Online Brand Strategy 101

When it comes to the Internet, traditional bricks-and-mortar brand strategy needs to be adjusted to reflect how the digital medium is used.
People have different expectations when they head online and the most successful brands understand Internet user behaviour and shape their brands accordingly.

The following piece is not intended to be a lesson in brand strategy – rather this is a piece about online brand strategy, in other words, those nuances that apply to the growing, changing, commercial, global marketplace that is the Internet.
 

Rule 1: Decide What Your Website Will Be.

Not all products are suited to be sold over the Internet.

Products that are hard to find work well online because your website can become a niche market destination, but products (like clothing) that need to be tried on first are far more difficult (especially if you don’t want to be price-driven).

You can forget perishables too unless you’ve got a bricks-and-mortar store to rid yourself of the inventory before it is unable to be sold.

Products that require contract commitment or have a complicated and/or lengthy selling process can be hard to sell online because people tend to want to talk to sales reps before commitment is made, while products that are largely commoditised work well.

So assuming that your product is suitable, and you’re pursuing your online venture, the first big decision (and it’s a critical one) is deciding whether your website will be an information channel that serves as an extension of your offline brand – or a business in its own right. It cannot be both.

Simply adding your bricks-and-mortar brand name to a website does not create an Internet brand.

Check out my post on using the Internet as a complementary channel versus building a standalone online brand.
 

Rule 2: There Is Only One Market Leader.

In the bricks-and-mortar, there is one market leader too, but there is room for serious contenders in the form of challengers.
For example:

  • Telstra is the telecommunications leader in Australia with Optus hot on its heels.
  • Qantas is the largest airline and Virgin challenges it (although it lost its budget dominance when Qantas executed a classic Pincer Move with the introduction of Jetstar).

Online, though, there is one market leader, and no room for a serious contender to that position.
Despite their significance in the bricks-and-mortar world, neither Book Depository nor Barnes and Noble will strip Amazon its position as the world’s biggest general online bookstore. The same applies to Yahoo and Bing. Google is secure.

Brands that attempt to go head-to-head with a copycat offer to a large, established market leader inevitably fail – and it costs them dearly in the process. So how do you compete?
 

TAKEOUT: THE TWO STRATEGIC OPTIONS.

Just as in the bricks-and-mortar world, the Internet is a cluttered marketplace – and a marketer’s biggest challenge is how to stand out from the crowd.
There needs to be a genuine point of difference between competitors – so the strategic choices are to adopt a niche marketing strategy thus securing a niche position or to upset the proverbial apple cart through Innovation.

Innovation, while it pays off in spades when it’s a winner, is also risky by nature since it may be that there is no existing market for what you are offering.

So, simply speaking, marketers have a choice of two marketing strategies online. They must either:

  • Adopt a niche marketing strategy and appeal to a subset of the total buying population or
  • Innovate.

Either strategy requires that the marketer offers something that is different to what else is already out there. No-one should ever copy the leader and seriously expect to win.
 

Rule 3: On the Internet, Small is Not a Disadvantage.

(And this is exactly why small guys frequently clobber big guys.)
Small players are flexible, have more control and while they don’t have tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw at top notch, high-end development firms, they can build good quality, well ranking tech for a fraction of the price that Goliath pays for the privilege.
Nor do they have to wait three weeks while committees sign off on their content changes either.
They can avoid corporate-speak, put on a friendly uninhibited face and adopt more human manners with their customers.
 

TAKEOUT: HOW SMALL PLAYERS BUILD ONLINE BRANDS.

So for small businesses or individuals looking to establish a brand online, this is what they must do:

  • Create a professional looking website. Get testimonials from happy customers and be sure to include them on your website.
  • Optimise your website so that it ranks well organically in major search engines.
  • Have a brand strategy in place, and position against your competitors. Then slowly – but surely – build brand profile and credibility using public relations.
  • Use the big guy’s size against them. Respond quickly to enquiries, be prepared to tailor your offer, and follow it up with exemplary customer service because you’re small enough and agile enough to do it.
  • With a bit of drive, a preparedness to learn how its done themselves, a guy with a computer can be a Goliath online, far bigger than the biggest corporation, even if his office is a dusty, cobweb-filled storeroom in the back of his garage.

 

Rule 4: Internet Users Like Personality.

