Online Branding Comes of Age

In the 1950s, the manufacturer of the soap Oxydol created a daytime serial drama targeted at its key audience: homemakers. Sales went through the roof, and to this day we still call these shows soap operas.

Ever since, savvy marketers have recognized that the most effective way into the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of their customers is through the content they crave.

Today’s best marketers have spotted a similar opportunity on the Internet, and they are jumping on it. The key difference is that on today’s Internet, the most valuable content is information-based rather than being purely entertaining.

The best marketers in the world have started using the information their audiences are looking for to build powerful new associations between their customers and their brands. There are two primary factors driving this trend:

• Customers continue to view the Internet primarily as an information resource.

• The days of free, high-quality Internet content are rapidly coming to a close.

All over the Internet, free content is disappearing. Have you noticed it yet? Perhaps you were looking for that interesting article you had seen, only to find it is now archived behind a pay-per-view barrier? Or perhaps your favorite weekly newsletter has just introduced a premium edition? It’s only just begun, but the trend is unmistakable and irreversible. The reason for this is simple: Banner advertising and sponsorships alone can no longer support content sites and newsletters. Free informative content from reputable sources has been the first to go.

To your customers, this is bad news – no more free lunch. When they agreed to pay an Internet service provider their monthly fee, most people thought they were getting an “all-areas backstage pass” to everything in cyberspace. More than anything, consumers use the Internet to find relevant, informative content. According to a study by ABC News, 75 percent of people primarily view the Internet as a place to research or learn.

And therein lies an incredible opportunity for marketers. Where will consumers turn now?

Major brands are best-positioned to pick up the slack when it comes to free online content. In fact, this is how many marketers have begun to differentiate their brands online. What does that mean? These corporations are:

• Making their sites more relevant, informative and customer-focused.

• Making their e-mail communications more meaningful and valuable.

Until now, the Internet and e-mail have been viewed almost entirely as sales media. Now corporations realize these tools can be used to accomplish both direct response and branding objectives as well.

This is where real branding begins. Successful marketers are not just going after click-throughs anymore. Nor do they think that brand equity is achieved by simply exposing lots of people to their own logo. Their goal is building the identity and meaning behind their corporation’s brand.

Here is how you can begin to investigate the opportunities for your brand:

Consider your brand assets and goals. How strong is your brand? What does it stand for? If the answer is more than just “lowest price for this” or “widest variety of that,” then there are lots of great online branding opportunities.

Leverage your existing customer knowledge. Who’s valuable? Who’s online? What are your best customers’ interests? What life stages or events influence spending in your category? Leverage all your existing research to paint a picture of your customers’ broader needs and understand how you can help meet them.

Give customers advice and information they can use. Make sure it is tied to your brand and the related needs you help your customers meet. For example, a bank that sells mortgages could provide a series of how-to articles, such as “How to hire a safety inspector” or “How to evaluate your insurance needs.” By helping consumers with these related issues, the bank knows it is facilitating a consumer’s decision to buy the house and take on its mortgage. But remember, traditional editorial content providers win their audiences because they are unbiased and helpful. Resist overt manipulation. Whether you like it, the online world has developed “sales propaganda” detectors you would not believe.

Leverage all your direct channels. How many customers do you already reach today (think about all your touch points – service center, billing statements, etc). Establish the role that each channel should play. Coordinate your efforts to ensure consistent customer experience and messaging. Then make sure you use the Internet and e-mail for what they are best at – engaging, informing and influencing people.

Take advantage of online cost efficiencies. Brands are already building stronger affinity offline. In recent years, many leading brands have been reaching out to their customer base with privately branded magazines. These vehicles engage their audience with content while building brand affinity. The greatest barrier to employing this tactic has been the sheer cost of traditional publishing and the editorial skills sets needed to pull the content together. Fortunately, with the right partners, these hurdles are dramatically lowered online.

Set yourself up to succeed (or at least know if you are failing). Set some goals and make sure you measure them: unaided awareness; aided awareness; brand affinity; brand attributes; intent to purchase. Capture every metric you have always used to evaluate the effectiveness of your branding exercises. But be certain to split out the results according to Internet and e-mail usage.

Do not take your eye off traditional rivals. Do not wait until traditional rivals have filled the void and established themselves online with these tactics, or you will jeopardize your brand equity with the ever-growing online demographics. If you do it right, you will help lure more of your best customers online.

Learn from your peers in other industries. Information-based marketing is not new. Because of regulations, industries like pharmaceuticals and mutual funds have been forced into doing this for ages. They offer a wealth of established best practices to tap into. So pull out the resumes of your staff and check for experience in these industries, or keep an eye out for potential hires and partners with this background.

The Internet provides a means for customer-focused organizations to differentiate themselves. True brand marketers use this medium to separate themselves from the pack in ways they simply could not do effectively in more restrictive media.

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