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In kurt andersen's inside-media novel "Turn of the Century," the tech-savvy character Lizzie Zimbalist advises the head of MBC about the fictional TV network's Web investment strategy.

"Disney has spent $100 million on ABCNews.com during the last three years. For what? With AP, Reuters, CNN, MSNBC and a dozen smaller products already online, it's a practically invisible and completely inessential product," she writes. "Unless you're willing to spend that much or more, I doubt you'll enhance the 'brand image' of MBC News. In effect, you will have overpaid for PR, spending on a vanity Web site a sum that would, for instance, pay for permanent, full-page MBC ads in the Times and Journal every day of the week."

The book is fiction, but the point is well grounded in reality. The world's leading offline brands find themselves in a sticky situation these days. On the one hand, they're told repeatedly they'll die if they don't adapt to changes in the communications landscape. Fear of extinction, someone said recently, is a great motivational tool.

On the other hand, companies that rush to plant a flag online with no clear idea of why they're there or what they hope to accomplish squander money, opportunity and brand equity.

In the Internet's early days (circa 1994), it was thought that established brands could take their time migrating to the Web. Once there, they would dominate as nervous consumers latched onto the names and marks they already knew and trusted.


Amazon.com exploded the myth with a rise to e-commerce dominance that left real-world rivals such as Barnes & Noble on the sidelines. Other brands that emerged from the cyber-ooze to become part of everyday life at the century's tail-end include America Online, Yahoo! and eBay.

The lesson: Leadership in the bricks-and-mortar world is no guarantee of online prosperity.

In 1994, I left Ad Age for a brief stint as editor of TV Guide Online. While most News Corp. executives supported the online extension, there was one who questioned why the company would spend several million dollars on a property (with no immediate return on investment) that might cannibalize the audience of the core magazine.

The answer, of course, was that if consumers wanted to get their TV listings information and entertainment from a computer or TV screen instead of a magazine, TV Guide should be the brand to deliver it to them. In the print world, it would be impossible to launch a mass-circulation weekly to compete with TV Guide. In the online world, it's significantly easier and cheaper for upstarts to take on big brands.

Indeed, as News Corp. struggled with its online plans, a smaller rival stepped up and made a run at the TV Guide franchise. TV Guide finally did pull off a merger/ownership restructuring that positions the magazine to deliver its brand of information across multiple platforms. Those moves probably saved the franchise's future.

Another giant of the offline world now finds itself in a similar spot. As Ad Age reported last week, there are any number of companies (Amazon heads the pack) that yearn to be the Wal-Mart of the Web. The question is, can Wal-Mart itself emerge as the Wal-Mart of the Web?

Again, success is by no means guaranteed, despite Wal-Mart's commanding retail presence. Analysts believe Wal-Mart's low prices and customer service will work in its favor when the retailer finally makes its presence known online.

If it's not too late, that is. Wal-Mart is already on the Web, but few seem to know or care. The retailer's site drew less than half-a-million unique visitors in May, compared to 6.4 million for Amazon.com. Even Onsale.com, whatever that is, drew a bigger audience than Wal-Mart.

You can't count out a company that has annual sales of $138 billion. But if Wal-Mart doesn't get its act together soon and start to make some noise in the e-commerce environment, it may find itself standing alongside Barnes & Noble on a