Offline Versus Online Brands – The Winners and Losers

It took more than 50 years for Coca-Cola to become a worldwide market leader, but only five years for online search engine Yahoo! to gain market dominance. The role of the brand has changed dramatically and has created a vacuum between offline and online brands.

Why? Offline brands lack interactivity. They are passive. Offline brands can only communicate one way via television, print and radio. Online brands “listen” to the consumer, learn from them, and react based on the consumer’s needs. This new skill — this interactivity — is an online brand’s strongest asset. It enables the brand owner to form a one-to-one relationship with the consumer.

Brand Suicide

Years ago, Kodak was considered to be one of the world’s strongest brands. However, as the market moved from chemical film to digital photography, Kodak lost its dominant position to the growing army of personal computers appearing in businesses, at home, and in home-based offices. The appearance of the PC has enabled Kodak’s competitors to leapfrog Kodak’s leadership position and take the dominant position in the market with digital photography.

The introduction of digital cameras has also spawned a number of new brands. The monopoly Kodak enjoyed with 100,000 film development outlets around the world is no longer impressive when compared to the 100 million outlets that digital cameras now represent (i.e., the computers on every desk and in every home).

Kodak is attempting to regain its leadership position in the new digital market. The question is, is it a case of too little, too late?

It took Kodak years to see the writing on the Internet wall — a delay that opened the door to hundreds of competitors. This situation could easily happen with any dominant offline brand where the value of the brand is not extended online.

LEGO — one of the strongest toy brands in the world — is another victim of the interactive world. The brand faced the specter of digital competition back in 1984 when pocket computer games appeared just before Christmas and managed to cut LEGO’s worldwide sales by 30 percent.

Even though the warning was clear, LEGO didn’t change its strategy. For many years the colorful plastic bricks have remained unchanged in the face of competition from Playmobil, Tyco and Matchbox. It took LEGO more than 13 years to realize that the real competition was from online games, puzzles and challenges. Kids no longer considered it to be “cool” playing with LEGO — the role was replaced by computer games.

In 1997, LEGO released its first attempt to re-capture market share — the LEGO CD-ROM. In the meantime, Sony Play Station, Nintendo and Sega have already taken the lion’s share of the online/interactive games market.

If You Can’t Beat Them — Join Them!

A characteristic of all of these offline brands is the inability to change in the face of shifting customer needs. Too much trust was placed in the historical brand value. However, with changing consumer tastes, greater choice, and a reduction in consumer loyalty, a historical brand proposition is no longer valid in today’s fast-moving consumer economy.

Creating a brand is now easier (thanks to the Internet) than it ever has been. However, committing brand suicide is even easier – it’s happening much faster than marketers thought possible.

The brand survival kit has proven to be a fast, but clever migration to the online world with a foot in both worlds to ensure capturing the mind of the consumer regardless. 

If you want to know more about online branding and marketing, check SMA.


Don’t Think Too Different

Have you ever tried driving in a country where the steering wheel and gear stick are on the “wrong” side and traffic is on the opposite side of the road from what you’re used to? Many of us have had this awkward experience. You probably recall an instant of fear that struck when you realized you didn’t know where to look, how to react, or which way to turn.

The foreign traffic experience has a parallel in our seven years of Net experience. On the Internet, as on the road, we follow habits, obey fixed guidelines, and instinctively respond to unarticulated rules. We habitually expect a Web site to have a “contact us” function, an “about us” icon, and a privacy policy. These have become standard.

What happens if you break with the standards? What happens if you want to redefine your interface to match with your brand’s profile?

Disney has tried this. Visiting, I felt I was driving on the opposite side of the road. The home page is beautiful, a remarkable achievement considering Disney’s purview includes everything from hotels, film studios, theme parks, and cruises to magazines and merchandising. You name it, Disney’s probably into it. This expansive set of interests has to be accommodated by one simple screen: the home page. The result is a Disney World type interface, with each division separated by well-known Disney icons, such as Cinderella’s castle, Goofy, and the Disney Store. Cute. But, is it smart — and does it work?

I remember a study conducted a long time ago by a major toy manufacturer. The study argued kids absolutely hate structure: grids and columns of data. Grownups, however, were found to dislike a mess of products not categorized into a logical order. The toy company’s challenge was to find a way of appealing to both audiences. Its solution was to include both approaches by creating a catalog “environment” packed with products on the left and a categorized presentation on the right. I mention this because Disney obviously wants to differentiate its Web presence from the average site, which 99.9 percent of the time is designed according to a grid-like structure. Disney’s solution is a city-like navigation panel.

Does this type of alternative navigation panel work? In this case, no. The site is the Web equivalent of altering traffic conditions without notice: changing signals and altering colors indicating rules for travelers.

In preparation for the Sydney Olympics, a blue line was painted along miles of the city’s streets. It marked the marathon route and is still there as a souvenir of the Games. But it causes problems. In Australia, drivers are used to white and yellow line markings. For visitors to the city, this extra blue line has caused confusion and increased accidents. Motorists misunderstand the blue line’s function and try to interpret it in the context of their own road-rule literacy. They find themselves in trouble.

A new tool may look great, signal its own significance, and not even bother those familiar with an environment, but for everyone else, new visitors to a city or a site, the confusion caused by the unfamiliar can be nightmarish.

The guidelines for good navigation were established in 1995, when the World Wide Web appeared. Since then, most sites aligned their navigation styles according to an established norm. Almost every site greets visitors with the same structure. You’d think it would be good branding to integrate your brand with your navigation panel, as Disney has. The results are counterproductive. Yes, kids might love it, according to the old study I referred to. But their parents are likely to give up on it. Disney’s laudable intention of bringing joy and fun to the surfing experience may never see fruition.

People want to be able to find what they’re looking for. Extraneous noises, superfluous icons, and a navigation environment foreign to what Web users are used to cause irritation. They get in the way of what visitors want to find. Disney’s city-like environment doesn’t meet the expectations of a visitor trying to book a holiday trip to the Caribbean.

This is not an attack on Disney. I love the company for doing something different. But there’s danger in difference for difference’s sake.

Branding is as much a matter of following consumer expectations as about innovation – that’s what we see on great marketing companies such as SMA. Standard navigation practices make consumers’ lives easier and their visits to your site more productive. I’m not suggesting you develop a cookie-cutter Web site, but I do urge you to reflect on the advantages of navigation habits the world has already learned rather than reinventing the wheel as Disney did. Save your creative resources for functions in which you know your consumers will expect creativity and difference —

and where you know they’ll enjoy every minute of it.