Creating Strong Brands In The Information Age

Imagine it is a very busy day, you are in Singapore, you have not slept well last night, and you have a bad headache. What would you reach for to put you out of this misery? Chances are, you'll say "Panadol".

"Branding is not about getting your prospects to choose you over your competition; it's about getting your prospects to see you as the only solution to their problem," says branding expert Rob Frankel. Your product has to be the solution to your niche customers. That means even if you are a car mechanic in a small town, you can be the "Panadol" for car owners living and working in the area, if you are good enough, and if you can market your brand well enough.

For decades, branding has been the domain of large corporations because of their relative ease to get on television and other media to blare out their brands. With limited media choices, consumers simply sit through all these advertising messages. Consumers can only recall the brand that has been advertised long and frequently enough, and that is what they'll buy.
Not any more. We now have cable and satellite television, and more importantly, and the Internet to distract our attention. To create a strong brand in the Information Age, you need to know what are the components that make up a brand.

A good brand has three characteristics: visibility, positioning, and functionality. Without one of these, the brand will not work.

Visibility refers to the exposure rate the brand has on your target customers. Before the invention of cable, satellite, and the Internet, visibility can be easily achieved through television and print media advertisements. With more choices of media, visibility has somehow been eroded.

Brand visibility is a reason why some dot.coms failed to take off. If you are selling a consumer's product, you can still place your products in a supermarket, a petrol kiosk or at bus stands. You can still create substantial visibility. In the online world, it's either you log on, or log off.

To create visibility, many dot.coms turned to heavy advertising, which in turn burned up much of their capital until they went belly up eventually.

To complement the lack of visibility online, you can enhance your brand positioning. Positioning is the battle for the mind, according to marketing gurus, Al Ries and Jack Trout. It is a reflection of your products' strengths and weaknesses in the customers' minds. It is about how people perceive you to be, what you can do, and how you do it.

Like the Panadol example earlier, you may perceive that it cures headaches, is low-cost, and easily available. If it fails to work, you'll simply perceive that you are very ill and need to see a doctor. Somehow, Panadol has achieved this kind of cult status in the minds of its customers even though it has few advertisements. It relies on good positioning.

According to Ries, brands are born with publicity, not advertising. With no advertising, The Body Shop has become a powerful global brand.

Brands are not confined to products. McDonald's is a great brand, although not many people will admit it serves great food. It's positioning is about being fast and clean. Its crew is always cheerful and says the exact same things from the time you enter the restaurant, to the time you receive your order.
There is also a functionality aspect to branding. Brands convey a certain message that describes their functionality. This is not to be confused with positioning. While both Chrysler and Mercedes Benz have the same functionality as car brands; they have very different brand positioning, even though they belong to the same company.

Once again, it is the perceived functionality of the brand that matters. Hush Puppy is a popular brand of shoes, but if they introduce Hush Puppy clothing, I don't think they will achieve much success. Not many will warm up to the idea of wearing shoes on their bodies!

My guess is that Courts will be stronger with its furniture sales, but weaker in its electrical goods because its brand functionality is furniture. That means customers will shop at Courts when they want to buy furniture, and may perhaps add on a couple of electrical items before checking out.
The same principle applies to brand positioning as well. Courts is generally perceived as a low price, normal quality furniture retailer. When it ventures into upmarket furniture at Orchard Courts, it didn't perform as well as it expected.

To get around the perception problem, NTUC Fair Price launched Liberty, an American-style supermarket that caters to people with more up-market taste. Even though Liberty sells NTUC's house brand products as well, its brand position is more western, more upmarket and hip. The statue of Liberty is located in America's fashion capital, New York. This is in contrast with Fair Price's position as the favourite housewife's haunt for fair-priced produce, and perhaps explains Liberty's success in attracting expatriates to its supermarkets.

The plot thickens with the advent of the Internet, and every respectable company with a Web site. If you are the boss of XYZ Enterprises, and you have a Web site with the name XYZ.com, is it a brand, or just an online address?

According to Al Ries, the domain name is a brand. In addition, traditional companies should never use their company name or existing product name as their domain name because the public perception of a traditional company and that of an online one is very different. Online shoppers will never put traditional companies as their first-choice and vice versa for traditional shoppers. Ries disagrees with New Economy observers who believe brick and mortar companies can also sell online, and if such companies were to go online, they have to operate as a dot.com under a different name.

Rob Frankel suggests that a company should have as many domain names as possible and take on as many "personalities" as possible. Since brand visibility is weak online, why not create multiple domain names, each appealing to different groups of people?
The Internet has become so much a part of our lives that there will be no difference between online and offline shoppers. Consumers are expected to search items on the Internet, find the best product at the best price. Alternatively, they can shortlist a few vendors, go to the shops and inspect the products personally before buying.

E-brand

In this interpretation, the "E-brand" has lost its novelty, and the domain name is another channel of communication, distribution, and transaction. It is also the most cost-effective and efficient one as well. Hence, one-to-one marketing experts Peppers and Rogers suggest merchants offer multiple channels - physical shop front, telemarketing, catalogues, Web sites, online malls - so that the customer can choose whichever channel is the most convenient at the time of purchase.

Despite having poor brand visibility, the Internet offers the possibility of two-way communication. With one-way communication most companies have no idea on what goes through the minds of their audience. They gauge public perceptions by "guess-timation" at best.

Nowadays, you can get very accurate, and yet cost-effective feedback from your target audience through E-mail. Not only is E-mail a two-way communication channel, it also allows you to segment your markets right down to the last individual customer. You can be pro-active in engaging prospects and customers in explaining what your brand is all about and what functions will the brand fulfil. Subsequently, you can even achieve a pinpoint positioning of that brand to each individual customer.

Cost-effective Branding

The impact of the Information Age on brands is lower cost and higher accuracy in communicating the brand positioning and functionality. However, this does not mean that the playing field has been levelled.
Large companies still yield great influences over their markets because they have access to better customer data and have better resources to build efficient online communication channels with their audience. Small companies can also create strong brands to their niche clientele if they can convince its customers of its distinctive benefits over large companies.

Whether you succeed in building a strong brand in the Information Age will depend on your ability to identify unfulfilled gaps in the market and segment your target audience, and then increase your visibility levels through two-way communication and fine-tuning your brand positioning.

Since branding is a matter of managing perceptions and perceived values, the costs incurred should be seen as a secondary factor. The strongest brands will belong to companies that best communicate with customers and manage the clients' perceptions.


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