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Creating Brand Identity on the Internet

By Arthur Goldstuck

So your company has hit the big time, your brands are recognized across the world, and when your checkbook talks, the bank listens. Now you want to invade the Internet, and you just know that your big name and matching big wallet will sweep all that came before it.

But will they really?

Once a year, the journal Financial World releases its listing of the world’s most valuable brands. It used to be a sobering exercise to compare the brand penetration of the great multinationals with their failure to leverage their huge marketing budgets into the world of the Internet. Brands like McDonald’s and Kodak provide wonderful case studies for how it should not be done, although both have finally figured out in recent months how to exploit the medium.

Most major corporations have an enormous amount of goodwill built into both their corporate identities and their branded products. The crucial mistake many of them make, however, is to believe that Internet users might be interested in the corporation per se. They aren’t. They’re interested in what they can get out of the corporation. Corporate Web sites that emphasize the corporateness of the corporation are the least effective, because they in reality address the corporation’s own management and, perhaps, shareholders, but not the broad Internet-using public.

The goodwill built up by a corporate image may well bring users to the corporate site, but poor leveraging of this nature will ensure they neither stay long nor return.

Two South African case studies that tell a worldwide story are those of South African Breweries (SAB), one of the largest brewers in the world, which is also a diversified industrial holdings company -- and Old Mutual (OM) -- one of Africa’s biggest life insurance and mutual funds companies. The former is one of the most heavily capitalized shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE); the latter is expected to change the shape of the South African economy when it demutualizes and lists on the JSE in the next two years.

On the Web, however, their presence hardly reflected their worth. SAB -- http://www.sab.co.za -- presides over a dull, lifeless site that ignores the market-leading brands the corporation owns, focusing instead on corporate hierarchy, the annual report, financial statements, and other data of interest to its own management. The site greets visitors with a disclaimer that denies liability "for inaccurate information or opinions contained herein."

In short, SAB does not have enough faith in the contents of its own Web site to simply allow users to arrive at its real front page unimpeded. It is as if Bank of America blocked its banks’ entrances with large signs warning customers that it took no responsibility for their money once they pushed the sign aside and went inside.

What is more remarkable than the welcome is that it has been in place, virtually unchanged, for almost two years. Yet the corporation expects to be a leading player on the international market in years to come.

OM was not dramatically better when it first arrived online. Its local site -- http://www.oldmutual.co.za -- was little more than a corporate brochure converted into a Web page. The firm even offered an "online investment" link that led to a page advising users that security issues made online transactions impractical.

Then came the rethink and the redesign. Today the Old Mutual site is one of the most vibrant in South Africa -- not only facilitating online buying, selling, and exchanging between funds but also providing an up-to-date news service and a wide range of real-time financial services and instruments. Like SAB, OM has international ambitions and is underlining this by gradually putting together the ingredients of an international version of its site: http://www.oldmutual.com.

Print media provide probably the best lessons in the how-to of branding on the Internet.

Playboy is one of the best-known brand names in publishing. On the Internet, it has lived up to that profile. If there is one Web site with an address that every schoolkid and business executive can quote, it is http://www.playboy.com. Don’t rush for the mouse button; you have to pay for most of it. Yet, it doesn’t even follow the traditional model of Web publishing, which would be to give its prime content away for free and then sell advertising space. It is a subscription site and, thanks to certain added attractions, is a huge success -- to the extent that it has breathed new life into the languishing Playboy empire.

Then there is the Wall Street Journal. Over at http://www.wsj.com, they literally are laughing all the way to the bank, thanks to intelligent marketing, strong awareness of branding, and true value offered to its target market. The Journal offers existing print subscribers a reduced rate of $29 a year to access the site while still offering Web-only subscribers an unbeatable deal: $49 grants access to the entire content of a daily publication that is regarded as the last word in business and economics. We’re not talking leisure reading here but rather an organ that is regarded as essential intelligence in the business world.

The same cannot be said of most of Time Warner’s publications, which are heavily geared toward the lifestyles of their readers to the extent that they boast some of the world’s most popular magazines. Yet their online presence, under the generic Pathfinder banner, has been described by rival Wired as "a megamedia company’s online disaster."

The secret of failure can be linked directly to Time Warner’s inability to capitalize on the brand recognition inherent in so many of its titles. The world knows Time magazine. It knows People. It knows Fortune. It does not know Pathfinder. The generic title sounds more like a competitor in the browser market, alongside Explorer and Navigator.

What we are witnessing is one of the most dramatic examples of wastage of resources in the history of marketing. By throwing money at a too-generic catchall brand, Time Warner simply is wasting the huge brand awareness built up in each of its products. It’s wasting the distinct culture of each of its magazines. And it’s wasting the advertising industry’s investment in media planning, which ideally -- it’s not an ideal world, and many media planners might as well be using a pin on a map -- sees advertising placed with publications that meet demographic needs in terms of both the reader and the content.

A stand-alone Time site, a stand-alone Fortune site, a stand-alone People site, and so on -- each probably with a link to a Time Warner page that provides a comprehensive listing -- would address the needs of both readers and advertisers more effectively than the existing single corporate brand possibly can. Of course, each of these does have its own site on the Web, so that anyone typing in http://www.fortune.com reaches the desired destination. But access a Time Warner publication from Pathfinder, and you find yourself in a Pathfinder subdirectory (e.g., http://www.pathfinder.com/time/) -- a route that instantly devalues the branding of the publication.

In the matter of Playboy versus Pathfinder, the winner is obvious. It would not be so obvious, however, were it to become Playboy versus Fifty High Profile Magazines, Each with a Site and Soul of Its Own. In South Africa we have several examples of that. The most spectacular equivalent to the Pathfinder debacle was the Independent Newspapers site at http://www.inc.co.za, which relied entirely on corporate branding to attract users.

Never mind the fact that it had built a huge customer base on the foundation of high-profile product branding. Products like The Star, The Argus, and Cape Times already boast brand loyalty, a reader culture, and advertising buy-in.

The excuse of offering advertisers broader reach through an all-embracing corporate site and therefore greater incentive to advertise on the site does not hold water in the context of the nature of the Web user. South African users readily seek out a Star or Argus site but not an Independent Newspapers site. It is in the advertiser’s interest to have the highest possible user access to the pages on which they advertise, and it’s a matter, technologically and administratively, of offering cross-advertising on a variety of sites owned by the same publisher but each with its own identity. The magazine industry has operated that way for years, and it is even easier on the Web.

Site addresses are crucial to the success of branding on the Internet. Yet the Electronic Mail and Guardian, the most popular online newspaper in Africa, has reached its level of popularity in spite of poor URL branding rather than because of it. At the time of this writing, the obvious address, http://www.emg.co.za, did not exist. The impact on brand awareness would have been devastating had the newspaper not been first off the block years ago, when no one minded a long-winded address; it’s now cataloged in newspaper listings across the Web.

The http://www.mg.co.za/mg address simply doesn’t make sense from a branding point of view, and an address dressing-up will become more and more of a priority as other news services learn the content-catch-up game.

Make no mistake about it: a Web address is a vital element of branding strategy. Companies have gone to court to win back their name rights from domain name speculators -- and for good reason: those who want to find your business online will type in the most logical name for your site. If nothing happens or if an entirely different entity comes up in the browser, for the user it is as if you are not on the Web at all.

That is the ultimate failure of a Web presence.

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