Use the Internet to Lock Up Brand Equity

On the Net, there has been a major shift from dot-coms to brand names. The just-released NetSmart America VI, “Through the Looking Glass – Consumer Insights into the Electronic Future,” a study of 1,000 online users, found that 65 percent are motivated by brand names.

This is particularly true of the key 18-year-old to 35-year-old demographic. Seventy-six percent of these prime prospects report that recognized brand names have a strong impact on their Web site visits.

With the mainstreaming of the Net, more than 100 million online users rely on brand names to provide them with a needed sense of trust and security.

Brand names are extremely important for products that involve a complex decision or a major cash outlay such as computers (69 percent), cars (69 percent), appliances (68 percent) and home furnishings (70 percent). Trusted brand names are equally important for financial services – banks (68 percent), brokerages (67 percent) and insurers (72 percent). The new dot-com brands are only acceptable for impulse purchases such as books, entertainment and other lower-cost products that are about novelty and instant gratification.

A brand is a psychological relationship between a consumer and a product or service. When consumers purchase Nike sneakers, Snapple or a BMW, they are making a statement about themselves. This is not earthshaking news. But what is news is that Web sites can make or break a brand in the electronic age.

With all the hoopla about broadband, Flash technology and rich media, marketers are losing sight of their primary asset – their real-life customers who are now online. Marketers spend hundreds of millions of dollars creating a strong brand image. Your Web site is a make-or-break proposition. The customer experience on your site will reflect well or poorly on your overall image. In 2000, 87 percent left Web sites out of frustration – up from 83 percent in 1999.

Are your customers friends or acquaintances? In terms of customer relationship, traditional media develop acquaintances, but Web sites can convert these customers into loyal friends.

Let’s think about branding in terms of real life. The average person has numerous acquaintances and eight to 10 loyal friends. We like our acquaintances and stay in touch with them because we have something in common. We love our friends because they are an integral part of our lives. They are always there when we need them. They care about us. They can almost read our minds. Close friends are there to offer advice, new ideas and solutions to our problems. They also are fun – people with whom we enjoy spending time. A well-designed Web site can turn offline acquaintances into loyal friends.

Converting Customers Into Friends

The following is a five-step Web site strategy to turn the offline acquaintances developed by traditional media into loyal friends of your brand.

• Bond with your home page. Unlike traditional media, the home page is not an attention-getting device. Interested prospects are already there. The home page is the starting point for converting offline prospects into loyal friends. It should be designed to demonstrate that you understand what motivated their visit. Looking for a safe family car? Click here. Simplified information about high-tech products, customer service, etc.? Click here. Relating is the first step in building a friendship.

• “Getting to know you” – interactivity. Interactivity is essential to developing loyal customers. Friends are always there when you need them. If you have a question or problem, they call you right back. Prompt e-mail responses are equally essential. Slow responses reflect directly on the overall value you place on your customers.

• “Friends don’t brag” – they solve problems. Online users don’t come to your Web site to buy a product, they are there to solve a problem. They are not interested in your technological breakthroughs. They want to know “What will it do for me?” (78 percent). In numerous product categories such as computers, insurance and automobiles, the average customer is confused. He is faced with a staggering array of complex options. He goes online seeking “simplified advice” (71 percent) to “make the best decision” (88 percent). The key to success is to position your site as the industry expert with comprehensive, simplified in-depth information, then position your product as the ideal solution.

• “Spending time together” – chat rooms/expert forums. Here is where chat rooms, expert forums and, as we move into the age of broadband, Webcasts play a key role in building site and brand loyalty. As in the real world, we become better friends by spending time with friends that have similar interests to our own. Like Starbucks, your brand will benefit from providing these intimate, conversational value-added extras. From a marketing viewpoint, monitoring chat rooms is a gold mine to get inside your customers’ heads. This free information is better than any focus group could ever be. Chat rooms provide a wealth of new product concepts and help you spot emerging trends.

o Stay in touch – follow up e-mail. Friendship is a two-way street. Friends stay in touch with each other and bring new information and cost-saving opportunities to their attention, e.g., “Hey, did you hear about the new Palm Pilot?” or “American has a great deal on fares to California.” Permission e-mail is the key to long-term customer loyalty. NetSmart VI found 68 percent of online users are willing to register for relevant e-mail offers, but 90 percent are concerned about privacy. It is essential to have a bold privacy link on your home page. It’s like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval – few will click on the link, but it provides necessary reassurance that your site is safe and secure.

Your Web site is critical to your success in the digital decade. Don’t let a bad Web site kill your hard-won brand equity.

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