Branding on the Web

Branding has been an obsession for advertisers for decades, and since the Internet has come of age, emerging as a whole new medium their question has been “can the Internet be used for branding?” The answer, at least for now, is yes—as long as we’re talking about “brand awareness.”

Why brand awareness and not brand creation or building? In short, because banners don’t make us cry, says John Rubino, managing partner for Landor Associates, a leading brand-consulting firm that has assisted Microsoft, Federal Express and other well known companies in staking out brand dominance.

Banners, sponsorships, classifieds, referrals, and other Internet advertising vehicles including the newly born rich media and email forms have limited emotional range—and emotion is the basis for brand creation and brand building, says Rubino. “Brand is about the values of a company—the value proposition,” Rubino says. “It’s about the identity—what’s core to the company. Brand has to come across as distinctive. It has to demonstrate a relevant difference. This relevant difference is the reason for the consumer to care. It’s the core branding message.”

Standard Internet ad vehicles—such as banners and keywords—don’t let this emotion show through, Rubino says, which gives them limited value for brand-building and brand-creation. “However, banners and other vehicles may work if you’re looking for just simple brand awareness. They could be important to awareness. They just may not be suitable for brand building,” he says.


Some online advertising companies say that sponsorships create an excellent branding opportunity—again to raise awareness, not for creating brand. A sponsorship is basically an ad on a frame of a web page that is positioned along the side of the requested content—ideally the sponsorship message is related to the adjoining content.

The charm of the sponsorship is that both the website and the advertiser are trying to reach the same audience—in this case, music enthusiasts, “so the campaign works for everyone,” says Lisa Cohen, spokeswoman for online advertising firm L90.

In one of L90’s sponsorship campaigns, “Liquid Audio (a website) provides services and software that enables musicians, record labels and music retailers to digitally deliver professional quality music via the Internet. Philips (the electronics company) is promoting its latest digital audio player, Rush, which is a 100 percent shockproof ‘take anywhere’ device,” Cohen says.

At Liquid Audio website, Cohen points out, a visitor would not feel as though he or she is reading an ad. The sponsorship gives it more of an integrated appeal, giving the music enthusiast an interesting option to click on. “This is a great example of how a product can be branded on the Internet,” Cohen says.

Estimates for sponsorships’ share of advertising vary. The Internet Advertising Bureau stands at just under 30 percent of all online advertising in the second quarter of this year—behind the banner, while other estimates place the sponsorship format—as a type of creative—as the dominant creative format on the Net.

Marketers hope that sponsorships increase the association of content with their advertising and will build brand awareness with the appropriate audience.

Site vs. Banner

With banners, sponsorships, keyword searches and other advertising vehicles, companies are trying to extend their message into spaces where the audience is. This is advertising as we know it, says David Zinman, senior vice president of Engage, which owns Internet research firm AdKnowledge.

However, many companies, especially traditional economy consumer package goods companies, are gravitating to the creation of a website. This, says Zinman, should not be confused with true Internet advertising in which advertisers are trying to extend the message to the audience. When they create a sophisticated—and branded site—they are shaping content for when the audience comes into the company’s space—a completely different function.

“Don’t lump corporate or product websites with proper advertising vehicles such as banners and sponsorships,” Zinman says. The difference, according to Zinman and others, is critical to the branding discussion.

Strength of Site

However, for Peter Farago of Farago & Partners, the New York branding firm that put famous authors on Barnes & Noble’s bags, bookmarks and store walls, the focus of the Internet branding opportunity is the website.

In the physical world, Farago says, Barnes & Noble established itself as “great books for great minds.” Customers went to Barnes & Noble because the store has more heroes than any other bookstore, he says. Although the company did not have the online contract for Barnes & Noble, Farago’s plan was to carry this kind of branding onto the Internet, which, he says, has the advantage of a ubiquitous presence. For example, when you try to build a brand like Barnes & Noble online, you can put a Pulitzer Prize winner on the web nationwide, but in the physical world that author could appear in only one store. “The secret is in intelligent use of the web to do things you can’t do any other way,” Farago says.

Not for Every Brand

Even when it comes to awareness, however, the Internet may not be a successful tool for all products, cautions Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys. “It may depend a lot on whether a brand or company already has equity. Brand equity means that the brand has meaning to the customer. It involves how the brand stacks up to the true category ideal for the customer. If the brand has little or no equity, the web is not a good place for it.

“Dot.coms—which have little brand equity—can’t even brand themselves online,” says Passikoff. Even Internet giants, such as Yahoo! and used traditional methods and media to create their brands—and continue to use them to raise awareness.

The life stage of a company or product can also be critical to successful use of the Internet, according to experts. They also suggest that audience and purchase process—that is, can the product be purchased online or through a website—are considerations in evaluating the prospects for successful Internet branding.

“Many folks believe that if you build it, they will come, but that’s not true,” Passikoff says. “The opportunity to build brand on the Internet is very small unless you are already branded.”

Why Brand Anyway?

Engage’s Zinman offers another view on branding and the Internet. “Brand on the Internet? Why would you want to? It’s a different medium. Branding is for other media that can’t be precisely measured. The Internet allows for something other than branding—something better. It makes it easier to find the audience that you want to brand to—and measure the effect. It enhances target and delivery—accountability.”

To accept this view, experts say, media buyers and brand managers will have to change their mentality about the Net and branding. They have to start thinking in terms of the Internet—how it works to support, create and enhance brand identity—and, as importantly, how it can provide new consumer information. Once this is understood, they say, the question may become—how has the Internet changed branding and, in the larger sense, marketing?

Forrester Research Inc.’s Rob Rubin lays odds that the Internet will provoke and promote a profound change in marketing—the likes of which haven’t been seen since the rise of branding decades ago started driving corporate marketing thought. Brand managers directed the flow of ad dollars to bombard large audiences with an emotionally charged impression that, hopefully, created a bond with consumers.

“The Internet is giving us more information about consumers,” Rubin says. “This will give marketers the ability to more closely target the individual consumer. And for the consumer, the gain is that the consumer will receive much more relevant marketing from the companies. A vegan will not receive ads about hamburger helper.”

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