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Experience the brand -- and brand that experience

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Everyone's into branding these days. High-tech companies, low-tech companies, even no-tech companies are looking to mass media campaigns to communicate their brands.

While some companies make products that are unique, or at least unusual, others are finding that the only major differentiator between them and their competitors is not the product, but the brand they've so carefully crafted, that image they've painstakingly, and at great cost, cultivated in the minds of potential buyers.

And how have they been branding? By delivering their messages over and over again through TV commercials, print campaigns, radio, outdoor, direct mail and, of course, Web banners.

Until now.

You see, Web marketing, like any other form of marketing, is evolving. It just happens to be evolving much faster than other marketing tools. That, in turn, is changing the nature of branding on the Web from a passive message to an active one.

As you can see by reading our Page 1 story, it's no longer enough to tell people about your brand. Now, you must offer -- no, entice -- people to try it. Banners are no longer state of the art; Web sites are.

Smart marketers, from Hewlett-Packard to Intel to SRDS, are turning their Web sites into branding tools, designing ways for the user to "experience" the brand. Federal Express, perhaps the granddaddy of experiential branding, does it by letting customers track their own packages. Dell's customers can design their own computer setup online.

Intel even designed a WebOutfitters service for users of its Pentium III chip, pointing them to sites that take full advantage of that particular chip's power in an effort to brand the entire Internet experience as something enhanced by Intel.

But while you can still, to some extent, control the marketing message, you can't control the experience. Marketers must still stick to the basics and not be carried away by the potential -- or by the glitz and gizmos -- that the latest technology can offer, unless, of course, your brand is based on high-tech razzmatazz. Others, however, would do well to keep in mind just what their brand is, and what it isn't.

I discovered this recently by accident when I went online to order some calendar refills from a popular calendar-system company. The site apparently helps customers configure a calendar system to suit their particular needs. But what I discovered, after years of using this company's products, is that it no longer cares about my calendar needs, at least not if I insist on ordering online. Why? Because I'm using an older computer, and apparently the company just caters online to people with newer systems. The rest of us have been relegated to the dark ages of the 800 number.

The company might be offering a branding experience, but that experience lost the company a customer. (I've found another system that works much better for me -- one that I can buy online.)

E-branding is about building relationships with customers through their interaction with your site. It goes way beyond persistently preaching the same message. Banners can start the process and get customers to a site, but truly savvy marketers are turning on the brand experience and turning up the heat when people actually hit the Web site.

Amazon.com knows what it's doing when it greets me by name each time I call up its home page. While I know it's just a computer thing, I still feel welcome. And the site doesn't care that I'm operating an older computer; its job is to convice me to buy my books or CDs or whatever from Amazon.com, not to sit in judgment of my technical capabilities. The goal here, after all, is to be as inclusive as possible, not exclusive; to embrace customers, not turn them away.

Web marketing keeps changing. The cutting-edge Web site of today will be old news very quickly. Within 12, 18, maybe 24 months, technology will be moving us ahead again, and marketers will be grappling with yet new methods of Web marketing. Some may see it as an amazing possibility, others as a horrible curse, but one thing is true: It's happening, and you, the marketer, must keep up no matter how you view it. Marketers who are doing a good job of e-branding are setting a higher standard that all other sites will quickly be judged by, and your company's customers will expect at least as much from you.

The opportunity for building your brand is immense, limited mainly by the marketing imagination that has never had to grasp the idea of one-to-one communication for the masses on a 24-7 basis. As Caroline Riby, VP-media director for Saatchi & Saatchi Rowland, Rochester, N.Y., told Business Marketing, "It's the jack of all trades when it comes to marketing."

Send comments and questions to Karen Egolf at kegolf@crain.com.

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