NET BRANDS CAN RING HOLLOW: AFTER ALL THE SHOUTING, SITES HAVE MUCH TO LEARN ABOUT CONSUMERS

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From tv to magazines to outdoor boards, Internet companies are advertising at a record rate this quarter.

But amid the din, a question looms: Will any of it really help to build lasting Internet brands?

Gone are the days when having a ".com" at the end of your name meant something special. Now, new dot-com companies are born every day.

Gone, too, are the days when an Internet company could build its brand by word of mouth. These days, hiring an ad agency to launch a splashy campaign is de rigueur . Some companies break ads before their sites are fully up and running.

ABOUT FACE

In the days before dot-com, brand building was a painstaking process, the result of extensive consumer research, careful stewardship and packaging. Now, dot-com brands get acquired, disappear or, like Mining Co. becoming About.com, change names in mid-course.

As a result, Internet brand-building has become hollow.

No one really knows if all the brands advertising today will be around next year, or even next quarter. The focus is not so much on building brand loyalty as it is on shouting the loudest to gain trial.

"Very few [Internet] companies spend time managing their brand as an asset," says Scott Galloway, CEO of brand consultancy Prophet Brand Strategy. "Dot-com brand building is some of the worst out there."

What works? He points to a brand like Yahoo!, which spent several years building its brand into almost cult status and built a consumer Web experience to match. For Yahoo!, advertising is an adjunct to the entire brand experience, which begins and ends at the Web site.

But Yahoo! had one important advantage that budding sites lack: time. It didn't launch its "Do You Yahoo!?" branding campaign until May 1996, more than a year after the company was formed. Today, Internet companies believe waiting a year to advertise would be equivalent to writing their own death sentence.

Still, Karen Edwards, who has shepherded Yahoo!'s branding efforts since the company's early days, cautions new Internet companies to avoid doing something -- such as advertising -- just because everyone else is.

"If you can keep the high road, you're building a brand that will last over time, as opposed to taking advantage of what's the buzz now," says Ms. Edwards, VP of brand marketing for Yahoo!.

BE CONSISTENT

Consistency is important as well. An Internet company may go through a variety of business models, but its brand personality should remain intact, Ms. Edwards says. Yahoo!, for example, has had the same ad agency, Black Rocket, San Francisco, since 1996, and Ms. Edwards believes that commercials created back then would still be relevant today.

Strong Internet brands will put the consumer first. Their advertising seeks to strike an emotional chord with a consumer, and then the site works relentlessly to fulfill that expectation.

"We deeply believe building a brand is about establishing a relationship with a consumer," says Janine Bousquette, senior VP-marketing with eToys. TV commercials from Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, focus on a child's moments of discovery, and stress that it's simple to find just the right toy at the eToys site.

McKinsey & Co. calls this "Maximizing the total customer experience," and it requires that the entire company organization, from site development to marketing, work as an integrated unit with this goal in mind.

DETAIL ORIENTED

eToys works hard to get every detail right. Parents can shop for toys based on a child's age, by brand, by color, even by what a child wants to be when he or she grows up.

eToys also knows when not to tout its brand. It used to ship toys in boxes emblazoned with its name but stopped after parents wrote in saying their children could read the label and figured out what was inside.

Mr. Galloway likens this approach to the kind of unified in-store marketing that a retailer like Gap does, where everything down to the music playing in the store and the clothing the sales staff wears sends a brand message.

Partnerships play a big role in smart dot-com brand building as well. Gloss.com, a new site selling high-end cosmetics, is teaming up with a broad range of online and offline properties, including the VH1 cable channel and the iVillage Web community.

SEEKING RIGHT PARTNERS

"We have tried to align ourselves with partners that will help us," says Sarah Kugelman, Gloss.com's CEO. It plans to spend $8 million on TV, radio and print advertising in the fourth quarter, via Ground Zero, Los Angeles.

The brands that successfully emerge from the fourth-quarter fray and beyond will be the ones that have made a conscious choice of brand personality and have pushed that personality through "pervasive and consistent messaging and experiences that connect with consumers at relevant touchpoints," according to McKinsey.

For eToys' Ms. Bousquette, it's even simpler than that. Respect consumers just as you would if you were building a traditional brand.

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