Companies are finding that they are having to redefine their marketing and branding strategies due to the unique characteristics of the internet and its capacity to change old rules (Ibeh et al., 2005). We have seen that a brand is generally thought to evoke, in the customer's mind, a certain personality, presence and product or service performance (Aaker, 1991; Doyle, 1998) and that the concept of a “brand” can be a way for consumers to simplify the time-consuming process of search and comparison before deciding what to buy (Rowley, 2004; Bergstrom, 2000). Many online businesses are, thus, searching for new e-brand strategies that might assist them in creating some distinctiveness and engaging their customers (Kenney and Curry, 1999).
To enhance their prospects of achieving successful i-Branding, companies have been urged to embrace a number of strategies. These include:
• establishing an online brand as quickly as possible to gain first-mover advantages (Doyle, 1998);
• undergoing a systematic process of understanding, attracting, engaging, retaining and learning about target customers (Kierzkowski et al., 1996);
• going beyond generating awareness for their sites to a greater focus on developing trust and relationships through an improved “click-to-order” ratio and repurchase rates (Court et al., 2006; McGovern, 2000);
• building stronger relationships through targeting customers with unique messages, unique functionality, content and personalisation techniques (Ibeh et al., 2005);
• delivering a quality product/service experience within a unique positioning concept and strong communications programme (Ibehet al., 2005);
• ensuring consistent delivery of the brand promise (Doyle, 1998; Court et al., 2006).
The Four Pillars of i-Branding
Extending the discussion of branding to the internet environment introduces a fourth theme as being significant: content.
These themes are developed into a framework for this paper which is dubbed “The Four Pillars of i-Branding”. The pillars in question are understanding customers, marketing communications, interactivity and content.
Pillar one: understanding customers
Kierzkowski et al. (1996) state that to enhance their prospects of achieving successful i-Branding, companies need to understand online customers. This understanding provides the foundation for going beyond developing awareness of online offerings to a greater focus on developing the trust and relationships which form the basis of effective online branding (Court et al., 2006; McGovern, 2000).
Within this i-Branding context, Lin et al. (2004) suggest that an enterprise can enhance its understanding of customers online by implementing an internet market segmentation approach. This approach could utilise various online methods to classify potential or actual online customers into groups which have similar requirements and characteristics, as follows:
• Server-side data capture. “Web analytics” is an evaluative online technique that uses easily obtained statistics, or “metrics” stored on server log files, to assess web site usage. Advanced web analytics software does not just collect such information, but also uses it in conjunction with other data, such as demographics, customer profiles and subscription information.
• Client-side data capture. Central to this concept is the “cookie” a mechanism designed to compensate for the stateless nature of the http protocol that controls the transfer of hypertext documents. What is particularly interesting for marketers is that cookies can be utilised to identify the habits of a particular user.
• Online surveys. Technology has revolutionized the way in which surveys are administered – with the advent of the first e-mail surveys in the 1980s and web-based surveys in the 1990s. Online surveys offer real opportunities in the quest to better understand online customers, such as: global reach; flexibility; speed and timeliness; technological innovations; convenience for customers; ease of data entry and analysis; and low administration cost.
• Databases. Customer data gathered by companies online can be stored in databases, and analysed to provide a depth of information on individual customers that would be impossible, for many companies, to obtain by non-electronic means. The most important output of the integration of internet/database marketing is the enabling of effective customer relationship management.
Segmentation is viewed by Goldsmith (1999) as a key facilitator, helping the marketer to understand more precisely the structure of the market and who the customer is or should be. Target segments and develop more one-to-one relationships. The prototype of personalisation is the world wide web. The power of the internet is its ability to tailor itself for each of its users.
As a branding vehicle the internet, therefore, not only offers valuable segmentation opportunities, but actually takes the concept of understanding customers, and therefore, more precisely targeting them, to new levels (Probaker, 2000). This more personalised targeting is a critical opportunity offered in developing the internet successfully as a branding tool (Ibeh et al., 2005).
Pillar two: marketing communications
Personalisation is also viewed as an integral element of marketing communications in the internet context. Online communication combines mass media's reach with the personalisation inherent in two-way dialogue – previously only possible using personal forms of promotion. In this context, relationships are important at both individual and organizational level. Buttle (1996) argues that relationships with consumers are recognised to be at the heart of customer attraction and retention.
