably the proximity of alternative sources of information means the negatives just move elsewhere.

 

The opportunity is for companies to have the courage to engage all their publics in a dialogue. This has several positive aspects. First the potential for criticism is a spur to delivering better customer service. Second, CRM and other mechanisms that allow information to filter back into the organisation, enables the organisation to learn and adapt – quickly. Third it puts employees more directly in touch with customers and thus enables a more overt customer focus.

 

The last is particularly valuable because while research by Opinion Research Corporation shows that among large organisations, 38% have a value related to customer service/care/satisfaction, the oft cited problem is that customer focused values remain an abstraction for large numbers of facing employees. As a result of the potential benefits of more web enabled interaction between customer and employees our interviews show that dot coms place particular emphasis on engaging employees with the idea of their brands.

 

The web has already had a radical impact on our lives. Go back ten years and think of the working environment and one can see how the structure, nature and speed of work has been transformed. For some us, some of the time, the process of purchasing products and services has also changed. However, the impact has sometimes been less significant than expected. The web has not become the universal substitute for real world media and product consumption. Rather it co-exists. The web and other forms of digital communication have not yet reached the stage of intuition, (for consumers at least), where rather like we use electricity, we cease to make the decision conscious. Until the web reaches this stage, we will not truly know its impact. However, what we can observe is that for an organisation to use the web successfully, it needs to understand that while the technology is transformational, the way people behave is not changing in a fundamental way. Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs still rules.

 

People have the same needs for safety and security, society and self actualisation they always have. Companies, such as Yahoo and Amazon that have found new ways to meet these needs have generated large customer bases in a relatively short space of time. Of course, this ability to listen, understand and act is not confined to pure play web companies. The best brands have always done this. The advantage of the web is it encourages this in a seamless and immediate way.

 

Traditional and Dot Com Brands

 

In general, traditional companies attach greater importance and meaning to their corporate brands compared to on-line businesses. Our research findings suggest that among dot.com companies the brand is a fairly underused and under-recognised resource. The main reason is the speed of growth and the apparent ease with which businesses have been established. This has prevented these companies from developing a structured brand idea. Indeed internet companies do not seem to have developed a structured methodology for managing internal and external communications, let alone a model of brand management. The whole strategy tends to be driven by the business needs on an ad hoc basis.

 

It is worth noting that despite the fact that none of the dot.com companies interviewed have deliberately pursued a planned brand management activity, they were nevertheless able to describe their brand proposition. This capability of defining themselves seems to have enabled these on-line businesses to follow – even though at a more intuitive level than more brand-focused organisations – a consistent marketing strategy.

 

It must be stressed, however, that the dot.coms which participated in the study are particularly successful organisations, and therefore may not be entirely representative of the sector. In fact, many brand management consultants stated that, according to their experience, these companies generally fail to show a true understanding of the branding concept, often confusing it with the basic elements of the name and the logo.

 

Marketing communications seem to have played a paramount role in building name recognition for dot.com companies and, in particular, PR has proven to be a very efficient and cost-effective way to promote brand awareness. One of the elements that contributed to Lastminute.com’s familiarity, for example, was having a highly “promotable” management team. Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox, – the young successful entrepreneurs, represented the brand but also epitomised in some way a new identity for Britain. However, it may be argued that this well orchestrated PR strategy, which worked extremely well in the UK, could fail to achieve the same result in other markets, due to the specifically “British appeal” of the founders.

 

Moreover, name awareness alone cannot be the determining factor in building a strong brand as the recent crises of the major internet companies have shown. The fact that Yahoo, one of the most popular web-based brands, has experienced a serious profit crisis which led to the departure of chief executive Tim Koogle, should induce some caution about the sustainability of a business model which is not supported by a strongly integrated business strategy, including all aspects of brand management, from the brand idea to the selling proposition and from marketing strategy to CRM. Indeed one of the criticisms of Yahoo is that the company has users rather than customers.

 

It is also interesting to note that, among traditional businesses, the ones with a more global appeal were more familiar with concepts and theories of brand management, whereas companies with a more specific Italian focus tended to consider structured and all-encompassing methodologies too theoretical to help the company develop an effective brand strategy, and preferred to deal with the different elements of branding separately and with a more inductive approach.

