Making your mark online

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While the Internet can be a powerful branding tool, it's not a magic bullet, says the new book "Deep Branding on the Internet." Authors Marc Braunstein and Edward H. Levine explore how companies can use the Internet to best advantage as they develop and deepen their brands. This edited excerpt looks at the qualities of a deep brand -- "the result of heat and pressure, applied together over time" -- and 10 key fallacies of branding online.

A deep brand conveys benefits of the highest value to the brandholder, who can measure the heat and pressure customers experience in the following ways:

High unaided recall. Deep brands enjoy outstanding recall not just of their names and trademarks but also of their unique selling propositions. Which is the "King of beers"? What automobile manufacturer implores you to "Drive safely?" What company focuses its entire marketing strategy on computer users who "Think different"? Customers don't need a search engine to navigate to the sites Budweiser, Volvo or Apple Computer offer. They recall these companies' Internet addresses as easily as they do the brand names themselves. Remember that nurturing the continued awareness of a brand is also a lot cheaper than creating it in the first place.

Consistent quality and expectations. A deep brand never wanders from its position of strength, which helps to guide marketers in the direction that will ensure more consistent delivery of products and services. Managers need to ask themselves, "Is this new product going to deepen our brand? Is it in alignment with our internal goals and the expectations of our customers?" When deep brandholders speak about exceeding customer expectations, they invariably want to surprise the customer with the quality of the execution and the value they convey, not with any dramatic change in the brand meaning.

An Internet site with an established position (a content site for home builders, for example) only diminishes itself and distracts users when it adds the latest online application du jour -- such as an auction, e-mail system or calendar. If they determine that some new product or service nonetheless represents a great opportunity, marketers must consider the idea of developing a new brand entirely.

Since creating a new trademark and brand from scratch is a big commitment, the deep brand functions as a deterrent against haphazard product development. The most successful marketing organizations always aim at developing programs, not just products, and Internet sites hosted by deep brands are indicative of such programs.

Customer preference and loyalty. The Volkswagen Beetle is one of the deepest combinations of brand-words in the automotive industry. The fact that baby boomers flocked to the New Beetle after a 20-year market hiatus speaks for the strong affinity they felt for the brand and its meaning. Pepperidge Farm cookie and snack lovers wouldn't think of substituting another cookie for their Chessmen or Goldfish.

Greater margins and return on investment. Fiscal year after fiscal year, deep brands are more profitable than their shallower competition. The deepest brands in every category (as tabulated in Interbrand's "Top 100 Brands" survey) delivered 5% higher margins and 7% higher profits on average than their second- and third-place competition, despite greater overall marketing costs. "If you don't have a strong brand," says David Vermylen, president of the Keebler Brands division of the eponymous food company, "the retailer will dictate your strategy . . . and your profitability."

To assist in our understanding of brand depth, and to get a better picture of the competitive environment in which brands co-exist on and off the Internet, we have created a model called the "brandscape." The brandscape is a three-dimensional portrayal of the relative value and scope of brands. Brand depth is measured along the long axis of the model, with the shallowest brands to the left and the deepest brands to the right. As a brand deepens, the depth of the brandscape describes the benefits that accumulate.

For example, while all brands are marked by some sort of graphic identity, a name or logo itself (no matter how clever and fetching) has no appreciable brand value. Heat and pressure applied over time, however, will associate the name with the many positive attributes that increase its overall value: customer awareness, preference and loyalty; the ability to command higher prices; and demand for the brand from prospective allies and licensees.

To newly emerging companies on the Internet, the brandscape appears to be a level playing field on which they may deepen their brands. They consider any mention of their name, no matter how remote, as evidence that they are steadily achieving some exalted brand status.

"The Internet allows a company to build its brand practically overnight," says one so-called e-marketer in the common quest to "get big fast." However, such claims ignore the fact that the brandscape is tactically neutral territory and that the question of which brands are deepest has little to do with whether they exist on the Internet.

The width of the brandscape (from back to front) demonstrates the scope of a brand's offering. Broad brands are those that cover a wide area with regard to product or service type. Broad brands, because they need to apply heat and pressure on so many competitive fronts, tend to be shallower than their narrower "specialist" competitors.

On the brandscape comparing Internet retail businesses, Amazon has a very broad scope, selling everything from books and music to toys and power tools. A retail brand such as Powell's, which concentrates on books and markets to a narrower demographic of literary-minded households, is generally easier to deepen at a lower marketing cost per customer.

