Web marketers could use a taste of the master

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To many people, the best brand ever built from scratch is Coca-Cola.

Some of my friends deride it as "fizzy water," but the truth is a bit different.

In the early 1920s, Coca-Cola Co. was tearing apart over the price of syrup when the legendary Robert Woodruff stepped in to lead the business. Rather than argue about profit, he talked about a promise: to make every Coca-Cola taste like every other Coca-Cola, anywhere in the world.

This would not be easy to fulfill. At that time, many soda jerks still whipped up drinks by hand, using syrup, soda water and a spoon. The quality and taste of the water varied. Coca-Cola would spend millions of dollars on such things as water purification and fountain technology.

The marketing message would also change. Coca-Cola was originally a patent medicine. Now it would be sold as a refreshment, something that tasted good and would do no harm. Coca-Cola has been consistent, and insistent, in delivering that message ever since.

Today's .coms can learn a lot from that story. The product has to match the promise, the promise must be deliverable, and consistency counts.

MindSpring Enterprises learned the lesson. It should have; it's based less than two miles from Coca-Cola's headquarters tower in Atlanta.

The Internet service provider concentrated first on customer service, answering phones quickly and treating each call as an opportunity, so it gained a reputation before any ads launched.

The initial flight of billboard ads consisted of just the company logo against a yellow background, a toll-free number and a short message related to the promise.

MindSpring's new TV campaign features a man on a park bench, something like Forrest Gump, rhapsodizing to strangers on the customer service theme. The point is the fulfillment of the ad's promise came first, and thus it rang true.

Keep your promises

On the Internet, putting creative ahead of fulfillment can court disaster. Trilogy Software, Austin, Texas, spent early October courting it.

The campaign for its new software, a free package combining elements of a shopping cart and an electronic wallet, was truly superb. It had 90 people dressed as Santa Claus wandering the halls of last month's Internet World in New York, giving away hats and presents for, which is where the software will be downloaded.

The problem was the software wasn't ready. As I wrote this in the week following the show, the site had just the promise, a box for inputting your e-mail address, and the phone number of a press contact.

Victoria's Secret faced a similar problem early in the year. Its online fashion show, launched during the Super Bowl, was a huge success in terms of attracting plenty of notice. Unfortunately, it couldn't serve the demand.

By the time of Internet World, this failure had become a legend. HydraWeb Technologies of New York, whose software keeps high-traffic sites operating, took a full-page ad in the show guide reading, "It's no secret--HydraWeb would have kept the runway up and running."

The creative must also stay in control, of course.

For instance, Qpass, Seattle, did its product homework, offering an electronic wallet that lets you buy content online without filling out forms. But at Internet World, it made the questionable move of staging a "product demonstration," hiring angry people with signs to march in front of the building, risking arrest. The irony was lost on Rudy Giuliani's police force. It was certainly lost on me.

So the key to a brand is that the product comes first. Then comes a consistent message, insistently delivered. Only when you have the first two working should you go for your Clio. What's true for fizzy water is also true for your Web site.

Dana Blankenhorn is a free-lance journalist who specializes in Internet issues and is publisher of the Web site

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