 

Brand management on the web

 

The research has identified two main kinds of problems for web brand managers. The first issue is that sometimes companies seem to believe that they need to create a totally new identity for the web, which reflects the dynamic and innovative characteristics of the medium but is not linked to the brand values of the organisation off-line. On the other hand, the opposite danger exists: companies assume they can simply put their corporate brochures and catalogues on-line, without elaborating a specific web strategy. In general, most of the interviewees agreed that the right attitude lies somewhere in between and suggested that if it is true that a web site should embody an organisation’s distinctive identity guidelines, it is also equally important that the language and the strategy chosen are suitable for the medium. In other words, an organisation’s web site should be consistent with the whole brand presentation, but that at the same time the web presence should be conceived in a way that is sympathetic to the technology and the environment.

 

Whereas traditional companies, when endorsing their presence on the web, are conditioned by an identity and a personality which already exist and which they need to preserve, dot.coms – which are born and grow up in the cyberspace – are free from these kind of considerations and can build their web presence in the way that suits them best.

 

Importantly, research findings support the view that on-line companies seem to have developed a common style and feel which tends to be influenced by the web environment and which differentiates these companies from traditional businesses. In particular, it was observed that generally these companies present a higher degree of informality and dynamism reflecting the characteristics of the medium. However, even in these cases where the web experience is most important, the issue of consistency should be emphasised to ensure that all the various elements – such as the shopping experience, the delivery system, the customer service and the marketing communications – work in harmony to successfully contribute to the creation of the brand experience as a whole.

 

Some of the interviewees suggested that it is possible to achieve consistency throughout all forms of communication, including the web site, by focusing on the brand idea. All the main elements of the brand such as the visual style, the tone of voice, the personality, the characteristics and the brand values need to come through the web as strongly as they come through any other communication channel. This is similar to what an established corporate identity consultancy defines as the “brand drivers”. A brand driver, in fact, is “a unique, compelling insight which drives and unites all aspects of brand expression, which can underpin the development of an entire branding program” (www.landor.com).

 

Web sites: the right look and feel

 

As far as the specific characteristics of web sites are concerned, most of the interviewees agreed that consistency, content and technical features are crucial. In general, they felt that a web site should be dynamic, up to date and continuously enriched with new content. It should embody an organisation’s personality and display consistency both in terms of visual cues and content. It should orient visitors and provide easy to use navigation to help move people from an area to another. Most of the interviewees expressed their concern about the danger of using too many technical effects which often bear no relation to what the web site is actually trying to communicate and can inhibit download times and ease of use.

 

In particular, the web site should be instantly recognisable, meaning that it should always enable the visitors, from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, to immediately recognise and understand that they are on the site of a specific organisation. Most of the interviewees agreed that visual consistency is very important and that the logo of the brand must be clearly visible in every section of the web site in order to make it clearly recognisable and to reinforce the brand identity. However, due to technical limitations – such as the limited number of type fonts and colours available for the web, and the fact that sometimes sites read in different ways on different monitors – it is often very difficult to ensure absolute consistency between the visual identity of the company on-line and off-line.

 

Interactivity: exploiting the medium’s potential

 

Increasingly, the Internet is accepted as one of the channels organisations can use for their communications, interactions and transactions. In this perspective, the web is perceived as merely an additional medium in a company’s communication or distribution strategy, which does not contradict or undermine the fundamental rules and the basic concepts of running a business. However, there are some characteristics, which are specific to the medium, that are likely to have important implications on the brand management process.

 

One of the major attributes of the Internet is that it is an interactive technology. Research findings show that, in general, the interactive nature of the Internet impacts greatly on some aspects of brand management such as an organisation’s ability to gather stakeholders’ feedback as well as relationship building.

 

We found that the web enables companies to engage in a more immediate and unfiltered dialogue with its publics, thus improving greatly the quality of the exchange of communication and information between the organisation and its audiences and therefore potentially creating the basis for a stronger and more durable relationship. This supports the view that in general digital technologies allow companies to introduce in their relationships the element of information – information that is available, valuable, relevant, contextual, and up-to-date – and that in turn, this information can become knowledge, which is “the incubator for more frequent interactions, more relevant relationships and more valuable transactions” (Müller and Seidler 1999).