Our review and placement of many brands on the brandscape reveals five basic types of brands:

The Identity

Registered names and graphic identities are the ways we readily identify a brand. However, newly minted identities (such as those that pop up on the Internet with astounding regularity) have no customer awareness or preference, nor any of the other benefits of brands. Yet with great regularity, these identities are referred to as brands. They shouldn't be. Identities occupy the shallowest portion of the brand landscape.

The Trade Brand

A product or service that has familiarity and meaning to a relatively small group of trade customers who are "insiders" or meet certain commercial qualifications is considered a trade brand. Cycolac is a brand of engineered ABS resins made by GE Plastics that commands a high premium in the marketplace. But unless your job is to specify materials for molded kayaks or football helmets, you've probably never heard of it.

A deep trade brand is therefore particularly valuable to stakeholders within a given industry. Trade brands may have their own dedicated Web sites or, as with www.cycolac.com, typing the Internet address switches customers directly to the home page of the manufacturer itself. (This gives added credence to idea of the brand as the "ultimate search engine.")

The Niche Brand

A product or service that has familiarity and meaning to a small, defined group of consumers is considered a niche brand. Like the trade brand, the niche brand can be deep, but it will be unfamiliar to most outside of the specialty niche. If you're a pilot, you might not go anywhere without your David Clarks (aviation headsets); but to those outside the flying fraternity, the brand has no meaning whatsoever.

The Internet is an especially appropriate information channel for niche brands. Because they appeal to a relatively sparse audience, the Internet enables customers to find these brands far more efficiently than the brands could find the customers. Since distribution of niche brands may be especially limited geographically to specialty stores, direct selling online is generally more successful than for other brand categories.

The True Brand

A brand that is broadly recognized and connected by consumers to a specific -- and generally narrow -- offering is termed a true brand. True brands are readily familiar to millions of people who occupy large demographic groups. K2 is a true sports equipment brand, Hampton Inn a true lodging brand, Yankee a true brand of aromatic candles and Craftsman a true brand of tools sold exclusively by Sears.

True brands require an extensive presence on the Internet, not necessarily for direct selling, but to provide support for third-party distributors and to establish closer ties with customers after the sale.

The Super Brand

Super brands have almost instant and universal awareness. Their meaning is clearly understood, as they embody values, meaning and even a lifestyle that people can associate with above and beyond the product or service they represent. Budweiser, Marlboro, Ralph Lauren/Polo and Nike are all examples of super brands.

Given the extremely high levels of pressure exerted by these brands in the form of advertising and promotion, the Web is viewed as an ancillary addition to their marketing efforts . . . an experiment to be carefully monitored.

Super brands already wield considerable control over distribution, but they also don't want to jeopardize the tactics that helped make them so deep in the first place. While their corporate Web sites and distributor extranets provide real substance and value to trade customers, the public face of a super brand's site (www.budweiser.com) may be a relatively frivolous adaptation of the brand's consumer advertising message and persona.

10 fallacies about Internet branding

1. Our brand may be readily expanded using the Web.

The Internet can be a powerful tool for applying brand pressure, but only when a previous condition -- focusing the brand on a big idea expressed in a unique selling proposition -- is met. Without heat, no brand can be readily expanded using the Internet or any other tactic. Also, the myth that the Internet is capable of creating deep brands faster than any other channel needs to be debunked. The speed with which deep brands are created is a function of both heat and rational pressure, which is the level of sustainable marketing investment that a company operating under sound business guidelines can make. Many of the so-called brands that emerged in the earliest years of the Internet were pressured into existence using vast sums they had not earned; consequently, they were quick to vanish when the funds ran out.

2. Our brand can have different meaning to different constituents.

A deep brand can have only one meaning, and all stakeholders must value and share it. Herein lies the challenge: The brand idea must be explicit enough to deeply impress any individual class of stakeholder, and at the same time relevant enough to appeal to all classes of stakeholders simultaneously. For example, the Realtor brand represents "trustworthy assistance in buying or selling a home" to all stakeholders. At the same time the individual consumer, real estate agent or Web site advertiser is attuned to the organization's single brand meaning; these stakeholders also understand how they may use it to their own particular advantage.

3. Products alone will make our brand deep.

Good products alone don't make deep brands. . . . Deep brands create good products. The "better mousetrap" theory holds true: Even the most brilliantly conceived products will be stranded in the marketplace if not supported by a coordinated program united by the thinking that goes into making a deep brand. The Betamax brand of videocassette recording technology owned by Sony was acknowledged to be far superior to the VHS system first developed by Philips. But Sony's early decision not to license the branded technology to other manufacturers made it an orphan in consumer electronics stores (and at video rental outlets) almost overnight.

