Whether the tools are designed for page creation, such as Microsoft's Visual Studio or Allaire Corp.'s Cold Fusion, or for commerce integration, such as One-to-One from Broadvision, a database is key.
"Databasing is absolutely critical," says Vito Salvaggio, VP-marketing for Accrue Software, Fremont, Calif., whose traffic measurement systems work with all those products.
With Broadvision's One-to-One, for instance, Web pages are created based on knowledge of a customer, and product data is pulled from a database. "Content is not stored in static HTML pages," says Mr. Salvaggio.
'The whole experience'
A database-driven design lets you change logos or other brand elements once and see it reflected throughout the site, says Gabriella Martino, a VP of Broadvision, Redwood City, Calif. But that's just one, minor benefit, she says.
"The branding is the whole experience," Ms. Martino says, reflecting how quickly users get service from a site and the company behind it. "When you build a Web site, you build a community."
Agencies and analysts agree that logos and design are minor elements in Web branding.
"Our belief is you're creating immersive experiences," like a visit to an amusement park, says Kyle Shannon, co-founder of Agency.com, a New York-based interactive agency. And like Disney World, a top site is "a controlled environment with commerce, storytelling, entertainment and navigation targeted to helping companies build their brand," he says.
Mr. Shannon has partnered with usability consultants Nielsen Norman Group, Atherton, Calif., and Gomall Research Design, Milwaukee, to create an "immersibility index."
The index, which measures the "depth of relationship your site creates with customers," Mr. Shannon says, can be found on the Agency.com site. It's a survey that starts with your industry and goals, then measures site functionality, content, usability and branding against those goals.
Consistency is just one heuristic in the branding equation, Mr. Shannon says. A site must also embody the perceived values of your brand.
"You need to know who your customer is to answer that, then you need to understand how they're perceiving the brand," he says.
Michael Barr, a principal with QDI Strategies, a Chicago-based consulting firm, recently completed a best-practices study on manufacturers' sites.
"The more brand equity you have, the higher the expectations for the Web site," he says.
Many companies understood the risk and spent considerable time on pilot projects before asking customers to interact with them, Mr. Barr says. But many then made a mistake by telling customers what they are doing on the Web, rather than spending that money on their sites.
The best place to spend it is on databases, he says, and this is where channel conflicts need to be ignored.
"It's now possible to supply a lot of information via the Web, and the manufacturer needs to stay in control of that," Mr. Barr says. Manufacturers can also take a direct role in educating and keeping in contact with customers, because "the cost of storage is now approaching zero."
So even if you're selling through channels and not directly, he says, your brand needs database and presentation management. "No one hand codes pages anymore," he says.
Extending your database in both directions--to your sources of supply and to your customers--can even build a consumer brand based on a business-to-business model.
That's how Proflowers, La Jolla, Calif., built its Internet flower shop into a keen competitor of 1-800-Flowers.com in less than two years, says President Bill Strauss.
Proflowers uses supply chain management to link growers directly to flower buyers, he says, building a database it presents to prospects.
"It can take nine days for a flower to arrive, and this is a product that starts dying when you cut it," Mr. Strauss says. "We can get it to your home in 24 to 48 hours. The Internet is the enabler of that," through effective use of databases.
Proflowers' advertising is consistent, if not imaginative, Mr. Strauss says. The key to success is using input from the Internet to change the company's behavior.
"We changed our packaging based on customer input," he says. "We were using brown, earthy packaging. We changed it to something more elegant. Now we have a purple box with elegant fonts."
Mr. Strauss also brought the resources of his business partners, such as Federal Express Corp., into the Proflowers site, "so the customer never leaves" the brand. FedEx, Memphis, Tenn., checks the progress of your package through its database, then delivers that data on the Proflowers site.
"It all gets back to being able to look up and use information in a real-time fashion," says Clay Ryder, chief analyst for Zona Research, Redwood City, Calif. "Databasing is a good catchall, but it's about maintaining a dynamic relationship" that builds brands.