Strong identities few and far between

We thought it was such a simple question....

We thought it was such a simple question.

When Strategy decided to undertake this report, our first step was to ask interactive marketers: Which Canadian-based Web sites have – through both online and off-line efforts – succeeded in establishing particularly strong brands for themselves?

Any hope of a clear consensus quickly evaporated. While a few names did crop up with some regularity, the responses from the 20-odd experts we consulted often diverged considerably.

In the end, we came up with a short list of four truly outstanding Canadian Web brands: Chapters.ca, Grocerygateway.com, Sympatico.ca and CBC.ca. (For the purposes of this report, we confined our focus to purely homegrown sites, rather than try to encompass as well the Canadian spin-offs of established global brands, such as MSN.ca, Monster.ca or Yahoo! Canada.)

But what truly emerged from this exercise, more strongly than anything else, was the sense that online branding remains at a fairly early stage of its evolution. ‘There are still relatively few Web brands that have been able to develop strong personalities,’ says René Déry, director of new media and media research with Montreal-based Marketel.

There are a couple of possible explanations for this. Michael Shostak, president of Toronto-based Vickers & Benson Interactive, says cost has been a major factor, at least in Canada. The modest size of this market has, until recently, kept budgets in the dot-com business relatively low, he argues. ‘People just haven’t had the money to do things at a national brand kind of level. So they’ve been using a lot of guerrilla marketing tactics.’

Others chalk it up to a shortage of marketing expertise within this still-emerging sector. As Peter Munck, senior vice-president, creative director with Toronto-based MacLaren McCann Interactive points out, a lot of North America’s major pure-play dot-coms have been founded by entrepreneurial or information technology types – not necessarily the sort of people who bring a sophisticated understanding of branding to the table. ‘To them, it was all just about building awareness of a name,’ he says.

The result, particularly in the U.S. market, was a good deal of self-consciously ‘outrageous’ advertising designed simply to grab and hold consumer attention. (Online computer retailer Outpost.com, for example, aired spots in 1999 that showed gerbils being fired from cannons, and hungry wolves attacking a high-school marching band.) Some of this stuff was irreverent and hilarious, Munck says. But because it usually wasn’t anchored by a strong brand strategy, a lot of it failed to differentiate clearly the sites in question.

The ad industry deserves a measure of blame for this, he adds. ‘I don’t think agencies understood what it was all about. They just saw an opportunity to work with clients who were willing to do outrageous shit. Everyone started doing the same thing. Where was the differentiation? It wasn’t there. It was all about grabbing awareness, without building any equity into the brand.’

Bricks-and-mortar companies haven’t necessarily fared much better in their own efforts to spin off distinct online brands. Retailers, financial providers and the like have certainly recognized the need to be in the dot-com space, says René Déry. ‘But do they know exactly how to use it in the best way? The answer is not so clear.’

On the up side, interactive experts generally agree that they’re seeing dot-com clients begin to take branding more seriously.

Slowly but surely, the Web sector is maturing, Munck says. ‘There’s a lot of money involved, and a lot of scrutiny. It’s not just a matter of doing an IPO and having people throw money at you. You have to do something with that money, and report back on it [to investors]. So I think people have started to understand that they do have to differentiate their brands. It’s not enough just to say ‘Here I am.”

Déry agrees. As indications from Wall Street have made clear, the initial dot-com boom is over. Profitability will be a serious issue for players in this sector – and that’s going to heighten the importance of strong branding. ‘People have to figure out how to use this medium in the right way,’ he says.

The ongoing migration of traditional marketers into the Web world should also help the cause. ‘It used to be tough to bring senior marketing talent to Internet companies, because they saw it as rolling the dice,’ says Bryan Mavrow, vice-president of marketing with Vancouver-based Columbus Group Communications. ‘There were a lot of brand experts sitting on the bench saying, ‘I’m fine doing traditional advertising. Let’s just see how this Web stuff turns out.’ But with the growth of the dot-com sector, there’s been a realization that this is the future of business. So now it’s the hotbed of where you can take a marketing career.’

And what of the principles of dot-com branding? Do these differ significantly from the rules that govern the building of traditional off-line brands?

Not really, Web experts say. True, there are some challenges unique to the online realm – such as the need to create a high degree of interactivity. But the name of the game is still to find some way of nurturing a relationship with the consumer, just as it is in any other sector.

‘It’s about creating a conversation,’ says Sean Patrick, creative director with Toronto-based Cybersight Canada.

The key, Patrick contends, is to draw upon consumer insight to build an online experience that will be relevant to the user – a philosophy that has guided Cybersight in its work on sites such as www.iam.ca for client Molson Breweries. Want surfers to surrender their e-mail addresses? Then offer them the sort of perks that you know will appeal, like the chance to watch the latest Molson Canadian ads online two weeks before the rest of the country sees them. Strategic thinking like this, he says, has netted iam.ca some 80,000 registered users.

‘As soon as you get information from people, you give them something back that’s relevant to them,’ Patrick explains. ‘It’s all about getting the right information at the right time, and making the consumer feel that you’re listening.’

Also in this report:

- Grocery Gateway builds ‘total brand personality’: Online grocer communicates consistent image at every point of customer contact p.18

- Sympatico makes itself useful: Relevance a key point of differentiation p.21

- Chapters.ca plots category domination: Book retailer uses partnerships and blanket buys to carve cyber mind share p.22

- CBC.ca leverages mother corp’s equity p.23