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Cyberbrand study: Web branding opens links to customers

Copyright October 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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Strong product branding on the Internet can provide marketers with a powerful advantage over competitors, a new study has found.

GISTICS Inc., a Larkspur, Calif.-based research and consulting firm for customer satisfaction, said in a study released in September that use of interactive media allows brand managers to link tightly to steady customers, and to use that link for long-term gain.

For example, the report cited the ability of Web marketers to rapidly scale promotions for higher yields.

"As customers investigate, buy and use products and services in an interactive market space, they spin off preview-demand and usage satisfaction profile data informing producers what to build, for whom, how many and for what price, creating an absolute competitive advantage," the report said.

The survey, of 4,000 brand management, creative and production professionals on behalf of Apple Computer, found that successful digital brand building requires a two-part strategy.

One focuses on the business process, that is, how a company finds, serves and satisfies its customers.

The other targets the branding process, in terms of how a company manages media and positions messages in competitive and confusing markets.

MOST PROFITABLE CUSTOMERS

The results of a strong brand in the marketplace of the future, the report said, include higher sales conversion rates, new opportunities to sell additional items into the aftermarket, knowledge of the habits of the most profitable customers, and increased accountability of marketing programs to sales and the bottom line.

But for all its value, analysts and marketers also point out that brand building in cyberspace is not cheap, easy or foolproof.

"Supporting this vehicle for a brand is an enormous obligation once you start to get involved in it," said Emily Green, director-people and technology strategies, Forrester Research.

Indeed, one of the Internet's biggest myths is that cyberspace is the great equalizer, and that with $50,000 anyone can open a successful storefront on the Web.

"The site builds brands by providing service," said David Carlick, exec VP-interactive business development for Poppe Tyson.

In many cases, it requires companies to establish banks of personnel to handle inquiries from customers and potential customers.

REGARD FOR BRAND EQUITY

Because the Web site is the No. 1 brand builder in cyberspace, its development and operation also should not be relegated to technical staff who might have little regard for brand equity.

Brand handlers at Compaq Computer Corp. decided three months ago Compaq's Web branding was too important to leave in the hands of company engineers.

Compaq created a new position to oversee the company's cyber brand, from internal intranet communications to managing product line and support.

"People must be able to find what they are looking for quickly," said Seth Romanow, director of Compaq's interactive communications who supervises the company's 7,000-page Web site.

"We really want to make the site useful for people who want to buy computers or have bought one," said Mr. Romanow, who developed a philosophy for the Compaq site termed "useful innovation."

INTERACTIVE CAPABILITY

Although these interactive elements are new to traditional mass media, they hold cyberspace's greatest promise.

"It's not enough just to hit the consumer with messages," said Peter Himler, exec VP-managing director of media relations, Burson-Marsteller, New York. "Messages need to do more, to have an interactive capability and a direct response capability," he said.

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