Brand new challenges for brands

On the face of it, relying on nothing more than a few words to represent your company seems illogical. Yet think for a moment of the range of possible responses to names such as Coke (thirst quenching; or “cocacolonization”?), Nike (excellent footwear; or exploitation of third-world labour?), or McDonald’s (inexpensive, satisfying food; or a nutritional disaster?) and you’ll understand the value of those few words.

“Brands” represent the sum total of a customer’s perception of your company and its products, and where that brand stands for quality, economy, or reliability, then preserving that brand’s value must be part of your communications strategy. Your marketing department probably handles the real-world aspects of your brand quite well, but the online aspects may become your responsibility.

Unfortunately, branding includes issues that range from the simple to the horribly complex. A simple example: Your company logo must have the same reproduction quality online as it does in print. Moreover, the typeface and colour must match so the logo is immediately recognizable to customers. Typography is easier to match nowadays than formerly, but it and colour fidelity remain problematic because of the limited colour palette and resolution available to Web designers. These limitations may force you to accept an approximation of your printed logo or even to propose creating an entirely new – but visually consistent – online logo.

This visual aspect of online branding is primarily a technological problem, and thus fairly easy to resolve, but the more important – and more complex – aspects of branding relate to managing public perceptions of your brand. Before you can do that, you’ll need to identify what those perceptions are; that understanding tells you how to promote and aggressively protect the brand. If your brand stands for reliability, your server must be available continuously, transactions on the site must be foolproof and the answers you provide to online queries must be as reliable as those you provide by telephone. If the brand stands for quality, you must ensure that your online “product,” which combines the user’s experience while visiting the Web site and the quality of the information they obtain during that visit, must live up to the customer’s quality expectations. If your brand stands for integrity, you must establish a clear and respectful privacy policy that protects each visitor’s confidential information.

Providing a frustrating experience is one of the easiest ways to lose a customer: ineffective search engines, slow-loading graphics, annoying animations, intrusive banner ads or popup windows – and other examples of using technology simply because you can – will all diminish the visitor’s experience of your site. More frustrating still are sites that disempower visitors by forcing them to adapt to your rigid expectations rather than aiming for flexibility and an experience controlled by the visitor. What kind of brand do those experiences project?

Whether online and offline brands function independently remains to be seen. Today, it’s still possible that different communities of customers use your company’s online and offline resources, and in that case, you can afford to develop an entirely different brand for each. But as more people become fully bilingual (equally at ease dealing with you online and offline), it’s increasingly unlikely that you can safely dilute the value of your main brand by providing a lower quality of online experience. That being the case, it makes considerable sense to test your site offline with a subset of your audience so you can fix problems rather than going live with a faulty initial implementation and damaging the value of your brand.

The Internet is famous for the speed at which it evolves, and even well-established brands face ongoing challenges from existing and new competitors. Part of your online branding strategy will increasingly involve discovering how you differ from your competitors so you can emphasize your strong points and swiftly address any deficiencies. Taking strong measures to identify and respond to user needs remains, in the real world and online alike, the best way to accomplish this goal.

Hart ([email protected]) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.

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