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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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
A range of online tools is available for the implementation of these three stages of interactivity development, such as:
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.