‘Online brand’ or ‘brand online’: is there a difference?

I ask, because when I started to think about this article, I’d written down both versions. Which took me off in two different directions, but then back again. Which is probably how the whole issue of brands in the online world has evolved. Keith Wells, group managing director, Turquoise Brand Consultants.

Back in the day, when the internet was about to be the Next Big Thing, many organisations were unsure of how long this fad was likely to last and whether it was worth their while developing any kind of presence. Next, they scrambled to design and produce their websites, while the more visionary (or maybe just quicker to react) among them began to develop ‘e-commerce’ strategies. A few were early adopters of the ‘let’s put our Annual Report on the website’ idea, and with that came the debates about how to translate the ‘print’ into ‘screen’. And so on – all symptomatic of businesses trying to take their existing brand into a new medium. Putting their brand online.

While this was going on, some people were taking a completely different view.  They saw not only the opportunities, but also the need for a fundamentally different approach. Creating a specifically online brand meant having totally different expectations and habits.

I remember hearing a City ‘expert’ being interviewed on BBC Radio, incredulous at that day’s valuation of Amazon.  Most prominent among his splutterings was something to the effect that this was a business that hadn’t yet delivered on that “funny, old-fashioned idea of making a profit”.

Well, maybe that business had even funnier ideas: of being in touch with its customers, of being prepared to invest and take a long-term view (which is what the City always claims to do, isn’t it?) and of adapting as it grew.

Different expectations. But maybe not such different habits?

Marketing has always been about understanding and delivering to customers. Agencies and consultancies have always created distinctions between ideas that perhaps don’t need to exist: ‘above the line’, ‘below the line’, ‘through the line’ (what is it about this ‘line’ word?). Now it’s online and offline.  Whose line is it, anyway? It all comes back to the same thing: the relationship between the brand and its customer.

The online medium surely gives every brand the opportunity to apply all the traditional principles, and to stretch itself, in an infinite range of ways. That makes it a constant challenge, because while the principles might be traditional and well-established, many of the old rules no longer work.

Take ‘brand values’.  How many companies have ‘integrity’? For a brand to live up to that now, with so many avenues of interrogation and comment open to all its stakeholders, it really will have to live as if its mother is watching. Other favourites, like ‘open’ and ‘innovative’ and ‘customer-focused’ can now be put to immediate and ruthless test. In this new world, brands in their totality can be reinforced or undermined through online exposure.

Which is all to the good, if brands are now likely to be held more to account. And this is another contribution – however tough it might feel to those responsible – to the cause of true brand integrity that the online reality is helping to bring about. And something that all brands need to build into their strategies.

Different expectations.  But maybe not such different hopes?

Online capabilities offer brands the chance genuinely to live up to their promises of ‘customer intimacy’. Those that grasped early the potential for real dialogue, are now enjoying far closer relationships with their stakeholders and undoubtedly higher levels of commitment and benefit of the doubt. No brand can hope to live long, if it has one reputation in the offline world, and another in the online. What has become apparent now, is how much faster the online influence is to spread, and more difficult to overcome. The open connectedness, the speed at which information now travels, the immediacy with which a new feeling of ‘a movement’ can be created, are all tremendous strengths to be integrated into any brand definition.

My original ‘word order’ question at first struck me as irrelevant, then hugely relevant, then back again.  The core issue is, all brands need to work through every medium available to them. They always have, and always will. Now, perhaps for the first time ever, the very definition of a brand has to incorporate the media – as integral features, not merely as channels of communication. It should be the ultimate test of another of those brand value chestnuts – innovation.

Keith Wells, group managing director, Turquoise Brand Consultants.

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Original article on TechnologyWeekly

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