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Is Your Brand Getting Lost in the Online Shuffle?

24 Feb 2020


Nike recently announced that it would stop selling its footwear and apparel through Amazon in an effort to take more control over its brand presence online. In making the announcement, Nike executives stated that the company didn’t need distribution for distribution’s sake. Instead, it wanted to make investments that would lead to a better online experience for its customers and build more direct, personal relationships.

Nike’s decision highlights a fundamental challenge for companies that have ambitions to make e-commerce an important part of their marketing activities: how to apply their experience and wisdom around effective brand strategy in the offline world to online shopping. Successful brick-and-mortar merchants understand the value of a carefully organized and coherent brand merchandising plan and would never say, “Just line up all the products and let customers muddle through.” Yet this is essentially what people get when they shop online.

Few companies have the resources or market clout to take direct control of their online presence like Nike is doing. Even powerful, well-established brands tend to rely on e-commerce sites like Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and Etsy.com for online sales. Unilever, the consumer goods giant, for example, generates about 5% of its worldwide revenue online, but only a small fraction of those sales come from its own websites; the rest come from the likes of Walmart.com and Amazon.com. Apparel brands Hanes and Levi’s rely heavily on major online retailers for digital distribution. The same goes for toys and games, where Lego, Mattel, Hasbro, and Nintendo achieve more than 80% of their online sales through Amazon.

However, by relying on third-party sites for digital growth and logistical distribution, product marketers are at the mercy of the watered-down customer experience these sites provide, diluting their visual equity and their overall brand value proposition. Indeed, if you search for “skin care products” on Amazon, for example, you’ll be bombarded with a seemingly endless display of results — more than 100,000 of them. Obviously, this doesn’t help online customers recognize and understand the value proposition of a particular product or brand. Nor does it help to inform the customer’s selection among the different product versions within a company’s brand portfolio.

Building Connections With Consumers

Effective brick-and-mortar retailers find ways to create rich sensory experiences with consumers. They understand that visual aesthetics and carefully designed displays of merchandise are important building blocks that make emotional connections with their consumers and help customers navigate and engage with brands. Consumers need to see and connect with your brand to become loyal buyers as opposed to being simply purchasers.

Companies with strong brands also know that consumers shop with their eyes. Therefore, they seek out opportunities to build and display coherent lines of products with a distinctive look and feel — something that’s difficult to achieve in most online shopping experiences. According to a recent McKinsey study, companies that place a priority on cohesive design generate 32% more revenue growth and 56% higher total returns to shareholders than enterprises that don’t.

Many companies with strong brands use brand architecture to organize their offerings into collections of products with similar visual characteristics and benefits. This helps customers find what they’re looking for and understand what the brand has to offer. A strong brand also can become a launchpad for new product extensions that leverage deeper and more profitable relationships with particular customer groups. Businesses without a broad portfolio are limited in their ability to grow in ways that take advantage of the credibility, visual recognition, and purchasing loyalty they work so hard to build.

Often, consumers don’t realize the extent to which they use a visual and emotional evaluation process to make their buying decisions because the process happens so quickly. For instance, when somebody purchases Diet Coke Ginger Lime, they are actually buying the Coke identity and the promise of Diet Coke, with ginger and lime flavor.

Many brands, in fact, have constructed product portfolios around visual identities and benefits that are geared toward particular customer segments. Structured carefully, companies can tie the shopping experience to rich and engaging brand narratives. Yet when presented through sites like Amazon or Zappos, the product portfolio is not displayed, and the brand message is muted. The customer experience online is reduced to rows and columns of product images from an array of competing suppliers.

Reimagining the Online Experience

The digital, technical, and visual branding opportunities that e-commerce afford are still evolving; even so, smart companies and their marketing teams should strive to distinguish their offerings from competitors’ by enhancing and aligning their brand messages online. This calls for a new level of collaboration between brand owners and major e-commerce sites to optimize the customer’s online experience. Working together, online marketplaces and marketers can create shopping coherence for customers, where the brand’s value and message are presented with greater consistency and emotion.

Although e-commerce destinations can and should emphasize the breadth of their offerings along with speedy distribution and delivery, they should also provide enhanced opportunities for visual branding. Marketers, in turn, should emphasize their brand’s visual attributes and overall quality within the digital marketplaces. The following principles can help companies reveal inconsistencies between their brand’s online presence and their brand strategy in the physical world. It is not expected that every company can tackle all of these principles at once. However, they provide a useful starting point for gaining greater control of brand messaging online.

Your e-commerce presence should be consistent with your in-store experience. Companies have opportunities to restage their e-commerce presence to capitalize on the visual brand cues their consumers are familiar with and connect to. Outdoor apparel brand The North Face, for example, builds its branding around the joy of the outdoors. Therefore, every product offering it displays online or in its physical stores should reflect this fundamental message. Even simple digital product shots can include evocative backgrounds that reinforce the brand’s outdoors spirit.

Products sold online should reflect your overall brand prestige. Look for ways to reinforce each offering in your portfolio with the power of your overarching brand proposition, regardless of which channel you’re selling through. Le Creuset, the high-end French cookware manufacturer, is known to chefs around the world. Every product the company puts its name on, be it a $20 vegetable peeler or a $400 cast-iron Dutch oven, should build on the attributes of the Le Creuset brand, with its distinctive colors and well-presented usage suggestions.

Your e-commerce presence should invite customer engagement. Do what you can to make your online presence fun and visually captivating, so consumers look forward to shopping for your brand whether they are on your own brand’s website or on Amazon.com. Consumers should be able to virtually touch your product and imagine it as a part of their lives — much as they would connect with your brand physically. American Girl, which has sold dolls based on stories since the 1980s, has a product offering that lets customers design their own doll.

Your e-commerce strategy should grow your brand though repeat purchases. Visually reinforce your overall brand identity, making your products stand out as a way to build customer loyalty. For example, the packaging of the Huggies diaper brand relies heavily on the color red. This makes its portfolio of offerings easy for customers to spot, regardless of whether they are shopping in a store or on an online site. Repeat purchases are sustained by customer familiarity and trust.

Despite the limitations, online shopping is here to stay. The convenience, speed, and price-comparison advantages are powerful lures for both customers and companies. Nevertheless, the benefits for companies need to extend beyond quick sales and fast delivery. Ultimately, they must find ways to collaborate with third-party e-commerce sites to help build their own brands. Companies that succeed in closing the gap between their physical retail presence and how they manage their brands digitally will gain big advantages over their competitors.


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This content was originally published by MIT Sloan Management Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By MIT Sloan Management Review

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