The big e-commerce companies owe their success to classic brand values as much as speed-of-light responsiveness, but their resistance to short-term financial pressures is perhaps the most important lesson for those hoping to emulate them, says Rita Clifton
It was a privilege to speak at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference late last month – and not just because I could make glad eyes at David Cameron after his “money doesn’t buy happiness/it’s really all about GWB (general wellbeing) rather than GDP” speech. It was a good opportunity to drop jaws at the latest statistics on e-commerce, and to witness the extraordinary Larry Page, co-founder of Google, saying some significant things in person.
Actually, the conference was particularly interesting in the way it juxtaposed “new” e-commerce businesses with older, traditional businesses that are trying to get to grips with blogging, citizen journalism, 24/7 service and the speed of light.
I’m experiencing this “new” new age personally, as I have teenage daughters who are addicted to Bebo. For those who haven’t experienced this teenage social networking phenomenon, it was launched last July and now has 22 million users worldwide, snapping at the heels of MySpace. I had never realised how many photographs and intimate details it was possible to swap without “over-sharing”.
Is it true love?
Clearly, Bebo’s challenge – like many “e-brands” – is to move beyond being a phenomenon, and become a sustainable brand. Its situation reminded me of a study we did in the late 1990s, before terms like “mobilemediary” and “brand in the hand” had emerged. Back then, we predicted: “In a future where physical and virtual worlds will blendâ¦ every brand will have the possibility of becoming both a powerful medium and a power retailer – if they can quickly build strong-enough relationships”.
What seemed clear then was that in merging and blurring categories and channels, no brand was going to be unassailable in its market any more – it was going to be a battle of brands without boundaries. No matter what category, and no matter what medium you started from, the critical questions would always be: are consumers prepared to spend more time and money with you, do they trust you enough, are they engaged enough by you, respected by you and – yes – even loved by you?
Clearly, many of the new paradigm global brands like Google, Amazon and Ebay have shown how you can go from 0-100 in just a few years, by tapping into a global community rather than buying up the world shop by shop, or country by country. Are they media, retail or consumer brands? Who cares? They’re all three and more, and all have been strong, even addictive relationship-builders with their customers. Not in a “have a nice day way”, but by being there when you’ve wanted them, being responsive, using information intelligently and with charm.
These brands have, consciously or not, captured the classic characteristics of the world’s most valuable brands/ being clear about what they’ve stood for, being consistent in their behaviour, tone of voice and across their brand experience, and showing leadership in terms of restlessness, innovation and setting their own market agenda. These are characteristics shared by 50 of the top 100 global brands which have survived for more than 50 years.
But, in turn, what can more traditional brands learn from the new boys? There are obvious things like speed, the need to be “always on”, better use of direct customer information as a core asset and – at its most basic – getting websites to work better when they’re such an important part of the modern brand experience. A depressing 94% of FTSE corporate sites fail basic functionality tests. It’s not surprising that so many major companies are busy acquiring e-businesses in order to absorb and scale their radically different business models.
Take the long view
However, there is something else, which may well be born out of the arrogance of youth and success, but is nevertheless reflected by other business commentators as a new fightback against the short- termism of financial communities and the damage that that does to sustainable wealth. How about this recent quote from Jeff Bezos of Amazon: “We will continue to make investment decisions in the light of leadership considerations, not short-term Wall Street reactions.” And from Larry Page: “A management team distracted by a series of short-term targets is as pointless as a dieter stepping on a scale every half hour.”
These sentiments are echoed this side of the Atlantic by the Evening Standard’s business columnist Anthony Hilton. In an article entitled “Keeping the City happy is costing industry dear”, he laments how, for 30 years, analysts and investors have refused to back long-term projects and “difficult” investments, technologies and initiatives that would build business and world leadership (in his argument, for the UK). Instead, they want the superficial appearance of growth and the illusion of lots of action; as he says, this means that anything slow to mature or carrying risk is cut, closed or sold “because management does not want the risk of failure and the City’s subsequent wrath”.
Hmmm. Do I smell revolution in the air? All this talk about happiness, wellbeing and “sucks” to short-termism. We’ll be building some decent world-beating brands again in Britain if we’re not careful.