JY&A Consulting
http://jya.co

Online branding: an antipodean experience

As previewed earlier this year, CAP Online brings you the full version of the JY&A Consulting paper on online branding Down Under and the ingredients that helped leverage less well-capitalized antipodean dot coms against major US and European players

THE FULL VERSION of this paper was published in the proceedings to Human Society and the Internet: Internet-related Socioeconomic Issues, edited by Won Kim, Tok-Wang Ling, Yoon-Joon Lee and Seung-Soo Park. The paper’s copyright has been assigned to the publisher of that title, Springer-Verlag, who has given us permission to post the JY&AC paper on this site.
   The summary published in March at CAP Online is detailed below. The full paper can be downloaded from the link at right in PDF.

Synopsis
THE WEB has impacted on developed nations and the way we conduct business. The structure of commerce has changed significantly with the rise of infomediaries and portals but one constant has been the need for the branding of goods and services in online and cross-media firms. Many web failures are tied in with poor branding. Branding has become more important in ensuring value for marketing dollars with numerous high-profile ebusiness failures and the end of the late-1990s' online gold rush.
   Antipodean companies directly participating in the study include Hippies, Jenniferann.com, JY&A Fonts, nzgirl and Lucire, while independent research on Bloom Cosmetics, eMale, Evolu Cosmetics, Karen Walker and Zambesi provided additional evidence.

What is branding?
The offline phenomenon of experts disagreeing on the definition of the word has made its way online. One authority is Wally Olins, chairman and founder of identity consultancy Wolff Olins, who states that the brand began as 'the emanation of the company's products as far as one audience was concerned … the customer.' But the company is now becoming a brand, representing an 'attitude'. The 'totality of the corporate whole' is represented by the brand.
    In other words, the brand has an outward focus, i.e. it is a representation of an organization's vision. It is part of a larger framework of 'identity', or:

the explicit management of all the ways in which the organization presents itself through experiences and perceptions to all of its audiences.

    Identity begins with a vision or a corporate raison d'être. Some organizations use a mission statement, but research by the author shows that a slogan is equally powerful, such as Saturn's 'A different kind of company. A different kind of car,' and Caltex's 'We're pumping', the latter used in New Zealand in the late 1990s for relaunching that company's brand. The important aspects are:
    (a) the uniqueness of the statement relative to other entrants in the market-place;
    (b) the ability to summarize an "attitude" of the organization.
    These elements are then linked with other aspects of the brand, such as its symbol or logotype (or the proprietary brand assets). Audiences, including internal audiences based on Olins's latest thinking on branding, come to learn the association between the attitude and the symbol through a careful communications' campaign.
    Semiotics are key. Symbols, logos, etc., signify certain things that form mental pictures in our mind when we interpret them. The campaign ensures that the correct pictures are formed and that incorrect or earlier ones are replaced. Repeated exposures reinforce meaning, which is why consistency in branding is important.
    This leads to brand equity—the added value which a brand endows a product—divided into the associations and proprietary assets mentioned, plus brand loyalty, perceived quality and brand awareness. As audiences—whether they are shareholders, future customers, students or any other group—select or think of the brand more frequently, they ultimately contribute to the organization's business performance in economic or strategic terms.
    Given all these activities involve the brand, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what 'branding' is. 'Identity', as defined, must include every element from vision through to image because these are ways the organization presents itself. Some authors like to include the entire process for branding, but that would be contrary to the established usage of 'identity'. In the literal sense, of branding animals, it comes with the labelling. Its origins began in the nineteenth century with the bestowing of names for common products, usually commodities, while advertising allowed companies to speak to consumers directly. Therefore, branding is restricted to exercises which communicate the identity to audiences. It is the realization of the explicit management in Olins's quote, therefore:

the methods in which the organization communicates, symbolizes and differentiates itself to audiences.

   The brand may be thought of as 'an inclusive term which refers to a product or service. It includes its trademark, its name, its reputation and the sensual and emotional buttons surrounding it, most often created by advertising.'

The modern wired consumer
Today's web has parallels to the advent of television in that organizations do not yet know the ideal method of reaching audiences. However, the consumer psychological process remains largely the same. The principal difference is that more experienced audience members often seek information online and are not exposed to it "unexpectedly", with the exception of online advertising. Some younger internet users, having grown up with advertising and computers, take the web's presence for granted and browse with tightly defined criteria. The question is how an organization ensures its brand is at the top of the user's consideration set and, on a related note, how it can appear in search engines and portals prominently. As stated by Ries, 'Internet brands are invisible until you input the brand name into the keyboard. If you don't know the brand name and how to spell it, no sale can happen. Therefore, online, name recognition is paramount.'
    Organizations must find ways of reaching consumers and becoming their preferred or only source if their online ventures are to be successful. Even if there were agreed definitions on branding, there is still the issue of practice.
    There is an additional challenge. Brands have become so high profile that the public is fascinated by the organizations behind them. Corporate citizenship has become important. The flip side of branding is that companies that employ sweatshop labour and other unethical practices are more easily targeted. Modern consumers fight establishment brands, preferring niche players partly because of increased segmentation, as sales leaders Nike and Levi's found in the late-1990s. This suggests that organizations must not risk appearing too overwhelming and retain an entrepreneurial style.

Findings of interest
Successful antipodean dot coms, run by their founders, put their stamp on their ventures by being hands-on. By using technology, CEOs communicate their philosophies without them being diluted by intermediaries. Vision statements are found to be unnecessary as there is buy-in.
    Most successful firms did not adopt a tagline or positioning statement. The author casts doubt over the need for taglines in an era when brands can be summarized as "attitudes". Through semiotics—including careful use of logotypes and symbols that differentiate clearly and do not need to change, unlike that of Amazon.com which has done so at least three times in recent years—audiences are reminded of the attitude. This is one of the key ingredients to building a successful internet brand. Design was a critical element, with subjects creating logotypes and symbols that remain distinctive and lasting. In some cases, the founders had in-house expertise or prior experience in the visual communications' professions.
    These organizations use domain names that are similar to their business's, unlike many high-profile dot coms that adopted a new online persona. The same-name strategy reinforces brand messages and reduces marketing costs. The brands respected the visions in both their on- and offline roles.
    None play on stereotypical notions of their national origins, developing brands that speak to a global consumer, transcending national boundaries. This casts doubt over the use of national branding, particularly when targeting US consumers.
    Antipodeans are culturally inclined toward a do-it-yourself nature, conducive to flat or organic management structures.
    The majority of ventures seek cross-media exposure to compete properly. Otherwise they cannot occupy the same share of mind as larger rivals. They attempt to use more ingenious ideas and take advantage of their small size. Speed and intellectual capital overcome rivals' larger promotional budgets. One respondent arranged to have her home town's name changed to aid promotion. Many cited that their workplace was 'fun'.
    Most are aware of growing cynicism toward larger corporations and seek to retain an entrepreneurial, independent "attitude" through branding.
    Their success claims are backed up by rankings that show their sites measure well against larger players given their later entry.

Conclusions
The practice of identity and branding online has not changed drastically from its offline progenitor. It continues to revolve around differentiation and trust, as it always has. Consumers depend on both. Technology has become an intermediary linking the CEO and the vision to the public, with fewer distractions arising internally, and vice versa.
    Antipodean organizations are excellent examples because there are national traditions of innovation and independence. The purity of this concept has been carried through more strongly online. The do-it-yourself nature of Australasians seems particularly suited to the medium. Visions must be strong, but organizations must exhibit flexibility and acquire competences as technology changes increasingly more quickly.