Communication and consumer behaviour theories suggest that, when consumers have a preference for a brand, they are more keen and willing to receive information from it and also to search for information about it.
1. Presence. After establishing a presence on the internet, one of the primary objectives is to attract a variety of interested parties to visit the company's online presence. A key benefit of attracting customers to company web sites is its positive relationship to brand equity when related to effective online strategies. Customers' perceptions of brands and companies can be positively changed by being attracted to an internet that is tailored to their specific wants and needs.
2. Relationships. These are developed when customers and organisations work together. As interaction increases, relationships become stronger and more sustainable. Rowley (2004) states that as organisations become acquainted with customers they may choose to differentiate the quality and extent of their offerings and services in favour of customers who are profitable.
3. Mutual value. This can occur as companies and customers interact to create value in ways beneficial to both. Companies derive benefit and value from the opportunities to create more tailored and relevant communication messages about products and services which are of interest to the customers (Quniton and Harridge-March, 2003).
Traditionally, the focus in marketing communications has been on “promotion” and on the one-way transmission of messages. Media available for communication, such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, newsletters, or direct marketing encourage this “push” approach (Rowley, 2004). However, they are linear in nature, following a scripted flow, and often subscribing implicitly to a one-to-many communication model in which a single promotion is sent by one source, and seen by many recipients without the opportunity for immediate feedback (Rowley, 2004). Clearly, the internet facilitates non-linear communication with a free flow and exchange of information, and the opportunity for two-way flows between companies and customers on a one-to-one or many-to-many (Hoffman et al., 1995) basis. Online tools available to marketing communications planners in this environment include:
• Company web sites. An organisation's site is a promotional event in its own right. In effect the web site acts as a communicator of a company's value proposition and brand promise.
• E-mail marketing. E-mail can be used for various marketing communications purposes: sharing information about products and services; promoting them; building brand relationships; guiding customers to web sites; alerting customers and confirming order status. E-mail marketing can facilitate brand encounters and deepen consumer-brand relationships with loyal customers, over and above seeking additional sales.
• Viral marketing. This is a set of online techniques that seek to exploit pre-existing social networks to produce exponential increases in brand awareness, through processes similar to the spread of an epidemic. Essentially, one person “infects” several people with an offer, who then spread it to several friends and acquaintances, until the entire virtual neighbourhood has been exposed. The global nature and ease of communication online makes the internet a powerful viral marketing tool.
Essentially, there is a power shift from online to offline, as customers gain control and their time becomes the asset that both they and the marketers need to understand, with customer needs sacrosanct. In this context, Rowley (2004) claims that information and not image is the main currency in online communication. However, researchers such as May (2000) suggest that the internet must be more than just an information medium. It also needs to offer entertainment value, because that is what online customers expect.
The internet needs to be a place where stories are told and dialogues are initiated, as well as information being discovered. This is where strong brand perceptions can be developed online. Therefore, the development of the internet as a marketing communications medium requires an understanding of how information, entertainment and commerce can be melded together within an online marketing communications mix.
Pillar three: interactivity
It is clear that interaction with customers is central to realizing the benefits that the internet can provide in understanding customers and developing more personalised marketing communications. In creating this personalisation and providing the opportunity to create positive brand perceptions, customers need to be engaged within the online environment.
The internet is based on information and communication technologies that enable easy and rapid interaction between customers and companies in the search for information about products or consumer content, or in placing an order define interactivity as the facility for individuals and organisations to communicate directly with one another regardless of distance or time.
Interactive communication process provides companies with a market-oriented mechanism to uncover and satisfy customer needs. Marcolin et al. (2005) explore three stages in the development of web site interactivity that practitioners should consider:
1. First stage. Being able to address the individual. Parsons et al. (1998) identify two sub-stages: attracting buyers to the site, and engaging them once they are there. It is obvious that marketing communications will be an integral element in attracting customers to interactive features, and that response is further facilitated by having links from other sites (e.g. banner advertising, affiliate sites). Attracting buyers from outside the web environment relies on traditional advertising and word-of-mouth to promote the URL (Agarwal and Venkatesh, 2002). Once potential customers are at the site, its navigational design and systems are key factors in the company's ability to engage visitors by guiding them to interactive features (Fleming, 1998; Parsons et al., 1998).
