A Coca-Cola bottle can be recognized anywhere, even from just one broken piece. That's branding.
Everyone recognizes an Oreo cookie without being prompted. That's branding.
Virgin Airlines' charismatic leader, Richard Branson, represents luxury, excitement, the good life. That, too, is branding.
These offline examples offer a glimpse into heavy-duty brand awareness, whereby companies have created solid personalities that transcend advertising and occupy a higher plane. They have developed a relationship with the customer.
So how does the success of these brick-and-mortar companies help an online retailer, especially in an economy where the retailer is worried just about moving its product, never mind spending marketing dollars on branding?
The good news is that online branding carries even greater potential than offline branding, mainly because the Web is a user-driven environment that fosters a unique, two-way relationship with the consumer. With the Web, customers can experience a brand hands-on, even before the normal purchase cycle is complete (think about researching an automobile that you've never owned).
The Web's interactive nature produces greater opportunities — and greater challenges — for those looking to build their brand online. But in today's economy, companies are more bottom-line-oriented. This translates into looking at the short term rather than the long term, cutting marketing budgets and focusing on promotions to ignite product sales.
Though this promotion-centric attitude is understandable in a sluggish economy, it leads into a trap.
Promotions do jump-start product sales, temporarily increasing your bottom line. But this temporary rise is misleading. The more you increase product sales through promotions, the more you dissuade customers from buying your product out of loyalty. You encourage them to buy merely because of the promotion.
Hence, the trap. Overpromoting a product to increase the bottom line eventually erodes your brand and could signal its destruction.
There are ways for an online retailer to promote its products without damaging its brand. Consider the following:
Add value through your promotions. Rather than cheapening your product's image to raise sales temporarily, consider promotions that add value. Instead of offering $1 off your product's price, include a free sample of another product in your line. This adds value to your original product while potentially fostering even greater customer loyalty to the overall brand.
Consider your audience. By paying attention to the hands-on nature of the Web, online retailers can promote their products while stepping up branding efforts. To foster customer loyalty online, companies must soften the promotional aspect of the consumer's Web site experience so the site is not thought of as merely a glorified shopping list. The images, words and style should give customers a strong impression of the brand characteristics rather than of the promotion.
Click-and-mortar retailers looking to bolster their online branding should consider the offline brand character to determine whether the offline shopping experience can be translated online successfully.
An advantage of the offline experience is that it helps solidify a brand by creating the proper ambiance. Consider the many home accent catalogs, such as Ballard Designs and Sundance. Most people who receive these catalogs subscribe more to the lifestyle they represent than to the products themselves. It's a luxury to absorb oneself in the sense of sophistication and good taste that the pages of these catalogs represent.
Setting such a perfect ambiance is not readily transferable to the Web. But ways exist for click-and-mortar retailers to enhance their cyber-brand, using the Web to impart a theme consistent with their offline image.
With respect to such catalogs, a sense of luxury and escape could be created online via photos of exotic travel destinations and an audio experience that would transport people beyond their computer screen.
Regardless of how far you go to develop your online presence, the main concept is to keep it consistent with your offline brand. Part of creating consistency is avoiding cheapening your offline image with too many online promotions. These may increase sales in the short run, but remember the trap: Overpromoting online will damage an existing offline presence.