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The Starting Point for the Branding Process Is Brand Personality

The ultimate goal of branding is to establish a reason for customers to prefer a product or service, and give them additional reasons to stay loyal to it. Determining the optimal personality that provides the strength for differentiation and ongoing preference is the starting point.

Every brand, whether well-developed or not, has a personality. Many technology-based companies try to dial personality into their products with a name. Others reach beyond the name to look at more subtle positioning elements. Stronger, harder working brands are built around one or more of these desirable personality traits that have particular relevance for online marketing and that seem to endure over time.

Personality Traits: Competence, Excitement, Ruggedness, Sincerity, Sophistication, Trust

Each personality trait has attributes of its own, and has subordinate straits that reinforce them. Because the online world brings a new dimension to the existence and perpetuation of brand traits, extending these proven ideas to branding on the Internet can be far more predictable than hit-or-miss. The medium and the message are more closely intertwined on the Internet because of its newness. The last item, Trust, which is the subject of a complete discourse, is of major significance online because of factors that start with the newness of the medium for electronic commerce, but inevitably revolve around the unseen nature of the merchant.

The starting point is to define the desired brand personality. Some products or companies are obviously going to find one or more of these traits to be discordant with their personality. Others find that when combining one personality with another the result is a stronger, more identifiable brand. There is a limit to the number that be blended in, however. All six don't work well together.

Any trait can be exposed, amplified upon, and refined through online media. Perhaps none are more obvious than brands considered Exciting. The medium itself is exciting because it is new, dynamic, and ever changing. The Internet, therefore, lends itself well to exploiting Exciting as a brand trait. Most technology-based companies that are constantly improving their products with technical enhancements dial excitement into their brand personality. If not consciously, they ultimately do so at a deeper level. Quite often, it happens automatically, perhaps more casually than it should.

When there is convergence of a desirable Internet trait and a strong personality, the combination of the two adds more power and enhances the personality trait. Reality may tell a different story.

Some traits, such as Ruggedness, require more skill in to bring them out in the online environment. Clearly, a site without technical malfunctions conveys Ruggedness. It also might convey Competence.

Looking at Competence, certain companies, notably those that are in leadership positions in a category, want to be perceived as being Competent. Intel is competent, as is Microsoft. Their Competence is attributable to an excellent track record in bringing out reliable products, or dealing with product difficulties in a straightforward manner.

Competence in both instances is not necessarily equated with likable. In fact, only one trait, Sincerity, is inherently likable. Other traits lack any degree of an emotional tug to the degree associated with Sincerity. Brand personality attributes can operate without an emotional context and still be powerful identifiers.

A common personality trait desired by computer software firms is their attempt to be branded as Sophisticated (hip, cool, upscale, etc. are all synonymous). The Sophistication associated with a quality watch is often harder to achieve in a product that might more appropriately be branded as Competent. To give a software package the same attributes as one might give a Rolex watch might not ring as true with a customer.

Finding the appropriate techniques in establishing a brand personality and supporting it in the online environment is as demanding as it is in the offline world. In either case, it should not be approached casually or in a haphazard manner.

Using the above personalities as a guide, the 'Net is Exciting and often Sophisticated. When used in the right manner, it can add an element of Sincerity. Right now, neither Competent nor Rugged fits as traits associated with many products or sites that are popular on the Internet. In fact, many observers have positioned the 'Net as unreliable and bordering on fragile. These two countervailing traits should be borne in mind when positioning a product promotion effort for the Internet.

Each dominant trait has many subordinate qualifiers that amplify and add texture to them:

  • Competent can be supported by rock-solid, reliable, professional, quality, dependable, timely, and consistent.

  • Exciting is akin to energetic, thrilling, fun, creative, fresh, wild, and spontaneous.

  • Rugged can also be seen as tough, durable, bulletproof, impregnable, impenetrable, secure, or even stoic.

  • Sincere is amplified by honest, genuine, valued, loyal, and unchanging.

  • Sophisticated is also considered cool, hip, contemporary or modern, stylish, tasteful, and expensive.

  • Trust is so important in electronic commerce that it deserves a paper of its own because it must be present always. Thus, it is the one trait that must be present with all the others.

