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September 25, 1997. New Media Brands and Branding

Bob Ponce, CEO, I-Contact Media and Dr. Augustine Fou, CEO, Marketing Science

     When you see a black and white cow pattern, what do you think of? When you hear "They're G-r-r-reat!," what comes to mind? How about the "swoosh" logo? (answers: Gateway Computers, Frosted Flakes cereal, NIKE). These are the brands we see and hear every day. We are constantly bombarded by these ads on television, in magazines, on billboards, and even on sides of buses. In the high gloss, high impact physical world, these one-off, ten-second flashes are the methods of choice for companies to grab our attention, convey brand attributes, and hopefully compel us to act in some way, perhaps to purchase their products. In this executive brief, we will explore branding in the Internet medium as compared to traditional branding in the physical world. We will review examples of what companies are doing on the Internet and pick out winning characteristics. And we will comment on the unique ways in which the Internet medium is already being used to create and convey brand value.

     Branding refers to the marketing efforts which attempt to link desirable attributes to products or the company that makes those products. Brand is both a direct and an indirect source of differentiation for competitive products or companies. For example, the Energizer bunny directly conveys a desirable attribute (long life) of the product itself (battery) while Budweiser indirectly massages a consumer's desire to drink their beer by sponsoring rock concerts or sporting events. Brand equity or brand value is a real source of competitive advantage and a vital corporate asset. And great brands usually do three things: identify particular products or services, convey a certain level of product or service quality, and attach some emotional attributes to a consumer's experience of the brand. With the explosive growth of the Internet, all companies must evaluate their use of this medium as an integral tool in their branding strategy.

     The Internet's foundation in open standards makes it accessible by anyone on any computer anywhere in the world. And it is fundamentally a two-way, interactive medium, which differentiates it from print-based or broadcast-based media, the traditional advertising vehicles. With this new medium, it is possible for companies to reach out to potential customers around the world at fractional cost, establish an interactive relationship with the customer over the long term, and even deliver the very goods and services that the customer was seeking.

     In the short span of the last 3 years, an incredible number of companies and organizations have made their first forays onto the Internet by establishing websites, some elaborate and some simple. To date, most websites imitate physical-world advertising, which simply displays information, images, and audio/visual attributes of the brand like a digital brochure. Companies are realizing the importance of their domain names as an online extension of their brand (e.g.,,, while others are using new, descriptive domains to create new brands in a manner similar to the use of branded 800 numbers (e.g. 1-800-FLOWERS). Another widely used form of digital branding is the banner ad. Companies now buy online banner ad space on affinity websites much in the same way as they buy ads on appropriate channels, magazines, or radio stations. At this stage in the evolution of the use of the Internet, this is appropriate for most companies. But this new medium is far more powerful and versatile than traditional mass media. If it were relegated to the status of a delivery vehicle for old-style advertisements it would have no added value; it would be relatively useless to consumers. Therefore, it is important to use this medium in ways in which it is uniquely capable, not in imitation of other media.

     Some real-world brands have successfully utilized the new medium in their branding efforts. FedEx's website was the first to allow customers to track their own packages. In essence it provided on-demand self-service. Since the desirable brand attribute for which FedEx is known is its service, FedEx's online efforts have successfully conveyed their brand. They achieved "branding by service" not just by telling the customer how good they are at customer service. Clinique differentiated its brand from other cosmetic makers by establishing a no-nonsense, utilitarian image evidenced by salespeople in lab coats. Similarly, Clinique continues its clean cut approach online and delivers "personal consultations" through interactive functions which help customers choose cosmetics based on skin-type, color, etc. Third, cereal maker General Mills extends interactive fun to the prime consumers of its products through their website called "You Rule School." Branded graphics and characters from their cereal lines liven up children's after school activities and games.

     Kodak's real world tagline "Take Pictures. Further" was superbly achieved online through its interactive digital postcard store. People were empowered to "take pictures further" by using them in their digital communications. Kodak's online branding effort has little resemblance to TV ads; rather, it associates desirable high-tech and self-empowering attributes to the Kodak brand and positions Kodak as a communications facilitator. Finally, L.L. Bean achieved "branding by association" by linking to national parks, outdoor activity sites, and even travel services. They are not just a purveyor of "outdoorsy" clothing; they promote environmental awareness and an active outdoors lifestyle. The web, as an information channel that is open 24 hours a day and accessible from anywhere in the world allows companies to do more than what could be done in traditional media.

