Amazon. Ebay. Travelocity. Yahoo! Walmart. IBM. The Gap. And, oh yes, Microsoft. Welcome to the world of branding, a world where trusted names count. In the US alone, it’s an over $2 trillion dollar industry. The growing mainstream activity on the Internet has afforded a whole new way of losing customers – or gaining them. As developers and designers, you hold the key to the front door in online branding.
So what exactly is branding and what’s all the hype about? That’s all just big ad agency stuff, right? Wrong. There is a terrible misconception that branding is about the creative side of business. About the logo. The advertising. The copy. The "look and feel." It is, but that isn’t nearly the full extent of it. Branding is, in a nutshell, the entire user experience – the "relationship" between the company and the customer, how a company makes a customer feel. This applies to all companies, great and small. In both online and offline branding, it’s about:
how the customer is treated at the door (home page)
what the packaging looks like and how it’s positioned on a shelf (Web site)
how the cashier treats the customer (navigation, online support, online orders)
how the company handles complaints (returns, ease of contact)
how a company positions itself as "trustful" and "credible" (a combination of the above, media treatment, etc.)
Every form of contact that a company has with a customer is part of branding. Because the Web is a more "user-driven" experience and can loosely be described as a hybrid medium (print and broadcast), it poses some interesting branding challenges and opportunities. It has the potential to deliver the company’s identity, products, service – the whole shebang – in the space of a few screens and within seconds. Your Web site is where the entire experience comes together for the user – or not. Make no mistake about it: the number of consumers who make purchasing decisions online is growing exponentially, and the launch of so many free internet service providers will only fertilize that growth. If you provide a positive experience for these users, they’ll talk. And that language translates into dollars. Confuse them or fail to apply some of the basic methods below and you’ll lose them within seconds, too.
So, from a design and development perspective, we should give them bells and whistles, right? Maybe. Sure, bells and whistles are nice if you’re approaching an audience who happens to like bells and whistles – like gamers. Flying hotdogs really wouldn’t fly that well, however, on iVillage.com or Inc.com. Keep your market in mind. Study it. The average user is more concerned with function than they are with form. An ace-looking site with difficult or no function will lose a user pretty quickly. Build an ace-looking site with phenomenal functionality and they’ll come back with the whole clan. People are still people, whether they’re online or not.
Creating Brand Loyalty
Here are some good old’ fashioned methods with a cyber twist that will work toward creating "brand loyalty" and a repeat visitor.
Get me at the door. There are three questions which immediately enter the mind of any user when popping into your home page: What’s in it for me? Can these people be trusted? Do they know what they’re doing? Through clear and appealing visuals and copy you must immediately establish credibility. This is the first step toward developing a healthy "relationship" with your user. Make it inviting. Remember, these are people who are trying to communicate with you. Brand the domain name so they’ll remember it; they’re directions to the office or store. The domain name should reflect the company name as closely as possible. Here are a few good samples that offer a credible message, sell their product and company, and visually address their intended market:
Don’t clutter the aisles. If you design a site that is difficult or impossible to navigate, your user will turn around and walk back out the door, or worse, never make it in. Ever go to a department store and walk into a "Please use other door" sign? Very annoying.
Make those buttons a delight to look at and easy to figure out; they’re your salespeople and clerks. A lost sale or visitor is often the result of not being able to get to the checkout with relative ease or find the information/service sought.
Offer assistance – even if it’s not asked for. Let those clerks offer helpful suggestions about other products or services to buy, or other information which might be of interest. The user can’t be expected to know your entire product or service line or to spend the time looking for it.
Personnel must be efficient, friendly, courteous. If your site doesn’t outdo the bricks and mortar version of the purchasing or visiting experience, there’d be no point in the user coming. Utilize the many comprehensive tools available to you: auto respond thank-yous; follow-up email in the form of newsletters, sales, or unique memberships. Offer incentives, sweepstakes or gifts of some kind. Give the user a thousand reasons to feel right at home and to come right back again. Make online contact information a snap, and provide a place for complaints and suggestions.
Develop a relationship, make the visit an experience. Generating word-of-mouth is one of the most powerful components of any branding strategy – online or off. Developing a solid relationship with a user and helping them identify themselves as being a "friend" or "preferred customer" of the company will ultimately generate positive word-of-mouth offline. It can also be generated online. Let users share their experiences through a chat room or forum of some kind. Set up a message board where they can voice their opinions or get an opinion before they buy a product or service. Let them know that they as individuals, and their opinions, count.
Be clear, informative and don’t make false promises. There is such a thing as "over positioning" – making false statements or setting up goals which are unattainable. Be realistic, give your users accurate, up-to-date information about your services and products. If it will take a week for shipping, say that. It will do wonders for credibility. Also, provide easily-accessible information should they need it or want it – like instructions on how to put that model train together or recipes for their brand new grill.
Listen to your customers and follow through. Study your audience, measure where they’re going and not going, and why. Web pages should be created based on knowledge of a customer, and product data can be pulled from your database based on that individual. Customize as much as you possibly can. Don’t underestimate the value of "Welcome back, Joe," as a user revisits a site. Solicit information, analyze it, and act accordingly.
Practice what you preach. The site you develop must accurately reflect a company’s core values. Are they trusting, helpful? The caring provider of all providers? If it professes to offer high- end solutions with the customer in mind, the site must execute that successfully throughout the user’s entire experience – from start to finish, and then after the sale or visit. Remember, this is an ongoing relationship and it’s your responsibility to maintain it on the Web.
Whether you’re programming, coding, or designing for the Web, you are an integral part of the process of branding – for companies both large and small. In a split second, a consumer will reach for what they know and trust. You help build that trust. Your Web site may be the only contact or experience a user has with the company, so offer them a worthwhile and lasting one. Build it so they WILL come. Brand like you never thought you would.