The bubble has well and truly burst for Internet stock in the United Kingdom. Funding for e-commerce ventures, relatively easy to secure not so long ago, is drying up. So what has gone wrong and what are the lessons for any American company seeking to enter the European online fray?
One main problem has been the difficulty of establishing a new Internet brand. The theory that a good idea married to a neat Web site design automatically produces an avalanche of customers wore thin very quickly over here.
Our European experience is that lack of consumer confidence and uncompleted sites at launch are just two reasons why the odds are stacked against the Internet start-up. But can traditional brand-building techniques evolve to meet the challenge of online offers? And if that is possible, does it mean that properly branded Internet companies can achieve even closer relationships with customers?
The nature of the Internet suggests that online brands are well-placed to have an intimate relationship with consumers. But while the technical infrastructure is there to support this, the lesson from the European marketplace is that there are more basic hurdles to clear first.
Unlike a traditional product or service, online brands usually are not fully developed or researched by the time they have to go to market. And judging by the UK, many lack even a clear business plan on which to base a marketing strategy.
Since the environment is driven by swiftly developing technology, a fully formed offer that is tried and tested pre-launch will inevitably be overtaken by the latest new thing before it even reaches consumers. Add to this the pressure of needing to show income now, and the result is a branding challenge that looks very different to the cosy scenario of a typical launch.
The effect of this is that consistency goes out the window. A customer in a supermarket can rightly expect the new shampoo on the shelf to be the same tomorrow as it is today. If it does change, it will do so in a controlled and relatively minor way that does not compromise the core product proposition, distribution, channels, price positioning and its competitive set.
Conversely, Internet start-ups must be metamorphic brands, changing and evolving rapidly. Rather than becoming familiar with a fully formed brand, customers find they are drawn into the new product development process. Online brands attempt to get consumers to actively redesign their brand experience so they can fine-tune or retune their offers.
For consumers who also are being asked to adapt to new ways of buying products and services, there is little familiarity to provide reassurance. And for many in Europe, there is the stumbling block of acquiring the computer skills that provide the door to this virtual shopping mall. These sorts of problems have never gotten on the marketing radar before in Europe, yet are critical to the success of Internet brands.
For brand developers there are no magic techniques of engagement that will fit all Internet brand start-ups, but there are lessons to be learned. Given our experience of the European marketplace, these are the tips we can pass on to anyone wanting to establish an online presence.
Continuity is king. Rather than working to a fixed point, brand programs need to be combined with regular interagency meetings to ensure the core principles of the brand are protected and also that strategy can be changed when necessary.
Diplomacy is an ally. Taking our client list as a fairly reliable barometer, there may be as many as five or more marketing agencies involved. Consequently, brand developers over here need thick skins, loud voices and political skills as well as a lot of brand experience to provide a valuable service.
Research can be deceptive. Consumer research often is based on a site that bears few similarities with the final actual site. Moreover, judging by our experience, there is still a tendency for respondents to approve wholeheartedly of things that previous experience has shown do not really attract or hold viewers on other sites.
By understanding who uses the site, how they use it, how long they stay, what they look at, how they customize it and, perhaps most importantly, what they buy, we can refine our brand offer on the basis of neither hypothesis nor self-reported behavior, but facts. And it is this same data that, by remembering details about the individual, provides an increasingly relevant brand experience each time the customer gives additional personal information.