Driving these efforts is a new way of using the Web to brand a business. Instead of relying simply on traditional banner advertising, leading marketers are creating a core interactive experience on their Web sites that pushes home the brand message one-to-one.
Call it e-branding.
"This is revolutionary," says Claudia Dobkin, associate director of Landor Associates, the Miami-based branding and naming agency, who says e-branding is a watershed marketing development.
"Branding is redefined online," agrees Caroline Riby, VP-media director at Saatchi & Saatchi Rowland, Rochester, N.Y. "We are moving beyond representing a brand to experiencing it."
Despite some who argue that banners are critical to online branding efforts, many leading interactive marketers say traditional branding campaigns merely tell about the brand. But on the Internet, companies prefer to show their brands in action.
At HP's Web site, for example, an interactive tool quickly allows resellers to configure computer networks. The reseller answers a few questions about the network environment: How many buildings, how many floors, how many ports. Then, this network configurator, the HP ProCurve Networking Design Tool, spits out a custom network design meeting those requirements. It even quotes a price.
This interactive tool shows almost effortless expertise, reinforcing HP's brand as a networking authority. At the same time, the tool doesn't hesitate to recommend HP hubs and switches.
"This is what I define as b-to-b experiential branding," says Paul Marobella, chief relationship officer at the Greco Ethridge Group, Boston. "Not only are they getting across the brand experience that they're the experts at configuring networks, they also can push their products."
At Intel, the goal was a Web site that would allow its many audiences to interact with the brand, which Jami Dover, VP-sales and marketing for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip manufacturer, describes as "safety in technology."
For product developers, Intel created a special area of the site with product manuals and diagrams that can be downloaded to ensure safe, easy design. And for computer manufacturers, it created the Internet's most lucrative electronic commerce site, which conducts $1 billion worth of secured business transactions monthly.
The great banner debate
Revolutionary or evolutionary, these kinds of e-branding efforts run counter to the position of banner proponents, who are standing firm on the power of banners.
Research conducted in 1997 by Millward Brown Interactive, San Francisco, for the Internet Advertising Bureau is one of several studies indicating that marketers can successfully brand using banners. Six of the 12 banner ads studied had a positive impact on brand perception.
"There's no question you can build brand with banners," says Rich LeFurgy, bureau chairman, who argues that Web advertising is even more effective than traditional media because of the Internet's interactive nature.
The notion that branding should move away from banners to Web sites is a devolution of Web-based marketing, Mr. LeFurgy says. Eyeballs are moving to content sites such as Yahoo! and ZDNet, he says, so that's where the advertisers should be.
"Advertisers that are trying to drive an audience to their Web site alone are missing a tremendous opportunity by not spreading their message on banners," Mr. LeFurgy says.
He points out that b-to-b marketers IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. each plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on banner advertising in 1999. Yet these computer industry giants also have strong Web sites where e-branding is central.
But other marketers and ad agency executives liken branding with Web banners to buying a TV spot and running a 30-second close-up of a print ad. It simply ignores the advantage of the medium.
"Can you brand with banners? Well, sure," says Tyler Schaeffer, senior VP-media director at Foote Cone & Belding, New York. "Is that the only thing you should do? Probably not."
Ms. Riby is also skeptical. "It depends, but relying upon banners exclusively to build brands probably won't be effective," she says.
For one thing, Ms. Riby has seen studies that indicate a Web surfer's eyes rarely stray from the content to glance at a banner. Particularly in a business context, Web users tend to be focused on finding a particular nugget of information, she says.
Most important, Web users are often ready to buy, and a traditional, passive branding message misses out on the Internet's relationship-building capabilities.
The new one-to-one
With its interactive possibilities, the Web puts the onus on the marketer to build relationships with potential customers, says Bob Dorf, president of Peppers & Rogers Group/Marketing 1to1, Stamford, Conn. "The branding power of a site really hinges on its ability to engage an individual customer or business customer in repeated interaction," he says.
The Web, Mr. Dorf says, offers businesses a form of one-to-one marketing not seen since the turn of the century, when the owner of a general store knew his customers so intimately that he could suggest products, just as Amazon.com does now.
Many b-to-b marketers excel in just this type of e-branding on their Web sites. These marketers have developed customer relationships that ideally, of course, lead to the sale of products and services. A recent PC Computing study indicated the top three revenue-producing Web sites are Intel; Cisco Systems, San Jose, Calif.; and Dell Computer Corp., Round Rock, Texas. The first strictly retail site to appear on the list was Amazon.com, which placed eighth.
An example of this one-to-one marketing in the b-to-b realm is Dell, which has moved its brand promise of "Be direct" to the Web. For its larger business customers, Boeing Co., for example, Dell has developed "premier pages," which provide procurement departments with a customized Web template for ordering PCs.
"What this is about is building relationships online and keeping engaged with our customers," explains David Dix, Dell's global Internet public relations manager. Dell's latest figures show that the company conducts $18 million in business on the Internet daily, triple the figure at the same point last year.
Dell has also expanded its brand online with its Gigabuys site, where Dell sells computer peripherals using the same basic customer interface as the Dell Web site. "The idea is we want people to say, `We just love ordering direct from Dell; we want to buy everything from you,' " Mr. Dix says, adding that at Dell.com, the product is not being branded, the Internet experience is.
Cisco is another company that has enhanced its brand on the Internet. "Our brand is our tagline: `Empowering the Internet generation,' " says Keith Fox, Cisco's VP-corporate marketing. "This is a promise of customer success."
With its brand in mind, Cisco, which last year conducted more than $10 billion in e-commerce transactions on its Web site, has centered its customer support efforts on the Internet.
"Eighty-one percent of all customer care and support questions/transactions are handled by the customers themselves in this system," Mr. Fox says. Cisco estimates that handling customer inquiries via the Internet saves the company $500 million a year.
Finding a happy medium
Not all marketers practicing e-branding are high-tech outfits. SRDS, Des Plaines, Ill., which was founded in 1919, is using its Web site to modify its brand of accurate, timely information about media.
Traditionally, media buyers at ad agencies scanned the SRDS advertising source books to find rate data for print, TV and radio ads. For other steps in the media-buying process, they discarded the print versions of SRDS books and consulted magazine audit statements, for example, or filled out insertion orders.
On the Internet, SRDS hoped to make its Web site more central to the media-buying process. The company has accomplished this by making links available to other Web sites that are integral to media buying, such as those of BPA International and the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which post audit statements. The Web site also links to media-buying software.
The idea is to make the SRDS Web site indispensable for media buyers.
"We're not [just] media information suppliers," says SRDS President-CEO Christopher Lehman of how the Internet has altered his company's brand. "We've fashioned our own base camp of media information software."
Ironically, one of the reasons SRDS is practicing this sort of e-branding is to attract more visitors to the site, which in turn will make it more attractive to marketers running banner ads. In the end, the consensus in the marketing world is that room exists for e-branding and banner branding.
"This is not an either/or issue," Ms. Dobkin says. "Banners are about advertising and creating awareness, bringing traffic to the site."
"No one's an expert," Ms. Riby adds. "We're all making guesses here. The more we learn, the more questions we have."