Every once in a while, being a news junkie pays off and you stumble across a nice instance of synergy. Recently I had a lucky week: the New York Times ran a column exhorting web e-commerce developers to begin regarding customers as collaborators in the site's creation and purpose; CreativePro covered a Seybold panel where two Web design directors encouraged attendees to look beyond the logo when trying to establish an online brand; and February's Business 2.0 magazine has an article detailing the strategy some e-commerce sites are executing for driving traffic -- launching the site, then opening brick-and-mortar shops to generate a customer base for the site.
What put it all together for me was a quote from Bluemercury.com CEO Marla Malcolm in the Business 2.0 article. "All the Internet sites look similar... how do you create a brand image that works with your Internet merchandising concept?"
Simple answer: Ask the users! After all, they're the ones who have to accept a brand before they'll grab the merchandise attached to it. Although opening a store is an excellent way to build a customer's experience, that experience ends the minute the person walks out the door; it doesn't translate online. Don't believe me? Try shopping on gap.com as opposed to going to one of the company's ubiquitous retail outlets. Same brand, but two very different shopping experiences.
Brand is a big, old buzzword. It's a handy way to represent how customers are supposed to respond to a business. But the endless use of brand is dismaying. People talk about "branding" with no sense of humor whatsoever, and that's sad; the temptation to moo, very softly, while someone is carrying on about their "branding strategy" is very strong.
Despite all the jokes I resist making at the expense of the brand-happy, there is something to be said for the idea that customers associate a lot of different things with a brand. They can associate a specific look and feel -- golden arches, anyone? They can think of the type of service they get there; I bought my Saturn in large part because I liked the way the dealership treated their customers. Consumers can associate adjectives or abstract ideas with brands. But all of these different associations lead back to one thing: in a consumer's mind, a brand is handy buzzword for the experience users have with the product that the brand represents.
When you're talking Web sites, looks alone don't build a brand. People talk about Yahoo as an online brand superstar, and you can rest assured that the site didn't get there on the strength of its logo or the snazzy HTML gymnastics of its front page. Yahoo became a brand because people who came to the Yahoo Web site had a decent experience: they wanted to find information, and they could do so in reliable and consistent ways.
Customers latched onto Yahoo not because it had the best collection of information and services, but because it offered a useful experience that customers enjoyed. Of course, a lot of other sites have aped Yahoo's strategies in an effort to channel some of that Yahoo customer goodwill into their own brand.
This is the real lesson for anyone hoping to make a go of it online. The users are the ones who will make or break a site; if a site doesn't work for them, they won't use it.
There's a spectacular example of that taking place right now: after months of favorite press coverage and aggressive advertising, the upscale clothing boutique site Boo.com has launched -- and now it's faltering. People who tried to shop there had a horrible time, and they passed the word on. The site's packaging is certainly attractive, but the relationship it had with its users was ugly.
A lot of people are fond of making predictions about Web sites. "This year, we'll see an explosion of sites/a spectacular wipeout/nothing but Flash!/nothing but e-commerce services." I don't presume to be the ultimate Web futurist, but I do feel comfortable taking a gander at what users are likely to do online: patronize the sites that work for them, and neglect the ones that require more effort for less reward.
Apple's now throwing its hat into the online service game. I've used the iTools and I've read the iReviews. Now I'm intrigued to see what the company's next step is: It's not enough for a solid brand like Apple to announce its online presence; it must offer some worthwhile experience to its users in order to succeed.
Since Apple appears to be trying to have the best of both worlds -- porting the customer experience people have with their iMacs to the Web -- it should be interesting to see how they build their brand online. Apple has one mixed blessing the Bluemercury.coms and Boo.coms of the world don't have -- they have a customer base with clearly defined expectations. People buy Apple computers because they want the user experience working on a Mac has to offer; they're going to expect the same ease-of-use online.
This is a good thing, because Apple can borrow a lot from the Mac's features and interface. It's also a bad thing because it's possible Apple could find itself locked into mapping its Web features to the Mac's features, thereby missing the opportunity to capitalize on some of the Web's unique capabilities.
Based on what I've seen so far, Apple's online branding strategy could swing either way. Let's hope, for the users' sake, it swings in the direction of those users.Senior Editor LISA SCHMEISER ( email@example.com ) has worked for Web design firms, taught in Web design classes, and written for Suck, Salon, TeeVee, and other sites. You can also see an archive of her Web View columns.