Building a web brand

by Toby Ward — Building a brand is tough. And it’s getting tougher. An explosion in the number of brands—as well as a proliferation of ways to communicate them, from hundreds of cable channels to the Internet, product placement in TV and movies, billboard, radio and now mobile advertising—has made it tougher to get messages through.
Advertising Age numbers reveal that, for example, the number of brands on North American grocery store shelves has tripled since 1991 from 15,000 to 45,000 products with an exponential amount of advertising to support these new brands.

At the same time, the number of your competitors with websites likely has grown ten-fold (or perhaps even greater). On the Web, the power of Google has leveled the playing field between the haves and the have-nots — big brands can’t necessarily spend their way to a better brand, and new kids on the block are constantly emerging from seemingly nowhere. Building a brand doesn’t require more work, it requires smarter work.
Google logo
A recent McKinsey article (Better Branding; subscription only) highlighted the dilemma for marketers: “Building strong brands isn’t getting any easier. An explosion in the number of brands—as well as a proliferation of ways to communicate them, from hundreds of cable channels to the Internet, product placement in movies, and even mobile-phone display screens—has made it tougher to get messages through,” writes McKinsey’s Nora A. Aufreiter, David Elzinga, and Jonathan W. Gordon. “In addition, converging product-performance and service levels in many industries have made it more difficult to sustain existing brands. Meanwhile, the economic downturn has hamstrung marketers by cutting their budgets.”

All of that clutter and competition makes it harder to stand out in a crowd. Cash fueled advertising campaigns may create awareness and recognition, but not necessarily build a “better” brand. The brand is all encompassing—from product to service to perception. Understanding your target audience, your users and their expectations and needs, and delivering accordingly, is tantamount to success.

Easier said than done.

Understanding the user audience requires an analytical approach to consumer research. Although research itself cannot build a brand, the adoption of both old and new analytical approaches to understanding customer behavior and preferences can build sounder strategies for enhancing the corporate brand and winning the hearts and wallets of consumers.

“The solid analytics at the heart of the new approach may not only require new skills in the marketing department but also highlight steps that other parts of the organization—from product development to operations to customer service—must take to help deliver the brand,” say Aufreiter et al. “Moreover, some marketers may worry that adopting more quantitative techniques will compromise their creativity. In our experience, though, getting analytical about customer needs and the brand identity helps channel the imagination into areas in which it makes a difference. And the ability to avoid costly trial and error and to build a better brand more efficiently is too compelling to pass up, particularly in challenging economic times.”

The good news, however, is that the web is still a relatively new media, when compared to, for example, the ultra competitive retail world. Yet the Internet, as we are coming to know by experience, can propel no names and young kids working in garages into branding superstars.

Brand attributes
It goes without saying that building a web brand is far more complex than just marketing. A number of key contributors must be carefully mixed and executed to create a valued resonance:
  • Site design
  • Usability
  • Site layout
  • Content quality
  • Product value
  • Order fulfillment
  • Customer service
Of course these are not the only contributing attributes to the web brand. Some attributes, what Mckinsey calls “antes”, are auxiliary or added benefits that some customers might, for example, expect from all competitors. Think of’s free deliveries—now commonly offered by many of its competitors. Or a hotel website that offers 360 degree pictures of their rooms and property.

Successful brands deliver on both customer expectations and also differentiate from the competition.
branding attributes

Those web brands that have high relevance and a high degree of differentiation from the competition include Ebay, Google and MySpace.

Understanding your users
Notwithstanding more complex methodologies such as pathway modeling (see Successful Brand Repositioning: Aspirations vs. Achievable Strategies) and conjoint analysis, there are a number of key measurement tools you should know and use, including:
  • One-on-one interviews
  • Customer surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Usability testing
  • Call center tracking
  • Market segmentation
  • Benchmarking
  • Etc.
A multiplicity of tools is recommended using both quantitative and qualitative tactics. Depending on your site’s position in the evolutionary curve, some tools and tactics are better than others (see When to use what research tools and Measure your efforts).

Moments of Truth
Brand is built and reinforced at web touch points or moments of truth. Moments of truth would include the initial impression of the site (color and design), product information, checkout process, search engine use, etc.

It goes without saying that there are a lot of touch points in a standard web transaction—whether or not e-commerce is involved. So, to leave on a practical note after paragraphs on Mckinsey influenced brand theory, here are some practical suggestions for reinforcing you web brand:
  • Prominently display your organization’s name/logo (upper left corner is now considered standard) and the organization’s “tag line” or “value proposition.”
  • Use design that differentiates from competitors.
  • Emphasize the most frequently used and high-priority tasks/information.
  • Have a single “Home Page” that is clearly distinguishable from all other pages.
  • Ensure “About Us” and “Contact Us” sections are clearly labelled in the global navigation or footers on all pages.
  • Develop sections and categories designated with customer-oriented language.
  • Make sure that the site offers multiple navigation paths to priority content and tools.
  • Understand how to make sure the primary navigation area is prominently situated and similar items are grouped closely.
  • Write in straightforward, informative language, using succinct grammar, with consistent capitalization and design standards.
  • Proivde concise instructions for necessary tasks.
  • Maximize search engine optimization (strong page titles, active links, keywords, etc.)
  • Provide clearly communicated and supported customer service and privacy policies.
  • Deliver on your promises.
Building a brand is not easy. Delving deep with analytics that better reveal the soul of your target audience is more science than art. Marketing itself is becoming less art and more science. Managing key touchpoints on the web requires diligence and a sharp understanding of those key moments of truth. Research and manage all brand attributes and touchpoints and, at a minimum, assist customers in easily finding information and buying products.

The danger and yet incredible value of the Web is that your customers can always find you. If you’re not in control of that key touchpoint, they will experience a lesser brand.

Toby Ward is the CEO and founder of Prescient Digital Media which specializes in Internet and intranet strategy, technology and total site management. Download a copy of his free intranet white paper Finding ROI.