 

As web sites are available on demand to consumers 24 hours a day, they play a very important role in the feedback process, as they enable “instantaneous feedback by users about exactly what they want and what their experiences have been” (North, 1999). This is a crucial element in brand management as it makes it possible for a company to assess the effectiveness of its marketing strategy, and to review its communications and amend them if necessary.

 

More accurate and frequent feedback also means an organisation can improve the understanding of its customer base. Indeed, it was argued that web sites enable companies to acquire detailed information about their customers in a very spontaneous way and this information, when used effectively, can provide accurate guidelines of the customers’ needs and wants which, in turns represent a valuable asset for the definition of an efficient marketing and product development strategy.

 

However, findings outline that even though companies have the technology to collect detailed information, most of them – especially in the Italian market – lack the right attitude to use it effectively. In general, managers agreed that to date their companies have not been able to fully exploit the potentialities of the web as a means of gathering information about their stakeholders and that the data collection activity has been so far limited to names and addresses.

 

An important exception to this trend is represented by Quokka Sports (www.quokka.com). Quokka is a Digital Sports Entertainment Company, created with a focus on bringing the real intensity of sports experiences to worldwide audiences by using emerging technologies and emerging media. Quokka Sports manage a network of independent – yet interconnected – sport sites, each one designed to be the online destination for a specific sport community.

 

Notably, Quokka has actively pursued a consistent strategy of data collection which has led to a double benefit. First, it has enabled Quokka to implement a very personalised and timely communication strategy consisting, for example, in offering a special discount on a product the customer had manifested the intention to buy within a specified timeframe. And, in second but not less significant instance, an accurate understanding of the characteristics of the users of their sites has enabled Quokka to charge more for advertising spaces as they can guarantee a more effective targeting.

 

The findings suggest that web sites can become an essential tool in developing an organisation’s ability to listen to and understand the needs of its various audiences. However, even though the technology is there for companies to use, for them to use the information effectively there needs to be a deliberate and consistent strategy behind the data collection activity, which should involve not only the web site but also all the internal processes of the organisation.

 

Power to the consumer

 

Another important aspect of interactivity that emerged from the research is that it empowers customers, by making them more knowing and active and, as a consequence, more cynical about the messages companies wish to communicate.

 

As it is so easy today to access information on a worldwide basis, and as many people are exposed to and use a single information-sharing system, markets are becoming smarter and more organised. Indeed, the possibility of exchanging views and opinions with other actors in a networked marketplace has deeply affected the decision making process. The web has freed customers from their traditionally passive role as receivers of marketing communications, giving them much greater control over the information search and acquisition process, and allowing them to become active participants in the both the communication exchange and the purchasing activity.

 

An important implication of these considerations is that the web has led to a paradigm shift in marketing (Armstrong and Hagel, 1996), which involves moving from a “one-way” to a “two-way” information process (Blattberg and Deighton, 1991), as well as from the conventional “One-to-Many” to a more dynamic Many-to-Many communication model (Hoffman and Novak, 1996).

 

Many companies fear these changes, seeing in them only a devastating loss of control. But control, as defined by the authors of the provocative book “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, is “a losing game in a global marketplace where the range of customer choice is already staggering and a suicidal game for companies that must come up with the knowledge necessary to create those market choices” (Locke, Levine, Searls and Weinberger, 1999).

 

The web allows people with common interests to exchange information and share experiences. Despite all the marketing communication efforts undertaken by organisations, information circulated among on-line communities is likely to be significantly more relevant to consumers compared to corporate messages, as they are perceived to be unbiased and, therefore, more reliable.

 

As it was noted by David Siegel (in Mieszkowski, 1999), the internet “it’s not about transactions; it’s about communications and relationships”, and the focal point of all relationships, whether virtual or real and both in a marketing and in a social context, is trust. A recent study carried out by Cheskin Research (www.cheskin.com) investigated the importance of trust in the development of e-commerce, identifying the factors that produce a sense of trustworthiness, their interactions and their relative importance.

 

It was found that there are six main factors that communicate trustworthiness to visitors when they enter a web site: brand, navigation, fulfilment, presentation, up-to-date technology and the logos of security-guaranteeing firms. Importantly, having a well-known brand was found to be paramount, with effective navigation coming second best, as a means to endorse the perception that the site meets consumer needs.

