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Business Rover 25 The New York Times The web site reflects the values of the flagship print product through typography

FHM magazine FHM also takes its print culture on to the web, with two principal looks in the 1990s

Willis Corroon, perhaps best known for being the offices which formed the backdrop to the opening sequence to The Professionals, has revamped its branding scheme to take advantage of the web

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  • Disney
  • Unilever
  • FHM
  • Baldwin Shelston Waters
  • Willis
  • Chrysler
  • The New York Times
  • Newsweek
  • Electronic Telegraph
  • Colgate-Palmolive
  • JY&A Fonts
  • Encyclopædia Britannica
  • Miramax Café

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    Web identities

    Translating an identity and brand to the web isn't a matter of tacking on a few web designers—but what, practically, can an organization do? Jack Yan provides some suggestions

    COMPANIES may spend millions on their identities and brands offline, but when it comes to the web site, some odd transformation happens. They begin to look different. The same values that made them strong in the physical world don’t get transferred to the virtual one.
       Part of the problem is managing identities online. Some companies have had to contract their web management to others who may not have had a part to play in the development of the offline identity. They may not be as intimately involved and make no steps to correct that. Therefore, the web site looks like an afterthought—because it is.
       A related problem is that the web site was not part of the identity planning—this once existed at Unilever’s site with numerous broken links (October 1996). The newer breed of designers recognizes that designing for the web has different rules, some of which mirror television practice (the lower resolution making serifs unfavourable for one) and some of which are unique to the medium (the changing of browser sizes forcing any set design to change).
       A second part is that some companies perceive the online world to be different from the offline one. That’s true to some extent: on the web, the leading player may be unknown in the "real" world. Therefore, different design considerations come into play because the competitive focus changes. Companies such as Chrysler and Disney have had to do this in recent years before consistent branding strategies encompassing the web emerged.
       Third, the problem may be cultural. The web has simply not been a part of the organization. It is playing catch-up, now that it realizes that a web address is as fundamental as a fax number. But its business practices are still firmly placed in the offline world and it fails to capitalize on the potential growth offered by a web presence. Thus, any web site again looks like an afterthought, often with broken links and, usually, poor design. The legal sector, usually outside the US, is often guilty of this.
       The ideal is to have another few thousand to a few million spent on redoing an identity to encompass the web, to introduce a cultural shift, and to realign the strategy to include the online world.
       Usually this is going to cost the higher amount. Companies may suddenly decide that the only way to survive is to go online: Encyclopædia Britannica found its sales hurt by Microsoft’s Encarta and had to shift its focus from the traditional, printed encyclopædias to digital ones, cannibalizing its core business. An identity change was imposed. If Britannica had a choice, it would have entered the digital world when it felt ready.
       The ideal of revamping an identity—and this means the inclusion of its business philosophy, principles and strategy—isn’t going to be available to every type of firm. So, what can be done?

    IN OUR first case, we have an organization that has spent a great deal on its offline identity and brand. It did this in, say, 1990. By 1996 its rivals had entered, so in 1997 it began playing catch-up. It introduced its web presence—essentially a "brochureware" site with some basic "catalogue" or prospective material. Its traditional designers and printers didn’t have a web presence, either, so the web design and management were left over to a separate firm altogether. This web specialist created a fanciful new design that had some basic relationship to the original 1990 brand but was otherwise distinctive. By 1999 the two-year-old site had developed along its own path and the organization has come to realize this. Still without the money for a full identity revamp, what can it do to bring it all together?
       This is a common case, with only the years differing. The first step is to find a web design company that is more in tune with strategy. In 1997, there wasn’t much difference to the everyday observer between a good web designer and a bad web designer. In many cases, the web designer was found through contacts and could not claim any former work to his or her credit. Or the web designer was a graphic designer who was properly trained—that helps greatly—but didn’t fully understand the implications of the medium, such as linking, keywords and search-engine optimization. Or the web designer understood these things but did not realize that the best web sites have to go above and beyond brochureware. What must it have to add value?
       The key is communication. The company is now in a better position in 2000 to fix the problems. Proper web designers are available and have come to understand the issues more. However, there are still many who do not understand identity.
       The web design team should be introduced to the organization. This could be done through meetings (online or offline), expressing what makes it different. A competitive analysis could be presented, covering both online and offline sectors. The branding specifications should be made available. And the web design team should be given some indication of the company’s strategy. An organization that is long-term-focused does not really expect its site to change drastically: just enough to keep visitors coming but not so much as to suggest changes in the identity and raison d’être.
       Competent web designers should be able to work around this without much difficulty. Good examples of infrequent changes but high visitor numbers are frequently in the publishing arena. They include FHM, the British "lad" magazine. There have been two predominant looks to the site in the last few years, promoted properly in its offline media and conveying the same message through typeface, colour and, of course, scantily clad women. The New York Times’ current site capitalizes on the traditions of the printed newspaper, which must always remain its flagship given its business focus, while ably competing with The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for a slice of the online newspaper market. Colgate-Palmolive is a good example of extending the organization’s philosophy on to the web. Poor examples might include Miramax Café, where the studio vision and the grunge-inspired site’s style do not seem to meet.

