What is a brand? The word is ubiquitous in the Net Economy. Catchphrases such as “brand strategy,” “brand identity,” and “brand equity” can be heard in every boardroom and dot-com incubator from Madison Avenue to Menlo Park. Everyone is intent on building brand. But what exactly is it?
“If a product is something that is produced to function and exist in reality,” says Philip Durbrow of Frankfurt Balkind, an international design firm based in San Francisco, “then a brand has meaning beyond functionality and exists in people’s minds.” Part art, part science, brand is the difference between a bottle of soda and a bottle of Coke, the intangible yet visceral impact of a person’s subjective experience with the product – the personal memories and cultural associations that orbit around it.
But how do online companies turn soda into Coke? Or, more importantly, how in an expedited economy do they build successful, resonant brands? Because, remember, branding is not advertising. It’s about creating a consistent, emotional connection with people. It’s about creating a brand identity that helps people define their own identity. I’m a Nike person, a Volkswagen person, a Calvin Klein person.
Amazon.com has created a brand. So have Google and Yahoo! and America Online. But these online companies were pioneers in the Internet
frontier when the landscape was vast and empty. How in today’s glut of dot-coms do companies create a strong brand identity and a
successful brand strategy at breakneck speed? How do they build brand awareness in the community and brand loyalty in customers?
Those aren’t simple questions to answer. But the first step in building a successful brand is homework, says David Aaker, president of San Francisco-based Prophet Brand Strategy. A company needs to identify its target demographic and figure out what that audience wants. Listen, in other words, don’t talk.
Companies then have to decide on the core identity of their brand. How do they want the company and its products to be perceived by the world at large? What are the keywords and associations they want people to make when they think of the brand, or better yet, when they think of the category, like Xerox, a brand name instantly synonymous with photocopying?
One of the best examples of a new generation online company that has created a powerful, cohesive brand, according to Aaker, is Ask Jeeves, the informational portal personified by Jeeves the butler. David Hellier, Ask Jeeves vice president of marketing, says the Emeryville, Calif.-based company recognized early on that its brand was not about being just another search engine. Instead, the Ask Jeeves brand would focus on personal service. Says Hellier, “Jeeves was not built to be a gimmick. He’s there to embody what the company is about. Everybody wants a butler. Jeeves allows us to connect with our customers. And, in exchange, our customers are able to connect with a quasi-human. Jeeves transcends age, gender, and race. He doesn’t judge you. He just helps the customer get something done.”