 

However, although organisations may seek to nurture trust by building secure and easy-to-use web sites and by promoting certain values and messages, customers are now willing and able to look beyond the technical features and to question both messages and values, and they do not respect companies who are reluctant to engage in a dialogue or who refuse to share information or accept criticisms.

 

Managing criticism seems to be a very delicate issue for managers. Interviewees generally expressed scepticism concerning the opportunity of answering embarrassing questions or letting people discuss freely criticisms and complaints on the corporate web site. However, chances are that the discussion will take place anyway in another part of the marketspace, with the consequence that the company will miss out on the opportunity to benefit from this feedback and, at the same time, it may come across as a dogmatic and narrow-minded organisation, which is not worthy of customers’ trust.

 

Increasingly therefore, the hyperlinked economy is bringing of age a new concept: the concept of loyal brands (Myers, 2000). With the proliferation of dot.coms, digital outlets, portals and service providers, what fascinates the consumer in the over-crowded electronic environment is the quality of the dialogue he or she can engage in with a company, and this dialogue cannot be based on anything else other than an uncensored and unfiltered exchange of information. As Myers noted, information breeds intimacy and lack of information breeds contempt.

 

Facilitating the dialogue

 

Exchange of information between a company and its stakeholders also translates to increased dialogue between people inside and people outside the company. According to Hatch and Schultz (1997) “One of the primary challenges faced by contemporary organizations stems from the breakdown of the boundary between their internal and external aspects. … This is, in part, due to increasing levels of interaction between organizational members and suppliers, customers, regulators and other environmental actors, and the multiple roles of organizational members who often act both as ‘insiders’ and as ‘outsiders’. Just as the Internet impacts on external audiences, so the corporate intranet was found to affect internal communications. In particular, the intranet proved to work as a means for sharing information and knowledge and for generating commitment and enthusiasm within the organisation and was therefore perceived as an extremely powerful resource for building a common culture within an organisation.

 

An effective intranet can stimulate the creation of communities of interest about the meaning and the values of the brand and, especially in global organisations, it can facilitate the dialogue between people working in different places. Furthermore, the possibility of sharing not only work-related information but also fun and social issues was found to facilitate the creation of a sense of belonging and commitment within the organisation.

 

It was also felt that the possibility of giving anonymous feedback, either spontaneously or in the form of anonymous satisfaction surveys, on the intranet would encourage people to express their real opinion, making it possible to find out what the real perception of the organisation is. This, in turn, would allow companies to understand the people who work for them, analyse their suggestions and resolve potential problems.

 

Finally, the intranet was defined as a very effective channel for companies to implement their identity programs both in terms of cost and time saving, as opposed to printing and distributing far less appealing manuals and brochures.

 

The intersection of the market dialogue with the conversation which takes place within the organisation is bound to become the source of new opportunities, emphasising the human element in the corporate communications strategy. Research findings confirm this view, stressing the importance of the role of employees in the brand management process and outlining the danger of causing a gap between perception and reality if the way in which the personnel behaves is not consistent with the other elements of the branding strategy.

 

A recent survey into attitudes and practices in corporate branding, carried out by ORC International, found that in dot.com companies the role of employees tends to be marginalized as they become less visible and less important to the transaction. However our research paints a different scenario. Managers unanimously agreed that even though people in dot.com companies may communicate in a different way to people in traditional organisations, this does not undermine the fundamental need for the human interaction to be consistent with the whole brand experience. Not only have the findings of this study rejected the hypothesis that the role of employees is less important in dot.coms than in traditional companies, but they actually suggest quite the opposite especially under the respect of sustaining a dialogue and generating trust. It was generally suggested that as the Internet is still perceived with a certain degree of diffidence or dislike by some people who are not totally comfortable with giving their personal details on the web, the possibility of human interaction and the quality of the customer service are seen as fundamental in building a relationship with the customer.

 

In spite of the fear that managers may have of losing control of the communication process, a more open and frequent exchange of information between companies and their audiences should be considered more as an opportunity than as a threat, for it enables organisations to be closer to their markets, leveraging their learning capability and thus allowing them to become more flexible and more responsive to the needs of their stakeholders. It was noted that “the most powerful corporate brands are those that listen effectively and have the confidence to allow their customers to define them” (Ind, 1998).

