Brandversation: Creating an Online Branded Experience

Brand Identity is a conversation, an interaction–a brandversation. Like any

conversation, it leaves an impression. Of course, the nature of the impression will depend on the value of the interaction, the way it has been communicated, the way it has been received, and the extent to which it has been engaged.

By the mis-1990s, the Internet had changed the way we worked: the way we were

educated: they way we played, shopped, and communicated. And it promised more.

For anyone involved, this transformational time was exhilarating and exasperating.

The learning curve was no longer a curve but a straight line moving vertically from

its base. The future was again upon us with predictions of revolutionary change and

rapidly developing evidence of that change. Movie theaters would cease to be, the

Internet would bring the demise of radio and television, there would be no further

use of the Post Office, the corner video store would be replaced by online, on-

demand subscription services, and every brick and mortar store would become click

and mortar.

Brandversation v1.0

Corporations rushed with a vengeance to grab history and launch their websites.

The first-generation websites were little more than electronic brochures, and were

commonly referred to as brochure-ware. These sites usually contained an “about

us” statement, some corporate philosophy that had been resurrected from the

company’s archives, dusted off, and lightly rewritten. Descriptions of the company’s

products and services, a careers section, and a “contact us” link were included to

finish of the site. Branding was considered to have been addressed if the company

logo and slogan were in a prominent place and appeared in, as close to the

corporate colors and the web would allow.

Brandversation 2.0

Evolution into more adventurous territory spawned the birth of second-generation

sites: interactive sites. Here a company’s hope was to mine data, with the intent that

this information would help it better understand the consumer. This collection of

data would build a profile on a consumer and, in theory, provide the company with a

rich understanding of the consumer’s lifestyle and spending habits. The hope was

to benefit both the consumer and the company. Usually this was accomplished by

giving something to the consumer in exchange for filling out a brief customer

profile. Case in point: The New York Times gave free access to its online edition to

those who completed such a form. The form requested personal profile and asked

permission to e-mail information that the company thought might be relevant to the

user. Once this was completed, the user had daily access to the news and the Times

had a “cookie” (an informational retrieval) embedded in the user’s computer. In

theory, this cookie could provide a stream of information, including following the

consumer’s online navigational history.

Attention was paid to the brand experience, but only as it applied to the content of

the product or service offered. If a company had a fun product or service, the

experience was made more playful; more businesslike products or services gave a

more straightforward experience. Although a plethora of data was collected, many

companies did not know where to go with this information, where to store the ever-

increasing supply being poured into their system or how to use it.

What was emerging was an exploration into the user expectations and, in fact, into

the way future business would be conducted and branded. Great effort was taken to

ensure that consistent branding and brandversation emerged between the content

of the product or service, but contextual branding was only hinted at.

Brandversation v3.0

Soon third-generation, transactional sites appeared. Business could actually

Be conducted as information was harvested. For a brief moment in time, the idea of

a web centric environment revealed a future where much more was possible.

However, the original hope of having a low-cost media vehicle proved unreachable,

as the drive toward web advertising proved that bringing traffic to a site was a costly

affair. The heavy lifting of driving eyeballs to sites proved to be a Herculean task.

The promise of web centricity proved to be the downfall of many sites. Only a few

web-only business prospered, although not necessarily financially. Companies like

Amazon, which had developed a business model based on retaining each customer

and refining customer profiles over a significant number of years (as long as 12

years), built better customer loyalty. Not only did their plan provide a model for an

extended brandversation, but their ability to harvest information on their customers

also permitted them to develop a richer brand experience. Contextualizing created

rich experiences for customers and other suggestions in their category of interest.

By taking the legwork out of the customer’s research and showing interest in the

customer’s request, Amazon built a brand that is customer centric. Contextualizing

the customer’s experience actually builds business for Amazon.

Brandversation v4.0

The destination site or destination fulfillment business model is undergoing a

colossal evolution that goes beyond web centric or brick-and-mortar-centric

models. It is a profound change that has refocused many corporations from a web

centric perspective to one that is customer-centric. Simply providing an

environment as a platform for the content is not enough. The user wants more, and

is being given more, and this has put more pressure on the brand promise. The user

is demanding content and an experience that is relevant to and engaging to him/


The expanding digital bubble that surrounds each consumer also increases the

pressure on every brand promise. Content is expected, but content alone does not

constitute or guarantee success. Content must be delivered in a contextualized

environment. Contextualized branding links touch points throughout the user’s

experience, making the experience more relevant and rewarding.

The Internet continually reconfirms that its power lies in the ability to connect

people and ideas. The popularity of the chat rooms, user groups, e-mail, and other

forms of social networking are but a few everyday examples. Brand must also make

that connection to the individual. Today, companies must act as though everyone

has been wired into a wireless world.

Narrowcasting versus Broadcasting

Contextualized branding does not look at communicating a general message to a

large group of people. Quite the opposite: it narrowcasts a message, personalizing

that message for a specific audience. By building an audience of ones with a

targeted message, every message adds value to the brandversation between the

brand and the user. Johnson and Johnson’s Tylenol banner campaign explored this

concept by running banner advertisements on the financial sites: the ads for Tylenol

appeared whenever the market dropped 100 points or more.

