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Branding in Play in Electronic Commerce...Brand Activation

Because of the dynamics of branding in the online world, new terms and frameworks to describe it are necessary. Through the electronic commerce process, the brand is activated like never before. In an electronic commerce environment, as at any moment at the point-of-sale, the consumer is faced with a simple choice: buy or pass. Buy is based on a host of your branding factors coming into play, whereas pass is predicated on site experiences and your brand attributes, in contrast to other choices.

If the interaction and experience with your brand is unfavorable or does not compare well to that of competition, you lose. If your brand meets the customer's needs and the experience while being at your site is positive, you win...for the moment. When you win, your brand has been activated through a process called experience marketing.

In the past, branding was much more passive, a time-driven process akin to the water torture. A brand evolved over time. It also required a subtle interplay of a wider range of marketing arts and sciences.

Today, in the hyperactive world of electronic commerce, time is compressed, and the activation of the brand is occurring in real time as purchase decisions are being made. Offline branding brings a mind-set, an anticipated result to the experience of online shopping. But if that experience is interrupted for any reason, ranging from lack of trust to poor merchandising, the brand is diminished and the electronic commerce opportunity is broken, perhaps irrevocably.

Activating the brand online takes place over three steps:

  1. Interrupting and engaging the customer while he/she is browsing or searching for your information or perhaps that of someone else (ambush marketing comes to mind)

  2. Providing an enriching, rewarding experience while customer and vendor are engaged at your site (this requires keeping the customer at your site up to and through the purchase process)

  3. Using the moment to demonstrate the qualities of your brand equity in as fast and compelling a way as possible

In the online world, these three desirable steps often take place in a heartbeat. In the time it takes to click a mouse, the customer could be gone if not moved through the process smoothly and naturally. The composite experience determines whether or not the experience was enriching and rewarding.

The savvy electronic commerce marketer sees this as a strategic process that repeats itself in an ongoing manner rather than happening episodically. Branding is strategic. Incremental sales are episodic. The mindset leading to each is different. Strategic brand activation brings even an auction customer back time and time again, seeking long-term involvement with the site.

Episodic thinking sees customers more homogeneously, undifferentiated from each other. The customer today may be gone tomorrow, but there are millions of others out there in the queue ready to sign onto the 'Net. Yeh, right. And the head-in-the-sand approach also says they are isolated from each other — never comparing notes.

Strategic branding for electronic commerce integrates the value proposition behind the offering with the experience of buying more closely than before.

Borders.com stumbled coming out of the gate. Faced with the overnight success of Amazon.com and strong competitive pressures from its brick-and-mortar rival, Barnes and Noble, Borders.com missed converting its brand equity offline into the online experience. Perhaps this was a correct decision because at the same time online book sales were beginning to take off, Borders stores were becoming stale.

Blending online and offline concepts, Barnes and Noble is trumping its pure offline rival, Borders. Bn.com is even taking a shot at Amazon. The brand is reinvigorating simultaneously online and offline, drawing from strengths of each environment to make a combined online/offline experience with the bookseller more enriching and dynamic.

The brand objective is consistency with the values of the underlying brand through merchandising and stocking policy, creating a sense of community around site and store, and encouraging a one-on-one dialog with customers.

Note how these fit in our three-step template: finding the customer, interrupting the customer long enough to provide an experience, and then demonstrating brand equity through the site.

Again, in a relationship-intensive world, the ultimate arbiter is time. As humans, we have only a limited amount of time for investing in secondary relationships. We invest heavily in our families, careers, and communities. To the extent that the online powerhouse brands can become aligned with those powerful forces, there will be success for the online marketer.

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