Brand building proves tough for online pubs

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While high-tech publishers have succeeded in building highly recognizable online brands, broader general-interest brands are still trying to gain a foothold.

CNET, ZDNet and TechWeb have become household names on the Web, while Pathfinder, HomeArts and Phys languish in the shadows of their own well-known, offline brand parents.


Linda McCutcheon, president of Time Inc. New Media, said the mass-market appeal of its nine offline magazine brands--which include Fortune, Life, People and Time--has stunted the growth of Pathfinder as a brand, but that's OK.

"If I had to choose between first market advantage or picking the exact right new brand to go with from the beginning, I'll take the first advantage," she said.


"Two years ago, we were only using Pathfinder in all venues. But that was before the individual brands each developed enough traction to stand on their own."

Now, in fact, Pathfinder isn't advertised or marketed at all, except in small type on banners. Each site can be accessed through its own Web address, such as or, rather than through the Pathfinder umbrella.

Katherine Creech, general manager of Hearst HomeArts, said her online branding experience has been similar to Pathfinder, but she still plans to keep pushing HomeArts.

"It's frustrating personally, but it's not bad for the business, so maybe that's just something we have to get over," she said.


"The offline brands have provided us with the market clout that we couldn't have created or bought on our own. . . . We're still at the stage of the Web where people are looking for familiarity."

In addition, Ms. Creech said, HomeArts has a targeted women's audience, which makes branding easier. She said a few years ago, about 70% of the site's traffic came from promotions and 30% came unpromoted; now that number is reversed.


HomeArts advertising focuses on content, with teasers like "Lose 10 pounds fast" and a small HomeArts logo. Drawing readers in with content attracts the "newbies" to the Web.

The goal, Ms. Creech said, is to get them to the site where they can find more related content, learn the brand and come back on their own.

Sarah Chubb, director of CondeNet, which houses online brands Phys, Epicurious Travel, Epicurious Food and Swoon, said while Phys, which launched last August, may not be a household word yet, building brands takes time--especially in the shadow of the popular offline brands.


"Building a brand takes more than half an hour," she said. "And we're just beginning to leverage other media to talk about Phys."

That media includes not only online advertising, but also outdoor, print and some TV.

The first Web site launched by CondeNet was the online version of Conde Nast Traveler in mid-1995, followed by Epicurious later that year. While Traveler was quickly recognized and accepted, it was also limited by its offline brand image, Ms. Chubb said.

"Do I stay in the narrow, but high-end mold because I'm being true to the brand--and with the strength of these brands, you'd better be true to them--or do I make travel the jewel of a bigger site?" she said.

CondeNet chose the second option and relaunched the travel site as Epicurious Travel in 1996.

"You've got to be really targeted and really functional, or why bother?" Ms. Chubb said.

Copyright April 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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