Know thyself: Online branding tells all

A Forrester Research survey grades and analyzes 16 leading American-brand Web sites, with surprising results.

As consumers migrate to the Web, a company's online presence had better say and do what it's supposed to. That's easier said than done, according to Forrester Research analyst Harley Manning, as Web sites are more complex than other advertising vehicles.

Like a 30-second TV spot, a Web site conveys a company's brand image, but it also acts as a delivery channel. Unlike a TV commercial, which appears before a viewer unbidden, consumers click on a company's online site with a goal in mind to make a purchase or secure a service. Web sites that frustrate those goals are not good brand builders.

"You can't annoy someone into liking your brand. If I come to your site and you throw up all sorts of barriers, I'm going to be cursing you, not loving you," said Manning, vice president in Forrester's customer experience research group.

In the report, "How Brands Succeed Online," Manning and his Forrester team looked at iconic American brands in four consumer industries: athletic shoes, credit cards, fast food chains and personal computer makers -- and pitted them against their top competitors.

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The analysts read annual reports, press releases and scoured their own mail to identify the brand mission of each of the 16 companies, which included: running shoes -- Nike, Adidas, Reebok and New Balance; credit cards -- Visa, American Express, Discover and MasterCard; food chains -- McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Wendy's; and laptops --Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

Forrester then came up with a typical consumer goal for each of the four industries. The Forrester "athlete," for example, was looking for a running shoe that combined fashion and performance and the closest store to buy it.

Their fact-finding mission: How well did the sites communicate their company's brands, and how effectively did they meet their customers' goals? Turns out, it's difficult to do both.

The top image makers

Of the 16 companies under scrutiny, six passed the Forrester test for brand image -- Nike (the frontrunner), Apple, Dell, Discover, Wendy's and Adidas. The sites were judged on six criteria: how well the content spoke to the product's quality, the online functions, the tone of the language, the product imagery, the typography and the layout.

Nike's site is "almost perfect," Manning said. "This is obviously one of the great brands of the world. The company is very clear about what it stands for." The content focuses relentlessly on the Nike mission "to bring innovation and inspiration to every athlete in the world."

"I'm no athlete, and that site made me want to get up from my desk and run," said Manning, adding that the content is exceptional, from instructional videos on Brazilian dance to training logs and pace calculators.

Apple also "maxed out" on content (copy that's a kick to read; typography on par with expensive print catalogs), but fell down on function. "Apple does a great job making you want to buy a Powerbook, but then does a poor job of helping you buy it," Manning said.


The message was clear at Dell, where everything shouted value, from "Dell deals" and free shipping offers to old prices crossed out with new lower prices popping out in color. The "surprising" omission on the site was Dell's current tagline, "Get more out of now."

Wendy's "Quality is our recipe" shtick, saturated the site. The site out-competed Pizza Hut, where the food was almost "too small to see," as well as Burger King, where orbiting sandwiches "literally made our reviewers queasy," Manning said.

Customer service

On what Forrester calls "brand action," or how well each site supported a typical goal for target users, only Dell and Wendy's scored eight or higher on a possible 12 points. (Discover got an honorable mention. "They are so branded, it's scary," Manning said.)

As many computer purchasers know, Dell makes buying a laptop easy, providing content that exceeded expectations. Product details, comparison charts and views from five different angles got rave reviews. The only "hiccup" is text that is sometimes too small to read, Forrester concluded.

Manning chose not to provide many details on why the others failed "brand action," but the report includes a chart that gives the pecking order. At the bottom of the class for consumer support: IBM, Reebok and Pizza Hut.

The takeaway: First know thyself. "You have to have as crisp an idea of who you want to appear to be, as who you are selling to," Manning said.


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