     At the same time, the Internet has spawned some brands that are native to this medium and trying to extend their reach. Companies such as Netscape and Yahoo became established Internet brands by providing the functionality that made the medium useful for millions of people, while other companies built brands by being first to provide content in areas of mass interest. Netscape, the company that first commercialized the browser, has an incredibly strong online brand presence with its logo seen by millions of web surfers every day. However, its brand is limited for several reasons. Its product's attributes have become the company's attributes - rapid innovator who releases new versions often, but before having worked out the bugs. And its cross-media exposure is non-existent. Thus it is an online-only brand with few emotional attributes and zero connection with people who are not online and using their products.

     AOL on the other hand has, from the outset, bombarded potential online consumers with free branded diskettes, promotional materials, magazine inserts, television ads, etc. An online brand that migrated to the Internet, AOL has benefited from consumer interest in the Internet by presenting themselves as the easy-to-use, fun way to access it (as well as their proprietary online content). Their branding success has been a mixed bag, in that service problems, excessive advertising, and a propensity for junk e-mail have left many AOL customers less than satisfied. But their switch to unlimited access pricing lessened the economic reasons for switching service. And service providers have the unique advantage of becoming part of a consumer's e-mail address, which aids customer retention, even if customers are dissatisfied with service.

     Excite is another young online brand that has poured significant sums into television advertising to raise awareness. But they have discontinued those efforts due to lack of permanent increases in usage and traffic. Yahoo on the other hand has established its brand by providing real value through the Internet medium. People first started using Yahoo as a search engine to cut through the clutter on the web; then they used Yahoo for local resources, weather, stock quotes, sports scores, classified ads and even personals. Yahoo branded itself as a part of the Internet lifestyle and managed to extend itself beyond just a search engine.

     C/NET has effectively used a blended strategy of cross-media exposure and functionality to build its brand. By grabbing key words and phrases as domain names (,,,,,, C/NET has placed itself as a resource center, providing information as well as useful tools to Web surfers. At the same time, its exposure on cable TV through a C/NET program on the Sci-Fi Channel gives it considerable exposure. The result is a brand identity that, although lacking in emotional attributes, projects functionality and information.

     Finally, for a company that has not had to do consumer branding, Sun Microsystems did a superlative job in creating a brand identity and high visibility for Java, even in advance of significant usage. With a catchy name and logo, Sun has created awareness of their technology as desirable, much as Intel did with their "Intel Inside" brand strategy. Sun has adroitly positioned its technology as a potential common link between virtually any type of intelligent device from a smart card to a mainframe. Extending its brand in the real world is vital to their vision and to creating perceived value of the Java brand at the consumer level.

     Toward this goal, Sun is directly competing against Microsoft, a company that has worked hard to build and extend the Windows brand. Although its launch of Windows 95 was one of the greatest coordinated efforts to maximize brand visibility, the effects of it were negated when Microsoft was forced to shift its business strategies to adapt to the Internet's quick growth. Internet Explorer became the most important strategic product for Microsoft, even though it generated no revenue. Additionally, Microsoft tried to jumpstart several online brands (Sidewalk, MSN, Netshow) with mixed success. While Microsoft has been partially successful in extending the Windows brand through differentiation (Windows NT as an industrial-strength OS, Windows CE for small devices, Windows 95 for consumer PCs), all of the Windows products require additional software to communicate across the Internet. The Windows environment does not offer the interoperability necessary to compete with Java as a ubiquitous brand, and it also is stuck with its brand identification as an interface rather than a faceless technology that consumers identify as preferred even if they don't understand it (e.g. Pentium, MMX processor) . As an interface, it is difficult to brand a phone or a pager as a Windows device and derive any meaning or perceived value.

     As is becoming more and more apparent, the challenge for both online-native brands and real world brands acting online is to tie their online efforts to real world efforts. Branding efforts must be integrated across media. And more importantly, the message that is being sent must be unified. We have seen how FedEx, Clinique, and Kodak have utilized the unique capabilities of this medium to complement their existing brand, image, and attributes. We have also seen online brands like AOL tie intimately with users previously unfamiliar with the online world. Brands can be extended online, but value must still be created in the real world. By using the Internet medium, companies are now into the realm of developing meaningful, long term relationships with customers which were not even possible before using the one-off paradigm of traditional advertising in other mass media. A unified approach to branding strategy, integrating the Internet medium as an essential and complementary tool, will create value for companies and for their customers.

___________________________________________________________________ 1997, Dr. Augustine Fou

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