INTERACTIVE;SMALLER RIVALS ZOOMING FORWARD ON THE WEB; OPINION: BRANDS SHOULD FOCUS ON DELIVERING UTILITY, NOT AD IMAGES, TO TARGET AUDIENCE

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Large companies are being outsmarted by smaller competitors who approach the Internet not as a place to display advertising images, but to deliver utility to target customers.

While I agree there is value in branded sites, "advertising" is not necessarily the foremost reason for brands to be on the Web.

NOT FOR TRADITIONAL ADS

Leave the displaying of your brand's key advertising image to more traditional media that have proven to be effective in building brand equity and influencing purchasing decisions. Presently, the World Wide Web does neither of these things particularly well.

Early brand Web sites, notably Ragu and Zima, included some fun and funky content, and their sites were highly trafficked primarily because at the time, other Web content wasn't as graphically well-produced.

Unfortunately, the Ragu and Zima models were held up as examples of what every brand should deliver in a Web site. While Ragu was smart to deliver Italian lessons on its site, eventually others like the Italian Tourist Board or Conde Nast Traveler will offer much more in-depth information.

Ragu will not be able to deliver the best Italian content in the medium, so instead it will serve up Italy as a brand-association device, and concentrate on more product service utility in recipes.

DIFFERENT BUSINESSES

Although the content of Ragu's and Zima's Web sites is very creative and was extremely well-received, most consumer products are not in the publishing or broadcast business.

A couple of brand leaders may provide category utility which goes beyond product information, but very few will be able to generate fresh content on a regular basis.

Can Levi's truly become a place where the youth of the world check in for definitive information on what's cool? Or will Details or Spin or Rolling Stone successfully migrate their content and editorial into this medium?

I'm betting on the content professionals who will also derive revenue to pay for their content from a host of advertisers.

Rather than competing with content providers, large companies should focus on building brand-relevant content and buying Web media to establish their brand's presence.

If you go to Yahoo and type the word "book" in the search field, a list of sites featuring book content will appear. At the top of the page, you might see a banner for a company called "Booksite."

One would expect to see a Barnes & Noble banner "owning" the book category, but the company was outmanuevered by a much smaller competitor.

Try a couple of other words (car, travel) and discover brands you've never heard of staking out high-impact turf: the #1 Travel Network building a beachhead in the travel category, not a major airline or credit card company; Auto-By-Tel staking out more turf than major car companies.

NEED TO ADAPT

Large marketers are being outsmarted by the little guys in other ways. Too many brands appear to be so in love with their ad images that they overlook the time it takes the average Web-connected consumer to view them.

Is the Bud Bowl so exciting people will wait a minute for the home page to load? What does Prudential gain by loading a huge graphic image on its home page?

There are ways to build pages and render images to load quickly.

So, sit back and watch the startups become category giants, or figure out the rules of the road fast and get your brand into this medium the right way.

Steve Klein is managing partner-director of media and interactive services at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York.

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