Websites must act like brands to be successful

Currently, dot-com advertising builds name awareness not the brand. Brands should be developed offline to establish a successful site.

The explosion of advertising from dot-com companies is being muffled by one crucial factor – the e-mperor is naked.

Yet before I’m burnt as a heretic, let me explain: the e-mperor clothes himself in the belief that offline advertising will make people visit his website. But this is only part of the job – people won’t go to a site simply because they know its name; they go to their favourite brands online just as they do on the high street.

The key to online success is to apply the same disciplines as to any other brand campaign: powerful brands are powerful brands, whether online or offline. But don’t just take my word for it. Dr Simon Murdoch, Amazon.com’s former UK chief executive, says: “The challenge for Amazon was to continue to establish an emotional brand association with customers, which would help it fight off increased competition in the future.”

So why does so much dot-com advertising only build name awareness rather than the brand?

The potency of an online brand developed offline applies both to new dot-coms (where it acts to funnel people to a site) as well as to existing companies moving onto the Web. FT.com is a good example of the latter – a powerful brand leveraging its heritage to create an online brand.

Yet it can go the other way. A recent study of US consumers’ music buying habits, conducted by research company Greenfield, exposed that without a powerful online brand to attract them, people simply search for the lowest price.

Therefore, by not building the Web brand offline, music retailers broke the link from high street to online presence. This allowed online buyers to go for cost instead of their favoured brands: the most popular sites for buying music are now from the cheapest sites, sites from companies without a music retailing heritage, such as Barnesandnoble.com.

But this isn’t just about the efficacy of various creative executions and media schedules – there are compelling business reasons why websites should behave like brands.

Forrester Research found that in the absence of a brand to lead them to a site, people opt for tangibles instead – lowest cost, convenience, time saving and so on. If you aren’t the leader in such tangibles and you don’t have a brand to lead people to your site, you’re in trouble.

A strong Web brand is the glue that keeps these three revenue streams together: without the brand being built, and built in traditional media, the whole package falls apart.

Why should dot-com start-ups bother developing the brand offline? After all, the wisdom goes “get the eyeballs, get on Nasdaq and retire at twenty-five”. Just as cynically, their advertising agencies see a very welcome short-term hike in billings. But this misses the point – we should be advising dot-coms to spend their money to ensure the greatest return over the greatest period. And that means by building brands, not just naming names.

Jeremy Paul is a strategic planner at MediaVest

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