4. We expect that the distribution channel will work to deepen our brand.

Distributors, unless you control them, have hardly any interest in deepening your brand. It's frankly contrary to their own brand development interests, and by exploiting the weakness of shallow brands, they can increase their gross profit margins and get away with strong-arm tactics (such as slotting and placement fees, or mandatory participation in promotional programs) that serve the needs of only their channel. Only the deepest brands are immune to this treatment. The Internet may be used to increase the co-dependency between brandholder and distributor by establishing a conduit through which their shared customer needs may be met.

5. The market is shifting, so let's make our brand mean something different.

Brands must be adaptable to changes taking place in the market, but such changes must be subtle and consistent with established brand meaning. The need to "re-invent" a brand is frequently a cover-up for the fact that the brand was conceived without enough conviction in the first place.

Nowhere is this trend more visible than in fashion-driven products and services. In an industry in which styles seem to change unpredictably from season to season, the Gap is a deep and narrow brand for casual, youthful clothing. Keen understanding of the Gap by all stakeholders enables the company to anticipate and influence fashion trends better than any of its competitors.

6. We don't have a brand now, but we will right after we launch our Web site.

The Internet alone is not capable of launching brands. This lesson was learned at great expense by those "first-mover" companies that sought to infiltrate established markets simply through the act of going online and buying advertising. A deep brand takes time to develop (years or decades, not just months), and chances are you're not going to intensify the brand's heat without some additional stoking and adjustment.

7. Our employees understand their role in brand deepening.

You certainly hope your employees understand the fundamental meaning of your business, but don't be surprised if they all have different interpretations. Having a deep brand, whose meaning is expressed with consistency, alignment and focus, is the only way to ensure that customers and other stakeholders are getting the same story from everyone. The best brand organizations even have their own vocabularies, watchwords and secondary brand symbols that they use to convey the meaning of their brands. Does yours?

8. We want a deep brand, so we're budgeting a lot of money on marketing.

How much needs to be spent to establish and deepen a brand on the Internet? If you believe some of the conventional wisdom proffered by market analysts, you'd better be prepared to spend in excess of $100 million over three years. Such an amount is, for most businesses, clearly preposterous.

Several factors contribute to the amount of pressure required to deepen a brand: industry situation, type of brand, relative width of brand and the corresponding level of brand heat. Businesses competing in industries where strong brands predominate (such as automobiles) will be forced to apply greater marketing pressure, and a greater allocation of their budget, than companies in less conspicuous classes of trade.

A corollary to this is that it will be far less expensive to establish and maintain a trade brand or niche brand than a true brand that addresses a larger segment of customers.

Brand heat is the greatest factor in brand deepening, however, as the biggest brand ideas require far less intensive and deliberate pressure to establish themselves in the marketplace. Compare breakthrough brand concepts such as the Palm Pilot to the attempts by competing products, such as the Casio Cassiopeia, to penetrate the market for handheld computers.

Brands without adequate heat will resist all attempts at brand deepening, and even the most intense and high-pressure efforts at creating a strong impression in stakeholders' minds will be futile.

9. Brand? That's what our ad agency/interactive media/designers do for us.

The opposite is true! Branding is what you must do for your ad agency or other tactical supplier so they can be effective. Brand stewardship and the responsibility as "keeper of the brand" cannot be delegated.

One hallmark of a deep brand is its ability to foster long and unusually close partnerships with these service providers. Companies that habitually switch agencies in search of the perfect brand solution are acting out of desperation. Advertising agencies consider these brandholders to be among the most difficult clients to handle and retain, no matter how attractive their showcase brands may be.

At the beginning of 2000, Advertising Age reported the likely demise of Campbell Soup Co.'s ad agency, primarily because precipitous drops in market share "show the fruitlessness of a major advertising campaign." Since soup is a food category that is perfectly attuned to today's need for quick and healthy meals, this looked like another case of the company shooting the messenger. Could the public's distaste for Campbell's have something to do with the inability of the brand to remain as relevant as it once was?

10. Our customers think our brand is about _____, but they're not quite correct.

Customers are always right about the meaning of a brand. If there is a discrepancy between your customers' perceptions and your own view of your company's brand(s), then you haven't been sending the right message -- not necessarily the communications message, but the meaning every aspect of your marketing mix should convey.

You'll sometimes see a company running ads to try to counter the "wrong" impressions its customers have. "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," went one very clever and engaging campaign; but youthful customers remained unconvinced, and Oldsmobile sales continued to slow. Copyright 2000, by Marc Braunstein and Edward H. Levine. Reprinted with permission of Prima Publishing from the book "Deep Branding on the Internet" by Marc Braunstein and Edward H. Levine. All rights reserved.

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