Branding & Merchant Identity

Essays in this ecommerce series:

Understanding the Concept of Brand

The term brand means different things to the different roles of buyer and seller, with buyers generally associating brand with a product or service, and merchants associating brand with identity.

For the typical buyer, a brand is basically just a product identifier — this isn’t just cereal, it’s Cheerios. Used this way, a brand functions as a proper name, at best flagging a specific product with a name that differentiates it from the rest of the product category. This use of brand doesn’t denote any judgment of quality or performance, just the characteristic of having been named.

Brand can also identify the company behind the specific product — that’s not just a hot dog, that’s an Oscar Meyer wiener. This use of brand puts a “face” behind the name, so to speak, even if the “face” is the result of advertising copy and television commercials. This use of brand also says nothing of quality, just the buyer’s exposure to the brand’s PR and media hype.

For the typical merchant, branding is a way of taking everything that is good about the company — positive shopping experience, professionalism, superior service, product knowledge, whatever the company decides is important for a customer to believe about the company — and wrapping these characteristics into a package that can be evoked by the brand as signifier. The [broken link ]eCommerce Trust Study from Studio Archetype/Sapient and Cheskin Research defines brand as “The corporation’s promise to deliver specific attributes and its credibility based on reputation and the visitor’s possible previous experience”. For a company, success means that people see or hear the company’s brand and think “you know, company XYZ is the best at service, product knowledge, and generally good experiences”.

Merchants also use branding as another word for consumer awareness, with the idea that the more people are aware of the company and its products/services, the more market the company will capture. This makes sense with the web, since users are encountering a marketplace far larger than they have experienced offline and so may become disconnected from their familiar brands. Users online may have awareness of a brand in context with the web that is so strong it drives the association of the brand with the category. It is hard not associate online book shopping with Amazon.com, even though other good options exist, and even though users cannot have any experience of Amazon as a real-world bookstore.

When Branding Is Successful

A brand has no intrinsic value itself; only through signifying a connotation can a brand be of any value. Branding is very important to the corporation, because the more visible the brand is in the marketplace, the more visible the company is, and therefore the more exposure to potential revenue. If a company successfully places its brand in a position to be the predominant signifier of a category of product or service, that brand will be very difficult to supplant.

Brands are an excellent tool for evoking schemas of an experience or relationship: if a user has very positive attitudes towards a particular brand — great service, great product, fun place to shop — then encountering the company’s brand may cause the user to recall all of the pleasant connotations of the company. This inflation of a simple sign of the company, the brand, into a full-blown image/memory/expectation of the experience behind the brand and promised by the brand is the eagerly sought result of all the money and effort invested in the branding campaign.

When Branding Is Not Successful

The creation of a schema that describes the positive aspects of a product or company is a very powerful tool in driving consumer awareness for the product and/or company, but this tool can also fail.

Customers with bad experiences tend to be vocal in their displeasure, and may not be easy for the company behind the brand to win back. No company wants to consumers to hear their branding and immediately associate the brand with negative experiences.

Some companies are so successful in their market that they may have difficulty transferring the brand to a new medium, like the web. If a real-world company is renowned for being a great destination and a comfortable place to shop, that quality may not transfer to the web. People may associate the company not with the category of product, but as a place to go.

Branding Doesn’t Make Commerce Easier

A brand doesn’t help the user add an item to his shopping cart, it doesn’t help him figure out his shipping options, and it doesn’t help him get through a web site’s commerce track any faster. A brand helps the user authenticate the supplier based on past experience with that brand in a different context, or based on reported experiences of others with the brand. If I shop in a neighborhood book store, and I have faith in that bookstore, should I have a need or desire to shop online I will look for that company online because I respect the brand.

The Consumer’s View of Brand & Identity

Brand helps users identify the product and or company behind a product. Companies are made up of people, and most interactions customers have with companies in the real world involve some level of contact with real flesh-and-blood employees of the company. The simple truth is that employees represent their company, and if I go to my neighborhood Best Buy to pick up some software, I deal with a salesperson. I am faced by this salesperson and his or her skills, experience, and level of training face-to-face, and I may walk out of that store with no thoughts of the company’s president or founder, just thoughts of the representative the placed on their sales floor.

The customer’s experiences with a company form the basis of the brand’s connotations. When I encounter the Best Buy brand, I recall a very definite expectation of the caliber of salesperson and their level of training and product knowledge.

Employees represent their company, but there are no employees on the web; we can’t walk into an online store and gather information about a company by examining the demeanor of its employees. We can’t ask the person behind the register about their day, we can’t flirt with the person straightening shelves, we can’t share in the dynamic between other customers and sales staff. We can gather not one iota of conversational information from an online site, because a web site represents itself. The typical online transaction has no front end interaction with any representative of the company, and this is considered good.

Complaining to a store manager lacks resonance when done through anonymous email. Email has given rise to smileys, emoticons and assicons precisely because straight ASCII text doesn’t convey emotional gradients; speak to a person face-to-face and your anger or dissatisfaction becomes much more immediate. More importantly, a store will value you and your dispute more if you are a member of that store’s community. Sure, an online store doesn’t like to lose customers, but that can’t compare to the desire of a store that you patronize every day — because you live or work down the street — to keep you satisfied.

The best stores foster community through the interaction of store employees and customers. Any good book store develops a character that is palpable as soon as you walk in the door. In my experience at Borders, repeat customers would come in just to touch base with the employees who stocked their favorite sections of the store, or customers would spend hours hanging out in the espresso bar chatting with other people who worked in the area. An online author chat doesn’t compare to hoisting a hot cup of joe with an author, maybe even that same author.

[ Read the next essay in this ecommerce series, Messages For The Users.]