Internet portals put on branding push

It's shaping up to be a hot winter....

It’s shaping up to be a hot winter.

But we’re not talking global warming. We’re talking about the battle that’s heating up among Canada’s Internet portals.

Over the past 12 months, Canada’s online news and information brands have been falling all over themselves to announce new products, services and corporate partnerships with wireless carriers (see story, page 2) in their bid to become the preferred online access ramp among Canadian consumers.

And now, Bell Canada-backed Sympatico-Lycos, Microsoft-funded MSN.ca, and Yahoo!-branded Yahoo.ca have each announced plans to kick off consumer branding campaigns in the coming months.

It’s little wonder, says Brahm Eiley, president of Toronto-based The Convergence Consulting Group, which recently published a study called ‘Strategies and Trends in the Canadian Internet/ISP market.’

‘There have been big investments made to get more into this space – at both a national and regional level – and subsequently there’s going to be more of a play,’ he says. ‘Since it’s such a highly competitive market, it makes sense that these players are going to push hard to take as much share as they possibly can.’

At stake is not only access to a growing online contingent of Canadian consumers, but control of the gateway to Canada’s burgeoning e-commerce market.

Hot on the heels of its shopping site launch, Yahoo! Canada is gearing up for the rollout of a consumer branding campaign designed to drive awareness of the online portal and its increasingly local offerings. Jennifer Stewart, brand manager for Yahoo! Canada, says the portal plans to do more vertical marketing, specifically around Yahoo! Shopping, which allows users to purchase products from different retailers without leaving the site.

‘Now that we have some more locally relevant offerings like Shopping, we want to be more aggressive in the market and communicate that message to our users,’ she says.

Each month, roughly 6.5 million Canadians visit the Yahoo! network. While the campaign will serve to reinforce the brand among those consumers, the target is what Yahoo! calls the ‘intender’ audience: people of all ages who say they will be coming online in the next six months.

In addition to communicating the overall global brand leveraging Yahoo!’s ‘fun and interactive’ personality traits, Stewart says sub-campaigns will be focused on promoting specific services. The overall branding campaign, which launched online and on radio at the end of October, will be extended to include cinema spots throughout the month of December.

In a similar development, Rogers Communications-backed Excite Canada also recently unveiled its own shopping channel. An online contest, offering contestants the chance to win a 2001 Volvo S60 2.4 automobile, will support the launch. Officials say they hope the ‘Driven to Shop’ contest will drive further awareness of the Excite.ca brand, and attract new users to the portal.

Additionally, a mass media campaign was launched Nov. 2 with half-page ads in major dailies across Canada. Double-page spreads are also running in Rogers Media consumer publications, including Chatelaine, Flare, Maclean’s and Profit. The print ads, as well as an in-flight video to appear on Air Canada flights in December, focus on Excite.ca Shopping’s customized features: a cross-border shopping tool, a shopping comparison tool and a video component.

Excite Canada director of marketing Jennifer Langley says the campaign will target consumers who have been online for about a year and a half and are therefore more likely to be predisposed to online shopping.

Meanwhile, in what is being touted as the most aggressive worldwide branding campaign since the Windows 95 operating system launch, Microsoft is dropping US$150 million to highlight MSN’s Internet services and content. While the amount to be spent in Canada promoting MSN.ca has not been made public, Jill Schoolenberg, group marketing manager for MSN.ca, says it will be in the millions.

The Canadian adaptation of the global campaign, which Schoolenberg says will differ little from its U.S. counterpart, will be handled by Toronto-based MacLaren McCann and will include TV, cinema and print in both English and French. The ‘Make it Your Home’ spots are expected to launch this week and will run over the next six months.

While consolidation and increased competition weren’t necessarily the primary drivers behind the marketing push, says Schoolenberg, it’s impossible to ignore their effect.

‘There will be a few brands that will survive the fray and have consumer awareness behind them, and we expect to be one of them,’ she says.

According to Media Metrix data, MSN.ca ranked as the sixth most-frequently-visited site in Canada in September with 3.6 million unique Canadian at home users. The top three sites and digital media applications included MSN.com, Yahoo.com and ICQ applications. Bell Canada’s Sympatico-Lycos portal trailed at number seven with 3.5 million unique visitors.

Sympatico-Lycos recently rolled out several new services, including an improved search engine, a personalization tool, and VancouverPlus, the latest in a long line of city sites, says Mary Ann Neshevich, vice-president marketing for Sympatico-Lycos.

To feature some of the new products, and drive overall brand awareness, Sympatico.ca has made plans to launch a consumer advertising campaign early in the New Year. Details have yet to be ironed out.