2. Second stage. Gathering and remembering visitors' inputs: essentially. Understanding customers through their own contributions to the communication. Two broad categories of input characterise this stage: manual, direct from the customer, and system-generated. Both allow the company to learn about customers (Parsons et al., 1998) while establishing dialogue (Berthon et al., 1996). The most basic form of manual input is the click on a hyperlink, from which behavioural data can be tagged or remembered for later analysis (Marcolin et al., 2005). Manual input could also consist of data captured in forms, dropdown boxes and videoconferencing. In contrast, the customer may or may not know that system-generated input is being collected. For example, a unique identifier such as a cookie can be passed back and forth between the web browser and the server without the buyer's knowledge, allowing database updates and retrievals to be completed anonymously (Marcolin et al., 2005).
3. Third stage. Direct response to individual buyers, using data previously gathered and remembered via the site (Marcolin et al., 2005). In effect, this stage represents what is ultimately offered to buyers. That offering is often available in real time at the web site, or it may be initiated as a delayed response, such as the delivery of a product or a reply to an e-mail (Lincke, 1998).
A range of online tools is available for the implementation of these three stages of interactivity development, such as:
1. Blogs. Short for “web logs” this term describes a hierarchy of text, images, media objects and data arranged chronologically, that can be viewed via an html browser. The centre of the hierarchy is a sequence of posts, each with a title, link, and description. These can be designed by a company to encourage additional posts from customers, building a rich interaction on specific topics.
2. RSS Feeds. Standing for “really simple syndication” this is a free internet service that allows customers to choose what they want to read, listen to or watch, and have it sent to them electronically. They subscribe to RSS feeds that interest them by clicking on the universal orange RSS button appearing at a rapidly growing number of web sites. Every time new content is added to a web site in this way, customers can receive relevant elements in their news feeder, and can browse the information at their leisure.
3. Online Communities. Alternatively called “virtual communities” these are collectives of geographically distributed individuals, bound by a common interest in exploiting internet technology to enable communication. In the marketing context, their benefit to marketers is the range of customer data that can be gathered, by observing behaviour within online communities.
Pillar four: content
i-Branding is dependent upon targeting customers with unique messages, unique functionality and unique content. When customers enter an organization's web site, they typically do so in order to find content on a given topic or to undertake a particular transaction. If a site is to effectively market products or services, and create effective i-Branding, then its design should allow such activities to be conducted in as straightforward a manner as possible.
Group relationships within site content can be identified, according to Taylor and England (2006), by asking the question: “If a web site user is interested in a particular item of information/transaction, what similar or related items of information/transactions would they also be interested in?”.
However, there is also recent evidence to suggest that unduly sophisticated and graphics-intensive web sites can create negative brand perceptions among users. The exact nature of the problem would appear to revolve around the long delays associated with downloading graphics and other sophisticated features such as Java “applets” . Indeed, Shneiderman (1998) proposed that users do not like to wait for more than a few seconds.
Integrating the Four Pillars
Marketing planners need to carefully consider the strategic branding opportunities achievable through the integration of these Four Pillars of i-Branding.
E-mail marketing communications has gained a bad press, with the issue of “spamming” engendering anger among recipients and leading to the development of filtering tools to prevent unwanted e-mails. Companies now have to gain permission from customers to e-mail them without the threat of damaging brand perceptions. However, there is a further element to this argument. Planners will need to understand what customers do value from regular e-mail communications, and personalise their e-mail communications to individual preferences (Merisavo and Raulas, 2004). If they do not, the empowered online customer will send the e-mail to the recycle bin.
Viral marketing is a highly effective internet marketing communications tool (Datta et al., 2005), but will succeed in its objectives only if companies understand their online customers and provide offerings than can deliver better value than those from competitors. Customers will then have positive things to say online – which will spread with the “vial” rapidity that the online environment makes possible. Properly integrating customer understanding and marketing communications, therefore, permits a more targeted and personalised approach to online marketing campaigns.