Build Your Brand for a Multichannel Marketplace

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A few weeks ago, the sales department at my company received a call from the vice president of marketing at a well-known family restaurant chain. Apparently, one of the eatery's locations had created its own Web site featuring a photograph of a woman who had visibly ignored the restaurant's "No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service" policy. She was virtually topless.


Though the franchisee was proud of the eye-popping photo, the parent company, needless to say, was extremely upset to discover that a restaurant known for its good taste was presenting itself to the world so tastelessly. This destruction of the company's brand equity did not reflect well on the agitated vice president.


The naked truth of this story demonstrates how the Internet allows seemingly responsible people to gain control of and potentially jeopardize a company's hard-earned brand and image. The ease with which franchisees, dealers and representatives can create and publish Web sites is stealing the attention of CEOs and their marketing departments. And rightly so. While the Web has built power brands virtually overnight, such as Amazon and eBay, it also can destroy billion-dollar brands just as quickly.


Your trusted brand online.


Brand equity is the most important asset for most companies. And, according to a 1999 study by Andersen Consulting, Chicago, more and more online shoppers prefer established bricks-and-mortar brands over dot-com upstarts. Why? Consumers trust these brands. Online shoppers use the Web to save time and money on the same brand-name products and services they trust in the physical world. They demand technology that works and excellent customer service. It's no surprise, then, that traditional marketers have accelerated the drive to put their established brands online.


To brand or to butcher: The choice is yours.


Launching bricks-and-mortar brands online is one thing. Maintaining their brand integrity is another. The goal of e-branding is to be certain that the "e" stands for a valuable consumer experience. Just as quickly as an offline company establishes itself online, it can lose control over the brand, its message and the perceived value delivered to the customer -- as in the topless anecdote mentioned earlier.


Mother.com. What's a good corporate parent to do?


When Internet commerce was identified as a potential revenue stream, many companies simply set up shop and sold directly to consumers through a central Web site, or what I call a "mother.com." This "mother" site strategy works fine if the company already markets directly to consumers via catalog or its own retail outlets, like L.L. Bean or Williams-Sonoma. But if business is conducted through a network of franchises, dealers or direct selling representatives, the consequences are potentially disastrous.


Companies that disregard their distribution networks on the Internet risk huge channel conflicts, which not only are bad for business but also can result in costly lawsuits filed by dealers and franchisees. Worse yet, this approach destroys a successful business model that took years to build -- and one that works quite well in the physical world.


The rogue syndrome.


At the other end of the spectrum are companies that adopt a laissez-faire approach to Web marketing, allowing distributors to, in essence, do their own thing. In this scenario, home-cooked Web sites, launched by enterprising individuals, result in a loss of control of the central organization's brand, which leads to inconsistent messaging and presentation. In short, the channel can butcher the brand. I call this the "rogue Web site" problem.


These rogue Web sites can cause even greater damage than brand butchering -- as if that isn't bad enough. They often create conflict within the distribution channel, attracting customers from outside their territories and creating animosity within the franchise network -- often leading to even more rogue sites. Another risk is the loss of central intelligence as individual locations act autonomously. But, most importantly, the customer relationship is at stake since the parent company has little control over this new outlet of distribution.


Think global. Act local.


The good news is that companies do not have to sidestep their successful network of channel relationships when they go online. Corporate parents can deliver the strength of the global brand to their local distributors. By providing the distribution channel with individual branded Web sites that are controlled as much or as little as the corporate parent deems necessary, companies are able to empower local retailers to deliver the global brand experience at the local level.


Let's face it: Local distributors understand the nuances of their customers' needs better than the marketing department ever will. For example, a Southwest location of a family restaurant chain knows to play up extra-spicy tacos, while the same dish in Iowa wouldn't be as palatable.


Building a brand franchise requires establishing what a brand stands for in the minds of the target audience. It also requires trust in a relationship that is built over time. Trust in not only the parent company, but also in its network of representatives. To build that trust, the brand must be accessible at the local level -- whether it's a physical storefront or a virtual shopping environment.


The companies that will succeed in today's multichannel marketplace are the ones that recognize the need to leverage their brands throughout every sales channel. The Internet is simply another channel for reaching customers. There's nothing mysterious about it - the same practices work online and offline. Except today's companies have to be a bit faster, so as not to get caught when distributors move faster than they do. Just like my colleague who is now backpedaling to "re-dress" his online strategy.


• Lauren J. Essex is vice president of marketing at Kinzan Inc., Carlsbad, CA. Reach her at lessex@kinzan.com.
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