With understanding of how the personality process works to support a brand, savvy electronic commerce marketers can take the next step and move beyond blending online personality traits with their offerings.

Here are some facets of the Branding/Internet equation:

  • The process of branding a product or organization used to be a painstaking process that evolved over time, paced by the rate at which media could publish or broadcast positioning messages. Now, extreme time demands can be met by using the Internet.

  • In this hyper-intensive, fast-moving environment, the concept of branding is both more critical to success and operates much swifter.

  • As noted above, branding the firm and branding the offering were formerly parallel paths that eventually converged. In the online world, they start out converged and quite often must diverge to avoid becoming identified inextricably with an identity that might require downstream change (the product brand dies, the company name changes, more products are introduced to supersede the original identifier, etc.).

  • Local (in-country) brand management and global brand identity can often work at variance with each other, i.e. be conflicting, and causing a diminution of resources for effectiveness.

  • Value of the brand is doubly critical in the ephemeral world of electronic commerce, making it even more tangible as an asset.

  • The online world provides something no other medium can: immediacy and a direct interactive link or connection with the customer or influencer!

  • In the retail world, brand attributes and personalities are often swamped by the noise and cacophony of competing claims, making price the only real arbiter in the consumer's mind. Boo! In the online world, the product can be demonstrated quickly at varying levels, hopefully relegating price almost to an afterthought.

  • Online branding provides more of an opportunity to neutralize counter-claims before they arise, and get the transaction made at the moment of sampling. It gives more credence to "Try it, you'll like it!"

  • Similarly, online is outstanding as an Impulse environment.

  • Before, it was also assumed that brands can live indefinitely, and this was an article of faith in the '80s, before the Internet exploded. Not any more!

  • The online, interactive world can enhance the brand experience because it is more dynamic and subject to immediate modification to support changes that might expand recognition.

  • Online media can be used to refresh the brand.

  • The uniqueness of the product/service (a.k.a. its value) can be tuned to individual or market needs immediately.

  • Online media embody traits evident in all elements of the marketing mix, which means they might not be able to replace any, but enhance all.

  • If the online presence is left to banners, not enough time or screen real estate is available to establish or support branding.

  • A mantra that all hold to be true now: The online image and impression must support and be supported by the entire communications mix.

  • As often an alternative medium, the Internet is affordable because right now it appeals to a largely focused target audience and could stay that way until more specialization occurs in the online world (akin to that, which shifted the demographics in broadcast TV, when cable forced more demographic focus).

  • Before, it was assumed that branding by conventional media always supported the strong brand. Now, weakness in brand attributes can intensify the decline of a product or organization.

  • Because of several qualities that make its effects short-term the 'Net is more likely to be better as a promotional medium that makes either a minor contribution to brand presence or is the brand presence (the medium is the brand!!!!!).

  • This issue, much like always being discount priced, could become the cachet of the brand—quickly forgotten, etc.

  • Conventional branding in other media must bolster the Internet presence.

Ultimately, loyalty to a brand is based on affinity. The online world graces and illuminates affinity. But the online world is far more dynamic than any other medium professional communicators have used. It moves quickly and brands come and go quickly. There is an adage that an Internet year is comparable to a dog year, roughly equal to seven of ours. The Internet year in marketing and branding more than doubles that ratio to one year, compacting the real-life experience of formerly close to 15 years.

An Internet year is more intense, like the year an annual plant experiences, with a lifecycle that begins and ends with its own unique season. This imposes a harsh demand on getting into the market and establishing a community of opinion before elements can destroy the product or opportunity. Some see the branding process taking no more than six months—a period in which it is estimated by Gartner Group some companies in the B2C space spend close to $60 million to establish their brand!

Some tactics and techniques are powerful brand builders, especially those that capitalize on inherent strengths and weaknesses of the Internet. As the Internet generates more than a sea state change in branding; it has the potential to become a test bed for new techniques that can then be picked up by other media looking for new and exciting ways to tell a story—or brand an offering.

Here are quick tactical ideas for branding on the Internet:

  • The gestalt of your Web site reflects the kind of company and offerings you have, which translates into your brand image. If you want to be perceived as fast moving and energetic, your site should reflect these qualities. To appear nimble and active, use frames and forms creatively, but avoid bandwidth clogs that slow the cruiser down. Plug-ins that provide sound, motion, and activity to your site could also slow down site dynamics.

