In some respects, branding is an old-fashioned concept. It hearkens back to the old days of advertising blitzes and the war between Coca Cola and Pepsi. Branding became an important craze during the 1950s economic boom, when competition for abundant consumer dollars became fierce. Ad men like David Ogilvy revolutionized advertising, using television to build big brands such as Barbie, Hershey's, American Express, and Campbell's. Big-time branding reached a crescendo in the 1980s with huge endorsement campaigns by the likes of Michael Jordan, and ad wars that cost billions of dollars.

Then came the Internet. Many proclaimed the Internet to be the ultimate marketplace democracy: It would be just as easy to buy shoes from a small start-up as from a megaretailer. Entry costs were lower, so anyone could start any business. Shoppers could vote with their clicks for any publisher, any retailer, any service. Geography and budget were no longer the great class dividers among retailers. Branding would be an outdated concept in this chaotic, frictionless marketplace. What did that old 1950s invention have to do with new media? What did Ogilvy know about the Internet? This was the end of big brands, right?

E-Commerce: The End of Big Brands?

Wrong. As the Internet has evolved, branding has become even more important -- for precisely the same reasons we thought it would die. As the number of sites multiplied, it became harder and harder to tell them apart. Consumers became wary of Internet shopping and retreated to the familiarity of brands they already knew. In a few short years, the Internet moved from being the domain of the small guys to being a heavily brand-reliant space.

Why does branding matter in this new medium? There are so many sites, and it is so easy to create a new site, that consumers are uncertain about how to find new sites and evaluate their trustworthiness.

For example, when I am shopping for a red sweater, I can perform an online search on "sweaters." Hundreds of answers may come up. Then I have to search through dozens of broken hyperlink, using nonstandardized navigation between sites, compare prices and styles, then judge the security of the site I choose -- and the fairness and convenience of its return policy. The entire experience is nerve racking. It becomes much simpler to just go to a site that I know from my real-world experience: Gap.com. I know the sweaters, the sizing, and the return policy for that company. Other sites may offer more selection or lower prices, but I choose a brand I am comfortable and familiar with, because the medium of e-commerce is already uncomfortable enough.

If your business is not already a household name, you need to overcome the no-name phobia that can prevail online. Think through this consumer decision process as you develop a new online brand, and reassure the customer accordingly:

Trustworthiness matters most. For a while there, everyone thought that the Internet would be about price-based competition. Not anymore. Online consumers want reassurance that your site will be around next week when they need to return something, that your products will be in stock when you say they are, and that you will not sell their private information. Repeat these messages often.

Retain customers at all costs. Given the sweater process described above, it can be extremely difficult to get customers to find your site, find a product, then make the leap of buying from you the first time. Once they have made the leap, it's much easier to keep them happy and coming back than it is to keep acquiring more customers.

Stay secure, stay private. One bad breach of your server, or a bad decision to sell data ("just this once, just to our partners...") can become a PR disaster. Once consumers decide that your site isn't secure, it is nearly impossible to reverse the damage.

Make use of your offline advantages. Maybe your company is new to the Web but was founded in 1950 as a retail store. Perhaps you aren't a national name, but you have 15 locations in California. Or your business might be a start-up, but you have key partnerships with major manufacturers. These are all trust-building facts that you should incorporate into your brand and promote on your site.

Invest in service. Online shopping is fast, open 24 hours per day, and can be personalized. But don't mistake that for personal service. Always provide a toll-free telephone number and e-mail address so that you can field questions and respond to complaints and requests quickly. Go a step further and guarantee same-day responses to customer questions.

Build recognition. Big brands have an advantage -- everyone has heard of them. If people hear your business's name from friends, or if they see your site once and decide to come back later, will they remember you? Domain names are hard to come by these days, but be sure to pick one that is easy to spell, easy to remember, and easily associated with your business category. Repeat your domain name and brand everywhere, on every page -- that way, no matter where customers are on your site, they will see your brand.

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