Online branding has for some time played second fiddle to traditional marketing channels, but slowly the tables are starting to turn and, in many cases, it is now a company's online "image" that is shaping its overall brand strategy. This phenomenon has serious implications for the shopfloor and beyond.
The aggressive use of Web sites for e-commerce that many bricks and mortar companies have adopted over the past 12 months has proved that this can genuinely deliver new revenue streams. And the growing online success is prompting marketers to review their branding strategies.
In the past, higher-level marketing activities, such as TV ad campaigns and point of sale were given priority, while the company's online offering was almost an afterthought. However, as the power of the Internet is realised, companies are giving more consideration to online strategy and using this as the foundation for building a coherent marketing strategy.
This is a huge turnaround. Commercial Web sites took a battering from the dotcom crash but out of the ashes has come a strong e-commerce environment which has created a new type of consumer.
The Web has changed the way in which customers accept information and the behaviour of the online shopper is starting to influence the look and feel of the offline brand.
One of the key reasons for this role reversal is that Web sites make it much easier for marketers to try out new branding - from fonts and colours to strap lines and special offers. Furthermore, the flexibility of trialling campaigns online can save companies vast sums of money because of the ease of tracking consumer reaction via on-site user feedback facilities and site usage statistics. If an element on the Web site is unpopular customers simply won't use it.
With the growth of e-commerce, bricks and mortar companies are now trying to lure customers to their Web sites. They are constantly thinking of new strategies to get customers online and publicising the URL is an important part of this strategy. I challenge anyone to go into a high street store where the URL is not displayed prominently.
Moreover, the Web-style design is very much in vogue and shops are embracing it. There are standard elements such as functionality and usability best practice, but there is huge scope in terms of design.
By embracing the look of the Web site and bringing it onto the shop floor companies hope to prompt customers to remember the visuals and create a "safe and warm" experience for the customers both online and offline. This potentially places Web designers in the position of being the brand strategists of the future.
Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see how the virtual store will influence the way in which physical shops lay out their merchandise.
The way in which consumers shop online is very different to how they shop in-store. The value-demanding, low-tolerance shopper created through the Web is rewriting the rules of the traditional shopping experience, with the user expecting fast, easy, no-nonsense shopping, without the "marketese" and "fluff".
I suggest that, ultimately, this user-focused, "consumer is king" sales process will dictate how shops function and look in the future.
The potential of the Web is huge - on average, stores could expect to get about 100,000 customers through their doors every week, which compares to six billion customers potentially via the Web.
Undoubtedly, Web sites will take the lead and become the primary sales vehicle and company Web site successes in terms of branding will certainly filter down through the marketing channels.
Rob Richardson is senior consultant of user experience at Integra