    THE second case is a little more difficult. A site looks different from the offline brand because of competitive moves. It finds it has to compete with different firms online than offline and its design has to change to compete with that.
       The first method is where the organization does some soul-searching and decide where its focus is and through which medium audiences will come into contact with it the most. Or where its principal revenue stream will be. Usually, this means that the more visible medium should be the driver. However, this also demands that the organization go through a cultural shift, especially if the more visible medium happens to be the web and its identity was planned for an offline audience. In short, this is expensive.
    began offline but we shifted our emphasis to the site. The print magazine, now CAP Print, became the secondary publication soon after we realized we were reaching more people on the web. It’s easier, however, when you’re a small firm and decisions can be made quickly. It’s even easier when the people who work there understand the balance between online and offline, and the identity and branding profession. Organizations with strong marketing orientations (some gasoline retailers spring to mind) may be able to pull this off with ease.
       The second method is to realign everything to the original vision, assuming it was well conceived and for the long term. A talented and professional web designer should be able to translate an offline identity’s principles. They can still be apparent even when the competitors change, so the organization can capitalize on its multi-media (as opposed to multimedia) contact with audiences. An excellent example is Newsweek, which has enough of the elements of the print magazine and yet its functionality allows it to go head-to-head with online news sites. The Electronic Telegraph, although too different from The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph on its launch in 1994, has since been redesigned to reflect more of the branding seen in the printed newspapers and the weekly expatriate tabloid, The Weekly Telegraph. After an earlier ill-conceived site, Unilever now has its web presence aligned with its principal identity, in an attractive and cohesive site.

    THE third case is the toughest. A firm playing catch-up and requiring a cultural change to do it. It’s close to miracle-performing but it can be done.
       The legal sector is one of the trickiest. Its work is going to be regional in most cases yet even in that region there are competitors, some of which may have gone to the web in some way. It is backed up with law journals and reviews, commonly available in print, and by databases such as LEXIS-NEXIS. It realizes it has to be present onthe web because its clients may be wired and will find them online. Meanwhile, some practices are going nationwide or international. Intellectual property specialists are probably best to cross borders using the web, but equally, so are private international law and administrative law firms.
       It’s no surprise that many law firms now have marketing departments and specialists. The drive, however, has to come from the principal partners.
       First, some of the moves outlined for the earlier scenarios could be used. But most of all, the organization has to ask itself whether the web is a critical part of its vision. Will it survive without the web? Perhaps more importantly, will it still maintain its industry position without it? In some rare cases the answers are ‘No,’ and ‘Yes,’ but we believe that most organizations will answer ‘No,’ to the second question.
       It then has to discover how the web will play a part in the organization. It may mean a complete revamp of its business practices. It may mean staff changes. If it’s limited funds-wise, its change could be confined to the marketing or press relations’ department—but at the same time, that department must have interdepartmental support to implement change across every part of the organization.
       There is the potential for huge change that will affect every aspect of the way the firm works. In other words, there is no easy solution which designers can fix. The shift has to be organization-wide for it to be truly successful and if it is not a full identity revamp, then it should be something driven by the marketing function and be integrated over time so that the web component does not look like an add-on.
       Some law firms are recognizing the need to market themselves to a global audience and using the web to do so, making use of press release services. Their names, sadly, are not memorable, but they are making strong efforts to incorporate the web into their strategy or simply their marketing mix. But the changes have generally been organization-wide. A successful antipodean example has been the IP firm of Baldwin Shelston Waters, which has ensured consistency in all its media. The 104-year firm has adopted well to the web and the reality of marketing for legal services over the last few years. All its typography is professional and consistent in all its publications, tying in with its marketing plan. Insurance brokerage Willis has a new brand to extend its services and find customers through the World Wide Web.

    EVERY method outlined will require investment, and the department selected for the job must be given an appropriate power base. Identity is a valuable management resource and so the web must fall within its scope.
       Online, it’s not only firms such as Yahoo! that have found growth. Everyday firms with a previously offline existence, including our sister company, JY&A Fonts, have discovered the web and found new markets and sources of revenue—but they have only succeeded because they have given the medium their full attention. It is never too late to go online. The learning curve is steeper than it has ever been, but happily the number of specialists is greater and it has become easier to tell the good from the bad thanks to emerging track records of success on the web. Jack Yan

    Jack Yan is editor of CAP.

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