Taking the punch out of the online branding game

Go to any Internet conference and you'll find any number of seminars and panels on the importance of building brand recognition for your Web site. Pick up any Internet-related magazine, and you're likely to stumble across an article on building brand identity.

It seems the experts agree: all you need for a successful Internet-commerce venture is a good idea, an attractive Web site, and a few million dollars for marketing and advertising.

They couldn't be more wrong. Brand is the price of entry, not the winning strategy.

What is brand?

A brand name is, in effect, shorthand for a company's products and services. Every time you see McDonalds' golden arches, you know exactly what you're getting.

On the Web, as in the real world, a brand name differentiates you from your competitors. A good Web brand will help customers remember you so they will turn to your site first when they're looking for whatever it is you offer. A perfect example is Yahoo. A virtually meaningless word, it now stands for one of the most useful Web directories. And who could forget the URL?

But if brand is what brings customers to your site, it's not what makes them buy your products or services. You see, it's easier for consumers to comparison shop on the Internet than it is in brick-and-mortar stores, where they need to drive from one establishment to another, walk up and down aisles of merchandise, and take careful notes. On the Web, all you need is some time in front of your personal computer.

As a result, customers who have good experiences purchasing from one company may remember it the next time they shop -- but those good experiences are no guarantee that they'll order from the same company again.

What consumers care about is price, selection, convenience and quality. With few exceptions, they're not buying your brand for its own sake.

For instance, I recently was looking for a CD by jazz artists Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny that I'd heard on the radio. I went first to CDnow, because I've used the site in the past.

Now, I'll state for the record that CDnow has done everything right in terms of securing my loyalty and building my awareness of its brand. I've purchased CDs from CDnow in the past, and they were delivered promptly and with no problems. The company offers what I consider to be good prices. It sends me a weekly e-mail message telling me what's new and offers me discounts on CDs that I'm likely to be interested in.

But when I went to CDnow to look for the Haden and Metheny album, the site didn't have it.

So I went to some competing sites: Music Boulevard, Tunes.com, and Amazon.com's CD store. I even went to Yahoo for a list of online music stores and searched some sites I'd never heard about before. As it turned out, the only site that had the CD was Amazon.com, so that's where I bought it.

Total time invested: less than 10 minutes. I'd found the product I wanted, and it was on its way to me. And I didn't particularly care who I'd bought it from.

As comparison-shopping agent technologies improve and become more ubiquitous, it will be even easier for consumers to shop for the qualities they want, rather than the brands they know. If you're concerned about a particular feature, you can easily find the online retailer that offers it. If price is your bottom line, it's a simple matter to locate the best deal in a few minutes.

Where brand figures in is getting potential customers to your site in the first place, and in ensuring that they return. But to close the sale, you've still got to offer the right product at the right price.

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