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Brand Stretching to Survive in the New World

Now that the media are beginning to measure some dot-coms' projected life spans in months, the realization is sinking in that it is the strength of your brand that will determine whether you survive.

Isn't it fitting that many of the disciplines of the cataloger are being held out as the standard upon which all channels of business should be judged? Ideas such as testing, enhanced services and leveraging your loyal shoppers are emerging across all planes of the customer experience.

Furthermore, there is a reassuring amount of data from companies as diverse as Eddie Bauer and Dell Computer that suggest establishing a consistent image across media not only helps increase brand equity but also is good for business. The notion that your entire catalog business will transform into e-business has vanished and has been replaced with the reality that by increasing the options available to shoppers, the amount of money your best customers spend will grow.

As a cataloger, you are ideally positioned to survive the changes to brand marketing and commerce that the Internet has already affected. Notwithstanding your built-in advantages, here are a few reminders as you navigate the exciting future.

Focus on the customer experience. It is absolutely essential that as we offer customers expanded shopping options, we pay attention to the experience as seen through our customers' eyes. Ultimately, it is your problem if your catalog and Internet systems do not talk to each other. And you should be diligently working to ensure information flows seamlessly across channels.

One sure way to increase customer loyalty is to let your customers know whenever they decide to visit you — in store, on the phone or via the Internet — that you know who they are and their preferences. Further, as elaborated in the book “Permission Marketing” by Seth Godin, gaining your customers' permission for interaction can be among the greatest assets you acquire. Think about the subtle yet powerful effect of a Mother's Day e-mail reminder from 1-800-Flowers.com or the introduction of the new kitchen store at Amazon.com. I wasn't annoyed because I requested to be notified.

Think shopping occasions. I remember when I worked at Pepsi and we first installed what we referred to as Express Lane Merchandisers, or those refrigerated cases now seen at the head of supermarket checkout lines. The question was, “Why would you try to sell soda there when you're already selling it in aisle eight?”

The answer was thirsty consumers waiting in line to pay were willing to purchase higher-margin products than the three six-packs in their carts because we met a need of a different shopping occasion. Think about how your loyal catalog shopper might be browsing the Internet on their high-speed connection at work and want to buy your products then and there. However, different shopping occasions will drive different needs, so act accordingly. Just as warm six-packs of soda are of no use to someone seeking immediate thirst-quenching, pages and pages of products may be irrelevant to someone looking for a gift idea.

Leverage your assets. You have a unique opportunity to leverage your physical and virtual assets as you expand your brand offer. Whether it is the capabilities of your fulfillment and call centers to process transactions from new channels or the photography that can be used across media, the cataloger has already invested in the infrastructure to deliver its brand message broadly.

The other crucial resource you have is your people. These are folks who have helped establish your brand and understand the direct marketing measures that ensure success. So look inside your organization and other existing resources as you expand your business through e-commerce.

It's not about technology. Our lives are very different and, I think, better today because of technology. From ATMs to Palm Pilots to flip phones, options are available to us to do almost anything, anywhere and anytime. That being said, technology has been best deployed to meet a need as opposed to being created in search of a use.

Especially now with the Internet, the opportunities to use the rapidly developing online technologies are almost endless. Stay true to your brand and focus on your customers, avoiding the temptation to offer that new “plug-in required, really cool special effect” on your Web site that will at best confuse your customers and at worst potentially chase them away. The truth is, as catalogers, you understand technology and have been using it in fulfillment, call centers and list management for years.

Finally, never abdicate the stewardship of your brand to your agency or your IT department for the same reasons you would not have your warehouse manager decide on the new fall colors.

See how far along you really are? The key will be to effect a seamless customer experience in which your brand remains both consistent and relevant while you leverage the operational excellence upon which you've established your business. The times ahead will be no less challenging with more competitive forces and many unanswered questions — but exciting nonetheless.

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