The brand promise is an experience, a journey, and a friendly walk that always adds

new value to the experience. It can bring consumers back or send consumers

searching for another experience to meet or exceed their expectations. The more

the brand promise considers the needs of the individual consumer, the deeper that

consumer’s loyalty to the brand will be.

Theme parks are exploring ways to improve brand experience by giving users smart

cards that allow them to avoid waiting in lines. By swiping a smart card at a card

reader on the ride of choice, the user registers a place in line and is given a time to

return. In our wireless environment, we will soon be able to do
this from cars on the

way to the theme park. Once we arrive, there will be no need to stand in lines, as

the schedule will have been preprogrammed from our cell phones, ensuring more

fun -a better branded experience.

Furthermore, knowing a customer’s schedule would enable the theme park to send

him or her relevant targeted messages. He/her could receive instant messages as

he/she moved through the park, suggesting places to eat and offering coupons or

discount for eating at certain times at certain food providers. Not only does this

richen our user’s branded experience, but also it helps draw customers into places

in the park that may require traffic at that moment, improving the user’s experience

as well as the park’s overall business.

Brand is a conversation that can take place at any of the encounter points that exist

in a consumer experience. At a theme park, the user could enter the experience at

any point though a phone call to the park or travel agent, or a purchase at a

souvenir stand. The user picks his/her point of entry: the user is in control.

A credit card owner has multiple entrance points into a brand. The card owner could

enter her experience by paying a bill online or making a purchase at a store.

Wherever she enters into the experience, she will be touched by the brand. It is the

responsibility if the company to ensure a meaningful contextualized experience if it

wants to retain the customer.

Contextualized Brand

The speed at which the Internet has evolved has highlighted the importance of the

brand experience. It has also revealed that the experience must be relevant and


Brand experience is a one-fold proposition: brand and experience cannot exist with

the other. For a band to survive, it must display a very clear, distinguishable brand

promise, focus and goal. Brand attributes go beyond the immediate benefits of a

product or service and are influenced by the attributes of the brand promise, as it is

contextualized throughout the touch points of the consumer experience.

Contextualizing the consumer experience means developing a branded experience

that constantly exceeds a customer’s expectation. Imagine a scenario in which you

are connected to a true brandversation. Make it simple, a scenario booking an

airline ticket for a business trip. You want to arrive in New York and return a week

later. As you book the ticket, you are given a list of car rentals, hotels, restaurants,

and special events happening at the time of your visit, personalized to your own

preregistered preferences (sports fans get a list of sports events, geeks find the

latest techie exhibitions and hot spots in the city); a reminder to send a gift to your

dad for his birthday (with a suggested selection of gifts); a wake up and weather

service call. It was the Internet space that reconfirmed what was previously known

but has been somewhat forgotten. Branding means a great user experience. Good

Internet branding went beyond logos, taglines, slogans and corporate statements

into real-time interaction for an online experience that is meaningful.

But branding

does not stop there. Developing a contextualized experience may include doing

more than one company is able to provide. Coalition programs, partnership between

companies with the purpose of providing a seamless consumer experience,

recognize the importance of granularly defining a company’s brand relationship to

other companies in the emerging wi-fi environment. As consumers settle into their

digital, wired bubbles, the demand for personalized experiences will intensify.

Don’t leave Home Without it

Our communication technology has us wired to the world, exposing the user to the

branded experience 24/7, anywhere, any time and all at their choosing. The more

robust the technology becomes, the more creative minds find ways to employ it. M-

technology notifies us when we are in the vicinity of a friend or business contact. It

offers us coupons redeemable at restaurants we are passing by. It notifies us when a

book we are interested in has arrived as we pass by a store.

Today in Japan, DoMoCo has put all of this in place. Teenage girls have totally

embraced this technology, turning their mobile phoned/e-mail/entertainment/wi-fi

environment into a fashion item worn as a necklace.

Salarymen are wired in and out of the office as Gen3 mobile technology becomes

ubiquitous. A man looking through the car showroom window at the latest Mercedes

after the dealership has closed can use his phone to scan a QR code on the window.

This can activate a commercial on his mobile phone broadcasting a commercial

demonstrating all the features of the vehicle of any car he is interested in. NNT

DoMoCo’s success lies in its creative ability to align its brand with thousand of other


Cell phone ownership among teenagers in Sweden is 100 percent. The opportunity

to immerse an audience in a deep branded digital communication is limited only by

our ability to creatively use current and future technology.

Today’s branded experience is an interconnected experience that links the user with

a robust, meaningful, personalized, prioritized experience. It requires a brand vision

that is creative, customer-centric, and globally encompassing. The user is in control

they want information when they are ready to receive it. The digital environment

provides us with the technology to meet this demand. From blogs, podcasts, social

networks, destination sites, he user has more touchpoints to interact with and each

one offers an opportunity to deepen their loyalty to a brand but it requires a

brandversation that is imagination and compelling. It requires people with a

relentless creative vision and imagination to continually evolve the brand


Article by Ken Thurlbeck

From The Digital Designer ISBN 0-7668-7347-1

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