The Critical Step of Building Your Brand Online

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The alchemy of branding has always been complex, but the Internet has added an incredibly potent ingredient to the mix. In the digital economy, how well you translate your brand online will determine whether your brand will survive. It's a crucial lesson not everyone has learned. I know of companies spending enormous research dollars determining what product goes on which store shelf that still believe they can slap together a brochureware Web site and live to tell the tale.

Two lessons brand marketers need to learn are that a poor Web site is a brand killer and customer expectations about a good site grow more sophisticated every day.

Your Web site has come to sum up everything your company is, which means that creating an enduring brand today means paying obsessive attention to the total experience your customers have with you online. It's not just the look brand marketers must worry about - it's speed, robustness, ease-of-use and, most of all, service.

Here are three rules of thumb to ensure your Web site is a brand builder, not a brand wrecker:

• Know what your brand stands for and reflect that personality online. It's an elementary principle that a surprising number of businesses overlook.

Let's say you're a pharmaceutical company that wants to be seen as the standard for trust, objectivity and meticulous, in-depth knowledge. If customers seek you out online and find a hastily constructed site offering only cursory information, you're in trouble.

For an example of a company doing a superlative job translating its brand personality online, check out the Hard Rock Cafe's web site at Well-known for the careful cultivation of its brand image in its restaurants worldwide, the company pays just as much scrupulous attention to its online incarnation. The site is fun, interactive and just a little rebellious, with value-added offerings for rock 'n' roll aficionados, such as an online music store.

The lesson is the same for all of us, even if we're not a flashy worldwide brand. No matter what your industry or personality, your site has to reflect what you say you are.

• Make sure your site offers the complete package. When your site is slow, your brand suffers. When customers expect to buy online and are instead directed to a list of physical stores, your brand suffers. When customers can't find what they want, your brand suffers.

Your site is a reflection of your total company. If you present the company as nimble, robust and responsive, then your site better be that. This isn't just a lesson for business-to-consumer companies. Consider Ocean Spray, for example, and the business-to-business site it built for its cranberry growers.

With competition growing on the supply side of its business, Ocean Spray built an extranet site that lets the company communicate more frequently and effectively with growers. It supplies vital harvest data during harvest season. But growers don't have time during this busy time to deal with a site that's slow and unresponsive, so Ocean Spray designed its site for clarity and speed. Growers can quickly get information with no wasted keystrokes and no waiting for pages to load.

The site is successfully building the Ocean Spray brand with a vital constituency.

• Ignore customer service at your own peril. The worst thing you can do to your brand online is to fail in customer service. Many companies seem to think that it's okay to do on the Web what they would never tolerate from one of their salespeople or customer services reps. Consider, for example, the numerous "feedback" messages customers send daily from companies' Web sites that fall into a black hole, never to see the light of day.

Don't do on your Web site what you wouldn't want a salesperson or customer services rep to do. Use the unique capabilities of the Internet to recreate and replicate the experience customers have with your best outward-facing people. Create one-on-one relationships with customers based on your shared history - the Internet makes this possible on a much grander scale.

Give customers the information they need when they need it. When they have a question, make sure they can get an answer quickly, whether you provide the answer on your site or make it clear how they can contact a live body. And when they have a complaint, listen and respond. Your brand depends on it.

The bottom line is that your Web site and your brand are inextricably linked. They will become only more entwined as the Internet continues to change the way we work, play and interact.

As a brand marketer, you must understand how Web and brand interconnect and how you can use the first to ensure the survival of the latter. In the digital economy that understanding isn't a nice "extra" anymore, it's a business fundamental.

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