E-business is not a "total paradigm shift" or a completely different ballgame - it's business as usual. In which case at least half the battle for business survival is keeping your customers, which is best achieved by establishing your product or your company with a strong brand image.
Arguably, as e-commerce creates even fiercer price competition, branding is more important than ever. It's puzzling why so many e-businesses don't seem to give branding any thought.
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It's been estimated that some online share trading systems have spent $300 per customer in acquiring clients. Given that they only make around $20 commission on each trade they make, they'll need to keep those customers for a long time if they're going to make their money back. But, says analyst Vanya Karas, of branding specialist Identica, there's nothing to distinguish them from the competition at all.
While this failing might be understandable (but no less dangerous) for a start-up e-business, it's unpardonable for an established business that is adding a Web presence to its portfolio. Why spend years establishing a brand, making people associate certain values with a company, then jeopardise this with a crummy Web site, she asks. "The problem is the same whether companies are trying to protect an established brand that is going to be marketed online or trying to establish an entirely new brand for a dotcom start up," says Karas. "There's not enough thought given to the projecting of brand values. Yet it's the strength of the brand that goes a long way to ensuring the company's success."
A Web presence for an established business is a particularly perilous task, says Alan Scutt, EMEA manager for Clear Commerce, "We've found that if a consumer visits a new dotcom and it isn't easy to navigate and comprehend, there's a degree of understanding among consumers. But if it's an established brand and customers have a bad experience, they are much less forgiving."
With branding such a vital business, and so little known about it, a mini e-branding industry seems to have developed. E-branding seminars and exhibitions abound. Granted, it can be painful if you fail to put enough thought into branding, but is it so different from normal product branding?
Of course not says Kathleen Morony, the vice president of E-loyalty, which describes itself as a global consultant on customer loyalty. "There has been so much hype about how the Web changes the whole concept of branding. The Web isn't as mesmerising as we think. The marketing principles are exactly the same. The only dramatic difference is the timescale. Executing a brand message must take 2-3 seconds instead of what used to be a week and all the different messages execute in one space at the same instant."
Everything about the brand you are creating should be instilled from the outset. This sounds like an awful lot to pack into something as unspectacular as a Web site. For all the whizzy graphics you can create, a Web site will never be as sensual an experience as a happily concluded piece of business with a bricks-and-mortar company. It'll be even more difficult to launch an assault on the senses when Web site designers are working around the limitations of Wap phone screens.
These are exactly the sort of disciplines the advertising industry has had to work with for decades. Which is why the developers of the online car trading site, now known as OneSwoop.com, went to an ad agency to help them develop their online branding. They would have gone to a branding specialist, but brand specialists are even more expensive than ad agencies. Like many cost-cutting exercises, it turned out to be a false economy.
The ad agency originally came up with the name Carmax for the fledgling e-business. Later, the owners of the site decided they needed to consult a branding specialist before they were confident they could start trading cars over the Internet. So they called in Identica to apply their expertise.
The first thing they did was change the name to oneswoop.com, the better to capture the spirit of the consumer-friendly global car market site. There followed a number of modifications to the site design too. This, argues Karas, exemplifies why e-businesses should get the brand specialists in right at the start of a project. "You need to build the brand values from the bottom up."
You have one small area in which to evoke the mood and feel of your business, which means you have to make as full use of the spectrum of colours, patterns and sounds at your disposal, without compromising your site's performance. You need to be sure that the feel of the site is right for the type of customer you have in mind. (You do have an exact idea of who your customers are, don't you?) Then examine whether the site you have is the type of place people would shop in at leisure, or if it's too cold and businesslike.
This all sounds too much like common sense for a lot of entrepreneurs and, when they are already having to pay through the nose for Web designers and systems testers and advertising experts, it's understandable why some e-businesses decide they can do that branding exercise themselves. "These agencies charge you a fortune and I prefer to do it myself," says Caroline Stiles, marketing director of online distributor Equinox, "It's not rocket science, is it?"
So what are the main considerations? Language is important. "You need a consistent voice," says Peter Clay, who launched the gardening e-commerce site crocus.co.uk after spending most of his working life in advertising. "It's important that the brand personality comes across."
The brand personality is incredibly important in any business, he says. You need to speak to people in their own language to inspire people to think they know and trust the people behind the site, and like them too. The most powerful tool for getting this across is language, and yet in the perverse logic of e-business, the language of e-commerce seems to have been standardised around one social group.
"If we're addressing a market that's predominantly 35-year-old women interested in gardening, we're not going to use the language of some slacker from Pittsburgh," says the MD of Crocus, "and yet that's exactly what the majority of dotcom marketing seems to do. A lot of dotcom ads are atrocious. There seems to be this idea that the presentation of a brand on the Internet needs to be pitched at 17-year-olds from California."
Language is a double-edged sword. Used wrongly, you will only inflict damage on yourself. If the tone and style of writing were so unimportant, there wouldn't be an advertising industry.
The realisation of a good online brand, especially a business-to-consumer one, is dependent on the versatility of the Web site. Just as great sales people get to know and engage with their customers, so must your site be embedded with "sticky tools", which collate information about your customer's preferences. Like its bricks-and-mortar version, the key to online retail is in the detail, says Tomas Ancona, customer experience architect of brand specialist Scient. Much of the detail is in the Web site development. "Online you have to take a customer through an experience. You get them to the front door, greet them, put the product in front of them, engage with them," says Ancona."
There's no magic formula for the mood and the values that brands evoke. Anyone can, in theory do it. But brand specialists will have had years of experience in finding these magical qualities. For everyone else, launching an online presence without any thought on how to match the brand to the business concept is a shot in the dark. A case of the bland leading the brand. Identica's Karas agrees with the marketing director who did her own branding in one respect. "It's not rocket science," she says. "It's a lot more complicated than that."
Researching your brand
How much research does it take to get your branding right? Wowgo.com, a business-to-(teenage girl)-consumer site, has spent two years making sure it captured the spirit of its target market.
Why does it take so long? "We have to be absolutely certain we're communicating the right message," says chief executive David Pellar, "so we've spent a lot of time looking into the needs of teenage girls, how they consume media, what they watch, where they go and what they read, and what they get out of it. It's a continual process of research. It never ends."
Though this qualitative and quantitative research - they've interviewed thousands of teenagers - is obviously expensive and time consuming, it's vital to meet the needs of the target market.
Creating an online brand