Net spin-offs must steer a complementary course

The days of differentiating Net brands from their parents are numbered. Unless you are taking a new tack, the expense is unlikely to merit it.

With so many traditional businesses moving onto the Web, the burning question for marketers is how should they position their brand online? Should the online and offline brands be different, or should they replicate each other?

The answer depends partially on what you want your online service to achieve. At FT.com, for example, we wanted to develop the website from being just an online newspaper to a business resource for a broader range of readers. To start with, we had to overcome any resistance these readers might have to the sometimes forbidding Financial Times – without, of course, hurting the brand.

But there was a time when consumers were justifiably sceptical that any traditional brand could be transferred effectively to the Internet.

Online customers were – and still are – notoriously unforgiving. And any technical or marketing naiveté is punished swiftly. Recently, one computer gaming magazine was effectively closed by readers who objected to it carrying certain advertising. Meanwhile, the fate of Boo.com speaks for itself.

No offline brand should underestimate the impact, both positive and negative, that the Net can have. Maybe early Net-differentiated brands were created as an insurance against the downside.

Newer brands born in technology, such as Egg, First Direct, EasyJet and its spin-offs, have led the online charge. Traditional brands were initially – and justifiably – nervous about the Net. They were wary of the cost of entry, the online customer base, and lurking hackers.

As the Net gains further widespread consumer acceptance and, more importantly, attracts more consumers, traditional brands are catching up and heading straight to the medium without significant differentiation.

Witness the success of Tesco.net; Gap’s excellent site; and the new Net banking service from Lloyds TSB, which, in branding terms, is indistinguishable from its high-street sibling. With all of these cases, there is huge potential for the offline and online brands to feed each other.

In ads, we positioned the site as being “completely mad about business”, adding a touch of irreverence that was uniquely associated with it. And we have more than doubled the number of regular UK visitors to the site.

But while communications have been different in tone to those of the main paper, the brands remain closely aligned. This is not only because there is a lot of overlap between our Net and newspaper readers; for new users, the parent brand also lends cachet to the site. The site can reflect back on the newspaper – helping to “democratise” the brand a little without detracting from it.

It is only when companies want to branch out in completely new directions, attract totally different consumers or lose a negative brand association, that the considerable effort and expense of creating a new identity seems worthwhile.

Paul Waddington is marketing communications director at FT.com

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