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Brand Central Station: The promise of branding
by Jim Sterne, President of Target Marketing


Is your brand important? More so than it was.
Is it different managing a brand online? You bet your browser.

Can I help clarify, spotlight, enlighten and amuse regarding Web branding for several months in a row? That, my friends, will be determined by you and your opinion.

To kick things off, here's a little philosophy on the subject, just so you know where I stand on brand.

A brand is not a name. A brand is not a positioning statement. It is not a marketing message. It is a promise. Made by a company to its customers and supported by that company.

If not, it would be enough just to change the name of San Francisco's Candlestick Park to 3Com Park. As Jamie Graham, put it in Creativity Magazine, "It won't be long before we're vacationing in Pearl Drops (formerly Yellowstone) Park, admiring 2000 Flushes (Niagara) Falls, and the Pontiac Grand Am Canyon."

A brand is something that lives apart from what the company plans, because it is the culmination of all of the interactions a marketplace has with the firm.
    A person sees and ad and has an impression.
    She looks up information on the Web, she has an impression.
    She calls the firm and talks to the receptionist and the impression changes.
    She is put on hold and hears the music and "Your call is important to us."
    She talks to a sales rep.
    She waits for the materials to arrive.
    She reads the materials.
    She talks to her colleagues about the product.
    She reads about the firm in the financial pages.
    She reads product reviews.
    She makes the purchase.
    She sees and feels the product packing.
    She tries to use the product.
    She calls customers service.
    She talks to her friends about her experience.

If you take the sum total of how she feels and thinks about all of her interactions with the company and how well they met her expectations and lived up to the promise... and you multiply that by the thousands or millions of people who have also read about, talked about and interfaced with the company and the product... you have a brand. You want that brand to be a positive sentiment.

You want the public to know, deep in their heart of hearts that your company stands for confidence, your logo implies trust and your products mean dependability. Or, you want them to think of you as young, hip and fun-loving. Either way, you want them to think of you in the terms for all of the days of their lives.

In an essay in Understanding Brands by 10 People Who Do (1996, Kogan Pge Ltd.), Wendy Gordon, chairman of The Research Business Group stresses congruency between all of the different levels of human communication. These Neuro-Linguistic Programming levels are:
    Vision (I promise), eg 'I have a dream' (Martin Luther King).
    Identity (I am), eg I am a caring, giving person.
    Belief (I believe), eg I believe in state education.
    Capability (I can), eg I play tennis and cook Japanese food.
    Behavior (I do), eg I work full time.
    Environment (where), eg I live in London.
Gordon suggests that strong branding requires all of these levels of communication to agree with each other. If you can identify the message to be conveyed on each of these levels and then see to it that every interaction with the firm and its products confirms those messages, your brand will be as strong as possible.

Branding Becomes Crucial on the Net

But what happens when this stimulus and response is played out on the Net? How does it change how we react? When all manufacturers and all products are one click away?

We have become the time-traveler. We have been beamed up to the present and find ourselves in a sea of information. We are awash in the swells of e-zines, e-mail newsletters, lists, pundits and definitive Web sites all offering the latest in up-to-minute news, weather, sports, stock price analysis, fashion trends and health advisories. The problem of information overload has grown from a cresting wave to a full blown tsunami.

Back in the good old days (say 1992), you had to have a good deal of money to be a publisher. You had to have backers who vetted you and had confidence in you. If you wanted to advertise your products on television, you had to pay dearly for the privilege. It used to be that "As seen on TV" meant that you had a large enough company to have a large enough budget to buy ad space that was reserved for the likes of the major players.

Today, anybody with $20 a month can have a Web page up on AOL or GeoCities or any of hundreds of local access providers. Anybody willing to allow ads on their Web site can barter them for free ads on others' sites. Today, everybody is a publisher and everybody is an advertiser.

As Steve Hayden (part of the Apple "1984" television commercial team) said in an article in Advertising Age, "In a world of information overload, brands become ever more important. Icons with virtual memory, brands save time. I may have intelligent agents that can go out and assemble pages of reports on every camcorder on the market, but I don't have time to read them. I'll buy Sony."

With so many choices of content, and with such an assortment of sources, people will depend more and more on the feelings of trust they hold for the companies they do business with. If you already have a strong brand, you now have a new place to make it stronger. If you don't, you have your work cut out for you.


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