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Brand Central Station: Home(page) is where the heart is
by Jim Sterne, President of Target Marketing


Granted, branding starts with logos and slogans. A Super Bowl ad is a wonderful tool to bring people to your home page, but that's where a customer's impression moves from the sphere of imagination and into the browser box of actual experience.

Your home page is the single most visited page on your site. You have to carefully decide what it says to potential customers about you -- and about how you feel about them; your brand promise.

At a recent Jay Abraham conference, I had the pleasure of watching Jakob Nielsen perform a usability test. Jakob always makes many excellent points (which can be found at www.useit.com), and this he chided the rest of us presenters. We were all howling about seeing things from the customer perspective and extolling the audience to "Be the customer!"

"Nonsense," says Jakob. You can't understand all customers. You can't be all customers. If you're really good, you can be *a* customer. One at a time.

So, bearing this admonition in mind, allow me to assume the mantel of a single customer in search of a skiing trip to Europe. The Eastern seaboard may have been hard hit by recent snows, but the West still seems devoid of the stuff. Off to Europe we go!

In this customer's clothes, I need a little hand holding and advice about where to go, where to ski, and where to spend my nights. Let's say my only search method is Yahoo. That greatly limits my choices to the handful at:

http://dir.yahoo.com/Regional/Regions/Europe/Recreation_and_ Sports/Sports/Skiing__Snow/

While these sites may be good, bad or indifferent, they all share one thing in common: a first impression in the form of description on this Yahoo page. First, let's look at the links I'm less inclined to follow:

Four Season's Guides - specializing in off-piste powder skiing and ski mountaineering in the winter, and mountain climbing in the summer. www.swissguides.com

I had to wander over to babelfish babelfish.altavista.com to discover that "off-piste" means "off-track" as opposed to meaning a French version of being very upset. A little too rich for my blood. A little too over my head. A nose a little too high in the air. Wrong brand for me.

Interactive Magazines: European Snow, Weather and Lift Report. www.interactivemagazines.com/snow.htm

I might visit that later, but I'm looking to plan a vacation, not get steeped in skiing lore. I'm looking for a warm, friendly face to give me some advice.

Ski Esprit - specialises in ski trips to France. www.ski-espirit.co.uk

These folks didn't bother to use a spell checker. Why should I bother to click to their home page? Yes, I know it links to www.ski-esprit.co.uk and theirs is the preferred way to spell "specializes" in English rather than in American, but who looks at URLs?

Besides, when you do head over to Ski Esprit, you find out its "The Family Ski Specialist." If that's their unique selling proposition, why didn't they say so in their Yahoo description?

Ski in France www.skiin.com

That's nice and simple. Too simple, actually. The title tag in their home page says, "Information about 3000 ski resorts, snowboard, snow, accomodation, hotels, ski, snowboard, hotel, travel" Ten points off for spelling and 1,000 points off for not giving me a clue in their description at Yahoo.

SkiFrance - more than 100 resorts with snow heights. www.skifrance.fr

More descriptive, but also limited just to France. Too narrow. Maybe I'll come back. Maybe not.

Ski Europe 1995/1996 - Great values to all major European ski resorts. pages.prodigy.com/CA/fhkp72a/skieurope.html

Good heavens. No comment necessary. No click forthcoming.

Skigebiete - guide to resorts in the Alps. www.geocities.com/Yosemite/1255/skie.html

OK - no complaints. But no click, either. I'm after a whole package. If you thought I *should* have clicked, I would have found myself on a re-direct page full of banner ads - some adult. I'd like to suggest that this is not the way to build a brand.

Skiing in France - find skiing holidays in France with ski info on skiing resorts in French Alps, French Pyrenees, Vosges, Jura and more. www.fr-holidaystore.co.uk/skiinfo/

Surely France is not the only place to ski ...

Alpine Ski Tours - organizing ski trips, instruction, and lodging in the Austrian Alps. www.alpine-skitours.com/

No -- it seems Austria is a good place as well. But I want to choose from all of Europe, not have to comb through 25 or 30 different country-based sites.

So out of a field of 11 links, only two appeal. Now it gets down to the battle of the home pages. What does each say about the site on the other side of my screen?

I begin with:

theAlps.com - content rich skiing & snowboarding guide. Hotel search, weather forecasts, snow conditions, resort information and reviews, covering more than 100 resorts in the alps www.thealps.com

Looks like the whole ball of wax, so I click. Drop-down menus let me choose from 18 countries or 47 different resorts. Left-hand menus let me choose from Resorts, Weather, Equipment, Travel, or Availability. Elsewhere on this home page I can send a digital postcard from the Alps and I can check currency rates. I can write articles for this site, visit the photo gallery, or click-off to other, recommended sites. I can read the news, click on the ads, check out the interviews, and read up on Heli-Skiing in the North Cascades.

In other words, I'm faced with a directory of lots and lots and *lots* of stuff. So much stuff that they are even selling banner ad space with banners in Swedish. Hmmmm. I am left to find my own way.

Next stop?

Ski Europe - The comprehensive source for planning your next European ski tour. www.ski-europe.com

The deep blue background. The snow-covered chalet at night. The subtitle, "Let the dream come true." All this creates a sense of relaxation, and a hushed stillness. Quite a contrast to the bright white and orange cacophony of theAlps.com.

Even the menu on the Ski Europe site makes me feel like I'll be coddled rather than left to my own devices:

Ski Europe Destinations
Super Ski Weeks Specials
Personal Travel Planning
Group Travel Planning
Trip Planning Tips
About Ski Europe
Questions?

I know at a glance that this is the site for me. I feel welcome here. Comfortable. I expect to find knowledgeable people with helpful smiles and a desired to please on the very next click.

After two or three trips to various foreign locales I may be feeling a bit more adventurous and check out theAlps.com. But for now, I'll just sign up for the e-mail SkiEurope Report for information on special European ski bargains.

And what does your home page say about you and your promise?




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