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Three Tips for Taking Offline Brands Online

This holiday season, dot-com companies were finally forced to share the e-tailing limelight. In contrast to 1998, in which pure-play Internet retailers carried the day, this year, it became clear that many brick-and-mortar players were capable of leveraging their offline brand power into online success.

Toysrus.com, for example, weighed in as December’s fourth most heavily trafficked e-commerce site, increasing its number of unique visitors by more than 450 percent over last year. And barnesandnoble.com – long the butt of snide jokes from Amazon fans – snared the number six spot.

Such results spark obvious questions. How can other established companies score similar results as they move online (I call these firms “crossover marketers”)? What guidelines can established companies use? I recently wrote a book that examines the Web marketing strategies of several companies, including notable crossover marketers. Based on the research for the book, I’d recommend that traditional retailers keep the following in mind as they take their brands to the Web:

Respect core brand elements. By closely linking their Internet brands to their “real world” brands, crossover marketers take maximum advantage of the brand assets they have worked so hard to develop offline.

Take barnesandnoble.com. The company has done a good job of bringing key attributes of the Barnes & Noble Inc. brand to the Web. For example, the site’s muted color scheme feels like an extension of the color palette used in the Barnes & Noble retail stores. And its “authors online” series, which features online chats with prominent writers, parallels the “meet the author” events held in the retail stores.

Of course, there are some elements central to the retail store brand experience that have been difficult to bring to the Web (“As soon as we can pour a cup of coffee through this site, I think we’ll have it nailed,” barnesandnoble.com vice chairman Stephen Riggio has quipped). But by porting key elements of its brand experience to the Web, the company assures the many people who have visited its offline stores that in shopping with barnesandnoble.com, they are dealing with a solid, familiar merchant – a company they can trust.

While newer to the online retailing scene, Nordstrom.com has also done a good job of retaining core brand elements in its move to the Web. Parent company Nordstrom Inc. runs 100 stores in 23 states. While the specialty retailer sells everything from jewelry to men’s suits, it is best known for a shoe selection that would make Imelda Marcos weep with envy.

So when the company decided to make the move to the Web, it led with shoes – the essence of the Nordstrom brand in the minds of many shoppers. Visitors to the online store can choose from 20 million pairs of shoes. The retailer is also striving to offer solid customer service, another hallmark of the Nordstrom brand. For example, all orders are shipped with a pre-addressed mailing pouch that customers can use to exchange shoes that don’t fit quite right. Nordstrom.com picks up the postage. By emphasizing selection and service both online and off, Nordstrom.com is capitalizing on core brand assets that its parent company spent significant time and effort to build.

One up your offline brand. Crossover marketers should also look for opportunities to “one up” their offline brands. The Web offers a variety of ways e-tailers can take customers beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar shopping experience. The sharpest crossover marketers are not simply attempting to recreate their offline shopping environment online – they’re looking to best their traditional brands with functionality and information that will resonate with their Web-based customers.

Take the Gap.com, for example. The site features an online gift registry that allows people to develop a wish list of products they’d like to receive for Christmas, a birthday, or for another special occasion. The Gap’s brick-and-mortar stores don’t offer such a service. But a gift registry is fantastic fit for the online shopping environment, and Gap.com has moved above and beyond its offline retailing offering this way.

KBkids.com – the online incarnation of KBToys – has made similar moves. For example, the site features an “Ask the Expert” section in which puzzled shoppers can ask staff members questions about everything from which Barney video to buy for their children to when the next Pokemon video game will be released. Try as they might, it’s unlikely that in-store customer service representatives could field such a diverse range of inquiries. Kbkids.com’s “Ask the Experts” feature takes advantage of the capabilities of the Web to stretch the brand in new and valuable directions.

Leverage key offline assets. Crossover marketers also should aggressively leverage their offline assets to promote their online stores. Some companies have been reluctant to pursue such marketing integration, for under current tax laws, using offline stores to promote an online property means that their online shoppers, too, must pay sales tax.

For example, consider barnesandnoble.com. Loathe to suffer a price disadvantage to competitors like Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com has forgone the opportunity to run promotions in Barnes & Noble retail stores. But in doing so, the company has missed out on the chance to build substantial exposure for its brand offline.

While other firms are paying more attention to online-offline marketing integration, I believe this is an area that offers significant room for improvement for most crossover marketers. When I visited a local Toys-R-Us store this holiday season, it was clear the company had made a modest attempt to link its online and offline properties. The soundtrack playing on the store’s PA system sandwiched a pitch for toysrus.com in between “Jingle Bells” and an Eurythmics song. And a poster near the front door promised free shipping from toysrus.com for customers who placed their orders by Dec. 1. However, my visit took place on Dec. 21. It also was the sole piece of toysrus.com marketing collateral in the store.

The Gap provides a case study in how best to promote an online property through a traditional retail store. Visit a Gap retail store and you’ll see the gap.com URL in store windows, on counter cards – even on the cash registers, which display “Shop online at www.gap.com” on their screens between transactions. And if you leave the store with a purchase, you’ll carry your new madras shirt or lambswool v-neck home in a bag emblazoned with “www.gap.com.”

The Gap has clearly understood the impact that its offline “real estate” can have on online sales, and it is making sure its customers who want to shop online do so not with Bluefly.com or some other Web-only retailer, but through the Gap.com online store.

Phil Carpenter is director of corporate marketing at Internet discussion services firm RemarQ Communities Inc., San Jose, CA. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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