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Brand new challenges for brands
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by Geoff Hart
Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2002. Brand new challenges for brands. Computerworld Canada, Mar. 8:11.
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 labor?), or McDonald's (inexpensive, satisfying food, or a nutritional disaster?) and you'll understand the value of those few words. A “brand” represents 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 color must match so the logo is immediately recognizable to customers. Typography is easier to match nowadays than formerly, but it and color fidelity remain problematic because of the limited color 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.
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 off-line 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 off-line), 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.
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