So we’ve talked about standing out from the crowd.
This is something that appeals to Internet buyers.
Think of your website is a speck in a very large ocean of websites.
Your website is important to you – but it’s not so important to others.
Getting traffic is a challenge for everyone with competing websites springing forth quickly and cheaply – and in rapidly escalating numbers.
There has been plenty of research done regarding the psychology of brands and what they mean to people – but some of the Internet-specific personality traits that research shows Internet users like are “easy going, modest, helpful, caring, approachable and interested.”
Add to this that Internet users are impatient.
They want to access what they want quickly and easily.
They want your website to be interesting (by default this means being different from everyone else) and relevant to them.
From the beginning, your branding needs to eliminate being boring.
Talking corporate-speak, being hard to understand or navigate, being slow or being in breach of a plethora of other cardinal sins that websites do, is not acceptable online.
Also, branding is psychological.
It lives and breathes in the minds of your customers, potential customers and other stakeholders in your business.
When you understand the personality traits that people respond positively to, you can direct your advertising or design agency – or your web designer firm – to build into your requirements a brand personality that shines through your website.
(Check out the post I wrote about briefing brand agencies.)
 
 

Rule 5: Repeated Exposure Builds Brand Profile.

You want credibility and success? B
e prepared for hard work and time spent building your brand through credible exposure.
Let’s start with the basics. Brands are built using public relations – not advertising.
Advertising will maintain your brand profile, but you have to build it using public relations first.
 

TAKEOUT: FOLLOW THESE STEPS:

  • To launch your brand, you need to get other people talking about it – journalists, bloggers and people of influence. You can start with friends – but you’ll need to cast the net even further. Save your advertising budget. Invest it into public relations instead. Advertising, when your brand isn’t built, is both a waste of time and money (unless you’re purely price-driven).
  • To build your brand, develop a press release campaign and regularly upload good quality content to a media distribution service. Make sure the service also distributes through Google news.
  • Contribute articles to credible media and blogs. Include your author bio and links back to your website. Participate in forums. Get on talkback radio and answer questions. You can create your own blog if you like and have the time and resources to maintain it. The Internet is built upon the basic premise of interactivity. To build your brand, you will need to deliberately and constantly interact with your marketplace.
  • Do this as a regular program of events for the first 12 months, at least.

Despite the fact that many businesses invest huge amounts of money into advertising, most people don’t like it.
Furthermore, they don’t trust it either.
The good news is that Internet users trust recommendations from their friends, respectable news outlets and they trust reputable brands.
In fact, they are far more trusting of a brand’s website than of any advertising investment it might make.
And consider this, if you build a strong brand to begin with, you won’t need to invest so much in advertising because people will actively seek you out and add you as a bookmark.

Rule 6: A Bad Brand Experience Can Leave You Dead.

Imagine dining in a swanky restaurant for the first time and finding a dead fly floating in your soup.
Now I ask you, are you ever going to return there to eat? Are you going to encourage your friends to dine there or will you tell everyone about the dead fly thus guaranteeing the permanent demise of the careless chef?
Most people, when they have had a bad experience, will tell other people they know about that experience.
Word-of-mouth is a two-edged sword. Good word-of-mouth is extremely powerful and can build an extremely successful business.
Find yourself on the other side of the sword? On the Internet, it can be fatal.
Why? Because there are too many places where disgruntled or disappointed customers can tell the entire planet about what you’re like to deal with – and destroy your brand’s reputation and credibility in the process.
 

TAKEOUT: AVOIDING A BAD BRAND EXPERIENCE.

So how do you avoid a bad brand experience on the Internet? Just for starters, this is what you need to do:

  1. Your product or service has to fulfill the customer’s expectation of what it is supposed to do – the expectation that you create by uploading content to your website. Ducking and weaving behind fine print and legal language, or ignoring someone’s complaint in the hope they’ll disappear, doesn’t save you.
  2. Your website needs to technically deliver upon expectations. It needs to load fast, be easy to navigate and make it easy for someone to find what they want and purchase it (if it’s a shop). It needs to be safe and secure. If you ask someone to give you their email address, you need to respect their privacy.
  3. Your website needs to respect the people that use it. It needs to care about them, be helpful and deliver good levels of customer service. It needs to foster interactivity. Users of the Internet are in a hurry. They are time-poor. If they don’t find what they’re looking for at your website, they’ll head straight to a competitor that solves their problem in less than 3 clicks.

And what do you do if you’ve blown it? Head over to brand reputation for help.
 

Rule 7: Time Matters.

The Internet is moving fast – and it isn’t going to stop.
If you want to build a brand online, do it today.
If you wait for tomorrow you could be too late.
If a competitor beats you to the punch, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and find a different, unique proposition to take out to the marketplace.
It doesn’t matter if your website is not perfect.
It doesn’t even matter if it is incomplete.
This website is constantly growing because its subject matter never ends.
What matters is that you are actively moving forward, and the search engines are beginning their task of indexing you so that you can be ranked and found.
You need to keep your brand focused and look to build your market share (which, online, is measured in traffic).
You can expand your reach by launching complementary products and services and you have to try to be the biggest and best in what you do.
And that’s the 101 of online brand strategy.
 

Want more?

Check out more of my posts on brand and digital marketing.

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