Big firms reining in Net Brands

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Attempting to gain control of their sprawling empires of multiplying Web brands, companies such as Chrysler Corp., IBM Corp. and Sprint are rethinking and reorganizing their online branding strategies.

In practice, this means thousands of Web pages soon will conform to one of a few basic design templates used by each company and control of content will be centralized, rather than spread among multiple Web units.

"After the mad dash, everyone's pulling back," said Carol Moore, director-Internet programs for IBM, New York. "The Wild West is trying to civilize itself."

Chrysler led the pack last year by embarking on an ambitious project to revamp and centralize many Web sites under one electronic roof.

The automaker says it has reined in runaway Web development costs and changed the way customers, dealers and manufacturers interact online. The revamp took about seven months.

Now Sprint has mounted a similar massive campaign to unify its identity across 40,000 Web pages.

And IBM is gearing up to consolidate more than 125,000 Web pages from 90 internal "content organizations" on the same Web hub of servers.

"Trying to do this has gone beyond our wildest nightmares," says IBM's Ms. Moore, who is based in New York.

Although painful and costly, these Web marketers agree on one thing: Consolidation is critical to delivering dynamically driven product information, setting the foundation for electronic commerce and achieving a consistent marketing message.

"It just can't be done if every brand is doing its own thing," says Richard Everett, director-strategic technologies for Chrysler.

By far, the greatest benefit of Web site consolidation is content management, officials say.

By consolidating company and product information in a single database, a company makes it easier for users to access information through a search engine or intelligent agents, no matter how deeply it's buried. And Webmasters can spend less time and money to update that data.

Before centralizing its data, Chrysler faced "an unbelievable task" of updating volatile prices that required changing each Web page, Mr. Everett says.

"We created an architecture that let us make changes in one place and broadcast that to each brand's site," he says.

The changes let users electronically configure and price their own cars from the home page without visiting each individual brand. This also generates valuable data that Chrysler is passing on to its dealers and manufacturers.

IBM is taking similar steps to let users generate pages on the fly. It's in the process of moving two or three business units at a time to a group of corporate servers. While will let IBM consolidate and classify content across divisions, the goal is also financial.

"It's less costly to maintain and update," Ms. Moore says. "It also cuts down on the management of multiple domain names and encourages different Webmasters to talk to each other."

Companies have another important goal in consolidating multiple Web sites: Strengthen corporate and brand identity by creating consistent image across all pages.

Sprint, for example, now is setting online branding guidelines that will require all divisions to use a template, currently under development, to design Web pages.

"We want a seamless representation of Sprint to the end user," says David Church, group manager-media based in Kansas City, Mo., for Sprint's Brand Investment Group. The group oversees the company's interactive marketing effort.

Templates are critical when various divisions use different interactive advertising agencies for content and graphics, Mr. Church says.

In addition to creating consistency, the change will halve the time it takes Sprint to roll out new pages -- from two months to one.

For IBM, which oversees pages developed by 72 countries in more than 15 languages, templates will create unified national identities for regions such as Europe and Asia, Ms. Moore says.

Coordinated Web efforts help disseminate the company's marketing message across all media.

"Before anyone puts a URL on a print or broadcast ad, they speak to us first so we can work out the proper routing," says IBM's Ms. Moore. "Our brand marketer and Web marketer decide the strategy together."

In some cases, she says, the URL will point to a corporate page with an icon for the advertised product; in others, it will send users directly to the page addressing the ad.

When building a new brand identity is critical, companies may decide to create a separate URL for a particular product. But that function still must be coordinated, says Ralph F. Wilson, director-Wilson Internet Services, a Loomis, Calif.-based Web developer and marketing consultancy.

"Whenever there are multiple doors, all must point to the corporation's site and the new product should be a featured icon on the home page."

Indeed, reining in scattered Web kingdoms is the coming trend for companies that want to see a return on their hefty online investments. But how do traditionally decentralized cultures help far-flung divisions overcome their fear of Big Brother?

"Typically, we've seen firms assemble cross-functional teams, with representatives from each brand, advertising agency and other corporate groups," says Bill Hopkins, research director for the Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based technology consultancy. "It's intended to be a coordinating, not a controlling activity."

In Chrysler's case, the team's first charge was to develop common objectives for the site, then formulate strategies and create a tactical plan.

The carrot, says Mr. Everett, was to promise them a better Web site at a lower cost.

"In the beginning, each division wanted to buck the trend, but now they realize they need help," Ms. Moore says. "The whole hyperdemocratic attitude has mellowed."

This story originally ran in the March issue of Advertising Age's Business Marketing.

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