Most Manufacturing Brands Are Missing the Mark Online

Here Are Three That Aren't -- and What They're Doing Right

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Competition among manufacturing brands is fierce. Televisions, kitchen appliances, flooring, electronics, automotive -- each category is a crowded market. And in a climate where it's unclear whether there's enough to go around, most manufacturers are missing out on a prime opportunity to get ahead in the game: the digital channel.

Digital marketing is the most powerful connector in the business-to-consumer toolkit. The sentiment is there. The conditions are right. In many cases, the money is being allocated. And yet, the branded manufacturing industry continues to lag behind retail and consumer packaged goods in connecting with the all-important web-empowered consumer.

In 2007 Resource Interactive published its findings in a year-long study of branded manufacturers online. Focused on those brands marketing high-ticket items to consumers (greater than $100), more than half of the sites audited made no attempt to establish their brand online. With 81% of web-goers using the internet to research a product before purchase, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project, and 71% of online shoppers reading reviews, according to Forrester, it's more critical than ever a brand use the web to empower purchase decisions in its favor.

The web is the platform that integrates all customer touchpoints and it's the one place where manufacturers have an opportunity to establish a direct relationship with the end consumer. It provides a unique opportunity for manufacturers to tell their brand story and differentiate themselves in a competitive landscape.

Even in the case of non-transactional sites, the brand still has a tremendous opportunity to influence the sale without being responsible for the ultimate transaction. That influence takes shape in information and tools that empower users to make confident, informed buying decisions, particularly about high-dollar products. A brand can create an open dialogue online, offer decision support and even support a community, resulting in an inspired consumer running three quarters of the race before even entering the store -- and choosing a brand before she arrives.

The tools can be as simple as comparison data, pros/cons details for similar products and decision support quizzes that narrow user options based on practical and emotional needs. Or, they can be as complex as detailed visualization experiences, real-time product locators and personalized planning tools. The information on a manufacturer's site is not only helpful to customers at home but also becomes an important opportunity for sales partners as well. They now have easy access to resources that can help an overwhelmed customer in the store.

Either way, the power of understanding and supporting a customer's decision process online is the key -- all the Web 2.0 jargon in the world on a site won't save a customer stuck in the purchase cycle because she is having trouble assessing her family's appliance needs. Fortunately, the landscape isn't entirely bleak. There are, of course, a few leading examples in the category.

  • Weber Grills continues to be one of the standouts. With a robust online community created exclusively for Weber owners, a recipe section and online operating manuals for each model, the site offers support in the act of grilling itself -- inspiring grill masters and aspiring grillers alike. It's not all gold starts for Weber, however. The grill finder is hardly a grill finder at all. A simple online quiz offering customers a quick and easy means of selecting the right grill for their lifestyle should be top priority.

  • Electrolux Appliances is staging a comeback. It has seamlessly integrated its online experience to television and print campaigns starring Kelly Ripa. The site uses rich media to showcase its products within landing pages, provides demos and guided navigation, and incorporates some degree of "help me choose" information within the product browsing experience.

  • Shaw Floors makes the decision of selecting flooring simple by offering an upload-your-own visualization tool, allowing customers to try on a floor in their own room before saving it to their profiles and taking it to a dealer. Finding flooring is easy through clear navigation, consistency from offline campaigns to online and design and care recommendations. The rich site experience makes choosing flooring an inspired act, rather than overwhelming and utilitarian.

Each of these are shining examples that manufacturing brands can be sexy, inspiring and informative -- both online and off.

The web is both a direct response vehicle and a brand builder. It is a medium that can create value with a smaller budget and establish a connection with the consumer, regardless of brand category. In this web-made world, customers expect 24-7, open access to brands and information. They no longer differentiate between channels and often head to the web first to research a product pre-purchase. Manufacturers can no longer leave them standing in an empty store with no one there to help them. Otherwise, those shoppers will quickly turn to the brand that can.

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Kelly Mooney is president of digital-marketing agency Resource Interactive, a blogger and author of "The Open Brand: When Push Comes to Pull in a Web Made World."

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