It's Time to Go Back to Branding 101

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If January's Super Bowl Sunday Net-business TV ad blitz represented the apex of the giddy, drunken dot-com marketing party, then the stock market's April 14 meltdown marked the start of the painful hangover. For too many months now, online retailers have allowed their marketing departments to burn up the budget on overpriced and misdirected marketing efforts, all in a bid to create a brand out of thin air and in record time.


The insane ramp-up pace of the dot-coms contributed to this "instant branding" frenzy -- e-tailers were under tremendous pressure to build a brand in a matter of weeks, rather than years. And many marketers thought the new rules of the economy allowed them to break free of the traditional tenets of branding. Cutting through the clutter was deemed more important than focusing on the customer -- indeed, the customer played second fiddle to marketing campaigns that were funky and cool.


It's clear that this approach no longer works. You no longer draw attention to your brand in the marketplace simply because you're a dot-com. Being a dot-com back then was appealing because it was new and sexy. That may have gotten you some mileage way back in 1997, but it ain't working now. You build a brand the way it's always been done -- and contrary to current opinion among some in the marketing world, these rules haven't changed.


Now that IPOs with 1,000 percent increases on opening day are a thing of the past, there's a lot less money around for indulgent marketing campaigns. The good news about the money drying up is that reality is coming to the marketing of online properties. Inflated ad rates will likely come down. The noise and the clutter of messages will ease, allowing companies to deliver thoughtful branding messages instead of screaming over the din. The third-tier online retailers that didn't have much to offer the consumer will fade away.


In the past, marketing messages were far too self-directed. Branding messages seemed aimed only at that narrow segment of people who live and breathe the dot-com lifestyle. That's why many of the TV ads that aired during the Super Bowl were roundly criticized -- they made some twenty-something engineers and marketing vice presidents laugh, but they did nothing to connect the customer to the company.


Another big mistake: E-tailers and other dot-coms focused their branding messages solely on cutting through the clutter -- once again, ignoring their customers. Cutting through clutter doesn't build customer loyalty.


Crucial to brand development -- in both offline and online worlds -- is the connection to the customer, both tangible and emotional. How does the consumer feel rationally and emotionally about what you're bringing to the table? Assuming you can answer the question above, make sure that this rational and emotional connection affects everything you do as a company: your advertising, collateral, the partners you choose, the look and feel of your products, your logo, etc.


The ubiquitous Pets.com sock puppet is a great example of a branding campaign that connects with the customer. The friendly sock puppet taps into the strong emotional feelings pet owners have about their animals. People love their pets because of their human characteristics: They're sometimes playful, sometimes sad and sometimes goofy. The sock puppet embodies all of these things. The sock puppet image as the "representative" for pets permeates through everything that Pets.com does.


For the e-tailing marketer that is steering clear of the "five-minute-brand" method, it's important to remember that true brands take time to build. The best take years to create and the process never really ends. Despite the changes that the new economy has wrought on retailing, a brand can't be created overnight.
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