 

Updating the model of brand management

 

In general interviewees stressed that all conceptualisations of corporate identity management tend to be extremely theoretical and cannot encapsulate the variety and peculiarity of the single situations. The common feeling was that even though these models are often used and discussed in the academic world, in the business environment both companies and consultancies tend to adopt a much more practical approach.

 

In this perspective, it was argued that models can be considered as “wish-lists” or benchmark procedures of what would happen in a perfect environment, but that in practice there are so many variables to be taken into account that it is extremely difficult to make a generalisation or to suggest a single methodology.

 

Bearing in mind the risks and limitations connected with every attempt to summarise the complexity of the branding process in a static framework, a model is here suggested which takes into account the major findings of the study.

 

 

 

The model, which builds on a chart previously elaborated by Stuart (1999) has no pretensions of being an exhaustive and universal explanation of the branding process, but aims to be a graphic presentation of the findings of the study, and to give a small contribution to the conceptualisation in the area.

 

In particular, we have introduced into the model the brand idea. This concept appears to enjoy wide use among practitioners, and has been defined as a way of summarising the brand and expressing it in a very simple and clear way. The general opinion is that the brand idea should sit between the corporate identity and the central elements of the marketing communication strategy, the employees and the products and services. It is a result of the organisation’s identity and values and should consistently inform the company’s strategy and activities.

 

The concept of brand idea seems to be closely related to that of positioning which has also been sometimes defined as “a summary of the brand”. However, positioning appears to be related more to the perception of the company in the mind of the audiences, and therefore to the image of the company, than to the actual brand identity and values. Moreover, positioning shows greater market focus, taking into account the aspect of competition. Accordingly, it might be concluded that both the brand idea and positioning offer a snapshot of the brand, but whereas the brand idea is part of the internal processes and, in a way, the source from where all the other elements flow, positioning takes place in the mind of the publics as a result of the company’s communications and the competitors’ activity.

 

In general, feedback loops have increased compared to previous models, with more opportunities of spontaneous feedback from stakeholders, and so has interaction between the stakeholders and the organisation.

 

Finally, unplanned communications have also been incorporated into the model. It was found that even though companies may wish to control their communications, there is a fair amount of completely unmanageable and unplanned cues that add to all other accumulated experiences of the brand which contributes to the corporate reputation. Indeed, unplanned communications are seen to be an increasingly important phenomenon which seems to have found in the world wide web its natural home. This is due to the growth in both size and strength of on-line communities as well as to the more frequent interactions between an organisation’s internal and external stakeholders.

 

Summary

 

The research demonstrates the primacy of the brand idea as a concept. In established companies the idea is clearly articulated and used to steer management decisions and in some companies it impacts in a profound way on employees. For dot coms the brand idea seems to be more subliminal. This is perhaps not surprising in young companies, which are sufficiently small to embed the brand through the direct influence of founders. However as these companies grow they need to understand the essence of their brands. This will help them to define clear strategies. For example, it is instructive that Lastminute.com has begun to explore the true meaning of ‘lastminuteness’. The danger in delaying formulating the brand idea for new start ups is that there is an over-reliance on advertising and pr messages to build awareness at the expense of structuring a truly customer focused and customer engaging offer. Look round at the high profile dot com problem cases and you tend not to find awareness problems – rather you see only partially constructed offers that have failed to listen to customers and have not explored the potential of the business idea.

 

When it comes to delivering the brand idea on the web, there is a tendency for organisations to fall into one of two traps. Either the communication potential of the internet leads to site concepts and designs that have little relationship to organisational reality or the too literal transfer of the brand fails to make the most of the medium’s attributes. Our argument is that the presentation of the brand should reflect the overall brand idea and make the most of the medium’s potential. The failure to achieve this is that, in spite of all the hyperbole about the internet, is because organisations see the internet as simply a communications channel. Interviewees tended to deride any notions about the web as revolutionary medium, especially in Italy, which seems to be less web savvy than the UK. In our view, the value of the web is that it is both a distribution and a communications channel that facilitates interaction, community building, openness and comparability. The best web brands optimise all these facets and integrate the web into the other activities. They recognise that the web is not just a medium to the outside world, but something that impacts both internally and externally on the way they do business. The web may not be a revolution in terms of a seismic shift in the world order, but as it becomes more an intuitive part of business, it will alter the relationship between a brand and its users.

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