Taking your brand online

Developing a strong online brand needn't be a black art, but it does have its pitfalls. We take a look at branding to understand a little of what's involved in creating an online brand.

What is a brand?

A brand isn't a logo, it's not a strapline and it's not a set of design guidelines, so what is it exactly?

Your organisation almost certainly has a logo and probably a number of stated values, but does it have a brand? And does it need one? You've managed quite happily this far after all. The answer to both questions is an unequivocal 'yes'. Whether your organisation has consciously developed and promoted a brand or not, it has one. This is developed in the minds of your people and your customers. And even if you're not a commercial organisation, you have products in the form of your services, which you actively communicate to people. Your brand could be an invaluable asset if managed well, or could be just another barrier to you doing business if not given due consideration and focus. You can either create and control your brand, or allow your customers and employees to form their own haphazard impressions.

A product brand has been described as being like 'the personality of a product'. It's a mix of tangible and intangible elements that customers are encouraged to identify with and support. Successful commercial brands have value in their own right - brand equity - and develop strong loyalty from customers - brand loyalty. Where brand equity usually requires substantial investment, your ability to build brand loyalty will be key in ensuring take-up of your products and services - particularly online.
The anatomy of a brand

A brand is made up of four key elements:

  • A name
  • A visual identity
  • A set of brand values
  • A brand strategy

By far the most critical element is the set of brand values - the value proposition. The value proposition determines the key qualities of the brand and should be supported by the tangible brand elements - the name and visual identity. The brand strategy aims to realise the acceptance of the brand values via the tangible elements and other marketing activities. Often a brand strategy will aim to stretch the brand values by gently suggesting that the brand involved is superior to the way it is currently perceived. This is a common way of building brand equity but has to be undertaken with care. Stretch it too far and the target of the exercise will simply not believe the claims made of the brand - the suspension of belief will snap.

Brand message

Brand message is how brand values are communicated to target groups and typically has three components:

  1. Functional - what you do
  2. Comparative - how you compare to others in similar or competing areas
  3. Emotional - how do customers feel about you

These still apply to an organisation in a non-competitive situation, because:

  • in order for you to communicate and do business effectively and efficiently, people need to know what you do
  • people will compare you with commercial organisations, and with other non-profit organisations
  • your customers certainly have feelings about you

Developing an online brand

There are two primary schools of thought as to whether the Internet is good or bad for established brands, particularly where high brand value is concerned. School one argues that the inherent 'cost transparency' of the web allows customers to understand the true cost and relative value of products. Where high brand value has led to high product prices, this could cause erosion of brand value and brand loyalty.

School too is more concerned with the marketing and service opportunities opened up via the web, particularly where a strong brand name is linked to the actual domain name. Think of a strong brand, type in 'thebrandname.com' and you'll probably end up at the web site associated with that brand. In a world of cluttered and ambient advertising, this is powerful stuff indeed. Further, the web provides a graphically exciting and feature rich environment where brand can be closely associated with service delivery. Where this service delivery works well, strong brand loyalty is developed fast. Taking a brand online or developing a new online brand requires clear thinking and a methodical approach. Go back to basics, consider the anatomy of the brand you are concerned with, and get the values right. If the values of your offline and online brands appear incompatible, or going online may cannibalise your brand, develop a differentiated brand online. If you're transferring an existing brand online, beware the pervasive nature of the web - it's a powerful medium and too often an online anatomy forces itself back into offline media with unpredictable results. Whichever your school of thought - and many subscribe to both - the web offers incredible opportunities for companies and organisations that get their online brand right. Online brand development is not a black art and, given the right expertise, the potential pitfalls are easily avoided. The impact of an effective online brand is immeasurable to many organisations, but the majority agree that the time and effort involved is well worth it.