Extending Your Retail Brand Online

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For many retail brands building their presence on the Internet, extending the promise and reputation they have achieved offline can be a challenge. If done improperly, brands risk underdelivering on their brand promises and making it easier for their customer loyalists to reject their brand and move to one that follows through.


Before plotting an online development strategy, it is important to accept first and foremost that the Internet is another medium through which to communicate your brand's positioning, values and personality -- all of which go toward creating its unique selling proposition.


The Internet is just one element in the overall marketing mix -- albeit one that is growing in importance as the Web becomes ubiquitous. The Internet should be considered just another customer touch point, consistent and integrated with all other touch points where the customer can experience the benefits of the brand. Therefore, as customer loyalists have grown familiar with the brand offline, it becomes critical to extend the brand consistently online.


How do you do this?


First, define and clarify your brand to all parties involved in the strategic development of your site. Many retailers and brand marketers seem to forget the basics when developing their online presentations and functionality.


While professional marketers invest time and resources in analyzing the human factor issues related to things like Web site review, few research whether their online positioning and presentation deliver on their brand promise. Are your customers' perceptions consistent with your offline brand? How do they differ? Why?


To overcome this issue, stay focused on your differentiated brand position. It is the foundation for formulating your online strategy. Then, test your conclusions. Question your assumption.


A great example of brand extension is Harry and David, www.harryanddavid.com, Medford, OR. This company delivers value and customer delight in the gourmet foods specialty segment -- a position it achieved long ago in the catalog industry. It extends this same attention to detail to its Web site.


In the same category, the Dean & Deluca site was disappointing. Dean & Deluca, New York, has retail stores that capture and exploit all five senses, causing one to salivate with anticipation; unfortunately, the Dean & Deluca site, www.dean-deluca.com, lacks passion or conviction. According to P. Kelly Mooney of Resource Marketing Inc., Columbus, OH, a consulting firm specializing in online brand development, the Dean & Deluca Web site makes her feel as though she's "buying parts for my car."


What do you consider next?


Manifest your brand with supporting technology that delivers value consistent with your brand identity. Brand marketers are often seduced into introducing new technology or applications that are far from consistent with what their brand stands for. Introduce new applications to your Web site because they reinforce and continually deliver value -- not vice versa. If it's not consistent with your brand positioning, why bother?


Dell Computer Corp., Round Rock, TX, implemented its Premier Pages and is a great example of using applications to underscore Dell's value proposition. Premier Pages are customized (one of Dell's core values) Web sites tailored to the organizational needs of the company's large customers such as Toyota, the U.S. government and Monster.com.


A goal all retailers and brand marketers should strive for is the manifestation of the brand across all customer touch points, including the Internet. If you fail to meet this promise, your customers face a brand disconnect, and you give them the opportunity to become disillusioned and abandon your site.


Finally, most offline brands are built upon the human interaction that creates real, value-added relationships. It is equally important that the online world provides consistent opportunities for human contact. Viewing the Web as one element in the overall marketing mix will reinforce that brand can be seen as a series of integrated and ideally seamless customer experiences. Several brands are doing this successfully and have further differentiated themselves from their competition -- Lands' End and Cosmetics Counter are two examples.


I was amazed recently by a purchase I made with a leading furniture retailer. After making a recent rug purchase online, I was informed my order would not be available for shipment for five months. So much for the immediate gratification of the Internet.


Having received this news via e-mail, I replied, asking to cancel my order. Then I waited two weeks, and having received no confirmation of my cancellation, I called the customer service number listed on the Web site and was forwarded to a call center. While the operator was pleasant and apologetic, he explained I would need to send another e-mail to the company directly. Then, I could expect a reply in five days' time.


At this point, I gave up and canceled my purchase through my credit card company. My point: While we all appreciate the opportunity to automate our business processes, not all customers think like we do. Give your customers a live, personal entry into your branded enterprise, and you will gain loyalty with your customer base.


Plan your Internet strategy as you would any other communication medium. Leverage your brand positioning and values as the foundation for crafting your message to your constituents, and build on that foundation to integrate the technology with human interaction. You will extend relationships with your customer loyalists, and your brand will prosper.

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