  • Understand that the online brand must be supported offline; the offline brand must be supported online. They are not inseparable. Good brand marketing requires the use of all elements in the communications mix, applying inherent strengths of each for maximum advantage.

  • Use the online world to convey excitement and enthusiasm for your company and offering to establish a bandwagon on which the customer wants to climb. Then, constantly use the Internet to put fresh coats of paint and new messages on your wagon.

  • Plant surprises and other forms of pleasant reasons for navigating to your site, adding value to the experience of a visit there. Company-hosted Web sites are largely cascading series of text screens, interspersed with occasional graphics and moving images. Something unexpected that enhances the experience increases memorability.

  • Remember that close to 80 percent of all PCs in use connect to the Internet with 56KB/s or slower modems!

  • Make sure that all facets of your corporate identity program translate well into the small-format, limited color world of the Internet and VGA display.

  • Look for ways to transfer a successful technique used in the offline world to the online, applying their respective strengths in unique new ways.

  • Blend two marketing techniques to make one (combine sampling with a coupon, and generate a sale at the moment of a product demo).

  • Have clear and concise calls to action frequently, but avoid letting the customer jump too quickly away from your site to another location. Keep the customer at your site as long as possible.

  • Promote your home page, at least on all your other media; inside the Web site, point to your other electronic locations.

  • Consciously and directly capture information about surfers. You are not interested in visits and click-throughs. You are interested in gauging interactivity, interest, and involvement. Aggressively make the presence work.

  • Register your name and context information with all the relevant search services.

  • Periodically screen all newsgroups that are relevant to your offering, and participate to the extent time permits to maintain a presence in communities of interest. These are ersatz user groups and other ad hoc influences of public opinion.

  • Every screen should contain navigational information that tells the surfer the location while at your site; and should provide ways to send email, call you directly, or return to the home page.

  • Prominently display street addresses and phone numbers at all strategic locations on your site. Even if the online world is a convenient way for you to deal with casual drop-bys, a viable customer opportunity might be lost if electronic communications are the only means of getting in touch with you. Snail mail availability or phone access to a switchboard send a reinforcing signal you are accessible and REAL.

  • Remember that one of the most dynamic aspects of the Internet is the ad hoc creation of "communities of interest" around a topic. These digital communities are powerful societies that accelerate the entire communications process from awareness through referral. Once created and/or tapped into, the velocity of the Internet becomes real for your offering.

When beginning or reinforcing the process using new media, there are as always pitfalls to avoid. Some are caused by:

  • corrupting the brand through abruptly changing technique or voice to fit the new media when they are discordant with existing brand efforts

  • presenting conflicting messages

  • creative execution requiring splitting message points

  • involvement with new media that means fragmenting already thin budgets

  • the unavailability of creative talent for proper execution

But these apply when using any medium to the exclusion of or in conjunction with one of the new media.

Volumes of information are available on branding. Similarly, there are growing bodies of information on effective uses of the Internet. For analysis purposes, we separated the media from the process; however, they are ultimately even more inextricably bound together than with any other media because of the highly interactive and ultimately collaborative nature of new digital media. Add collapsing market time to the equation and brand marketing is bound to become more dynamic.

Nothing, however, should replace the professional, holistic approach to branding, which entails

  • examining and exploiting internal processes that contribute to the brand identity

  • combining internal and external creative steps that go into articulation of the brand

  • skillfully blending tools and media to establish the brand for interactive involvement with the consumer

  • remembering that the experience the customer has is the most important element of the process.

Loyalty, the ultimate goal of a strategic branding process, requires collaboration between the enterprise and the customer. Through electronic commerce, that collaboration can be highly personal— facilitated with almost as much intensity and impact as when going one-on-one with the customer. With electronic commerce, it happens on a larger, more global scale.

The next frontier, when higher bandwidth and better compression converge to reduce access and download problems, will let us see full-motion video, hear the highest fidelity of sounds, and bring about true interactive digital communications. As these temporary stumbling blocks are resolved in the not too distant future, we will take an even larger step toward not only adding the all-important ingredients that create strong emotional bonds, but also allow for the much-anticipated closure from branding to immediate gratification—consummation of the sale.

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