To build online image, brand the experience

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Here's a question for all you Net marketing mavens out there: Has anyone ever done good image advertising online? Is it even possible?

If you keep up with this kind of thing, you know that plenty of people whose business is selling banners believe Web ads can be powerful branding tools, though in practice, we all know it's much easier to track and value their efficiency in direct marketing.

When you stop and think back over the memorable banner-branding campaigns you've seen (as a consumer now, not as a judgmental Web professional), you'll quickly realize it's a fairly sparse list.

I've sat in on judging of interactive ads, and while I've seen great creative work on banners that bring customers in the door, I can think of little that left a heightened sense of a brand or product image.

The most memorable banner I've seen was on a tech publishing site. The banner featured scrolling text, two words at a time with a pause between:

"A boy."

"A girl."

(OK, this caught my interest; where was it going?)

"A moose."

(WHAT?? Now I was captured.)

"A squirrel."

Well. What can you say about that?

If you clicked through, you found yourself at Tivoli Network Systems, which sells network management software. I was clearly not a prospective customer, but I did stick around to see the streaming Rocky and Bullwinkle animation the company had put together.

That makes one banner execution that's stuck with me, though I don't consider it an image campaign. Thinking back, I also liked the Hewlett-Packard banners that let you play Pong, but that was just a gimmick, and frustrating to locate on the Web in any case.

When it comes to image branding online, I think we have to look beyond banners. One of the most interesting ways I've heard this explained came from Claudia Dobkin of Landor Associates, the branding and naming agency.

Ms. Dobkin's contention is that Net marketers should move beyond traditional ideas about banners, logos and design, and think instead about branding the experience itself. In other words, every serious Web site should have some unique interactive experience at its core, and that's the engine for building your online image.

The obvious example is Federal Express, which transformed itself in subtle and not-so-subtle ways when it began allowing customers to track their packages online. That experience now makes up a key part of what FedEx is all about, online and off-line.

Another example is Amazon Books, which until recently focused its marketing effort almost exclusively on direct sales efforts online. There hasn't really been any long-term effort at branding, yet Amazon has a crystal-clear brand image online, while its much bigger competitor, Barnes & Noble, is struggling.

Why? Because Amazon owns and defines the still new experience of book shopping online. Just as if it were a retail outlet, Amazon has managed to build a site that people enjoy cruising around and that becomes wedded to how we perceive the company.

The exercise of identifying your own unique interactive experience, and then building your online brand image outward from that, is obviously a useful one. Whether you can accomplish the same thing with a banner campaign remains an open question.

David Klein is associate publisher-editor of the Ad Age Group. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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