FOCUS: INTERNET/MULTIMEDIA - Forging new links in web designs/As more consumers log in to company web sites, international organisations are working hard to ensure that branding remains consistent from country to country. Tom Dawn reports

Just as customers expect a Marks and Spencer store to look the same in Paris as it does in London, so a company’s global web sites should be indistinguishable.

Just as customers expect a Marks and Spencer store to look the same

in Paris as it does in London, so a company’s global web sites should be

indistinguishable.



But many web sites, ostensibly created by the same company, can be quite

different in both their visual image and content, depending on the

country of origin. Others fall down with indifferent or even no

branding, often appearing quite different from the established image of

the company.



’A lot of organisations have allowed individual countries to go off and

do their own web site, but they often don’t convey brand values in the

way that the company would want them to,’ explains June Dawson managing

director of Words etc.



But when a web site delivers a clear message and ensures the image is

consistent with the company, it then becomes an excellent opportunity to

extend brand values.



Content is king in web sites and providing messages tailored to

specialist audiences is the major contribution of PR to sites. However,

a well-made web site also demands that its visual branding is in harmony

with a company’s marketing objectives. ’PR has to come together with

advertising to make it happen,’ says Dawson.



She adds that two or three years ago, there were technical barriers to

presenting visual branding on the web and many companies chose to pursue

alternative routes.



Although branding on the web is much easier nowadays, the technical

nature of the web often obscures simple communications issues. From the

perspective of users, global inconsistency and mis-directed

communications, score highly.



’The technologies of the printing press or a radio signal and the

internet are equally obscure,’ says Ben Shaw, consultant at Hill and

Knowlton Netcoms.



’The difference is that we have been used to pumping our communications

messages through different channels. With the Internet we are

consolidating all our audiences into one medium, so how does a

pharmaceutical company distinguish shareholders from its patient

community?’



Shaw points out that shareholders are interested in the profits to be

gained from a product while patients are interested in the benefits, and

may be offended by the commercial view.



One area of enormous potential in which branding is key, is the

development of the internet into a major retail channel. This is

illustrated by the growth of online sales in the computer industry.

International Data, a market research firm, estimated that total

computer hardware and software industry sales were dollars US21 billion

in 1997. In the same year, Forrester Research reported that total online

computer-related sales were four per cent of that, at dollars

US863million. It predicts online computer-related sales will increase to

dollars US3.8 billion by 2001.



This therefore creates a problem for retail brands, as Shaw

explains.



Major brands such as Marks and Spencer, or Currys, may be a success on

the high street, but they have an enormous challenge in adapting their

organisations for the internet. The problems extends to stock control,

payment, logistics and fulfilment (delivery). But one of the biggest

problems is ’how do you get prime retail space on-line?’ says Shaw.



Interestingly, there is now an official Marks and Spencer web site,

although if you try to find it using the world’s leading search engine

you’ll need some determination. It is worth trying a new service

oriented towards big-name companies, called the Real Name System

(http://www.realnames.com/).



Or just type in ’http://www. marks-and-spencer.co.uk’ on your

browser.



The M&S site deals with branding in a well thought-out way: for

international visitors it presents M&S as part of the London tourist

trail, while for UK visitors it segments reader types as is now the

norm. This one web site is full of opportunities for PR practitioners -

there are areas targeted at shareholders, the media, educational users,

and for business-to-business communications.



There are also substantial areas devoted to marketing activities - to

online customers, the site offers promotions, with a strong emphasis on

gathering reader information. It also gives prominence to financial

services, its catalogue and other home delivery services.



The low-profile introduction of the M&S site reflects its caution about

trying new technology. A recent article in the Guardian (Online, 14 May

1998) acts as a reminder that being on the internet may be good for your

brand image, but getting the product right comes first.



Under the headline ’Black day for banking’ the article concentrated on

just one customer’s dissatisfaction with the technical performance of

First Direct’s first internet banking service. First Direct’s response

to the paper was that the internet banking service had not been fully

launched yet. The special PC banking phone number included in its

adverts was ’purely brand advertising’.



But it is now conventional wisdom that the internet has created the

idiom of brand-as-publisher. Brand owners are no longer restricted to

providing information to readers, listeners, or viewers through

third-party media.



Their web sites provide a direct channel of communication. Most

importantly, they provide a new route to one-to-one marketing - using

web sites to gather information about readers, and using e-mail to

maintain a dialogue with them.



’There is enormous value in building a database of loyal customers and

their e-mail addresses,’ says Phil Redding, deputy managing director of

new media specialist The Presentation Company.



A good recent example of an attempt to achieve this is at the Homebase

Web site (www.homebase.co.uk), designed by The Presentation Company.



The Homebase site seeks similar goals to the store’s own magazine,

extending the ’lifestyle’ values of the brand in a way that a

semi-industrial DIY warehouse cannot. However, the feedback form and

links for loyalty card holders are squarely aimed at building a customer

address database. Its potential value is in tailored direct-mail based

on visitors’ browsing habits.



A very similar approach has proved invaluable to Rizla, the roll-up

cigarette paper maker, owned by Imperial Tobacco (www.rizla.com).

According to Aidan Cook, director of site design company Sense Internet,

the web site provides a communication route to a select audience in a

product area restricted by the voluntary tobacco advertising code.

Again, the site has generated a mailing list of ’between 1,000 and

10,000 names’ in which academic email addresses are well-represented.

This will be used to promote Rizla-branded merchandise and for

announcements about Rizla-sponsored events.



’The Rizla brand image is very tight,’ says Cook. ’They were very

nervous about the internet at first, partly because of the ’what shall

we do?’ question and partly because doing nothing is safer than doing

something wrong. We at Sense say if you’re not on the internet then it

is easy to be mis-represented. Filling readers’ needs helps make sure

there are no derogatory sites about them.’



These examples are clear evidence that the web is developing towards

more than just presentation of established brand images, and more than

just tailored content aimed at specialised readerships. It reflects the

whole business development of a company, and contains a significant

marketing input.



If there is one thing that PR professionals must remember about the

internet, it is that successful sites reflect and extend the brand

values that customers are familiar with. And that is a result of

teamwork between practitioners and their colleagues in advertising,

marketing, and designers.



CASE STUDY: HEATHROW EXPRESS’ HIGH SPEED LINK



Considering that it is a very local service, the new rail link between

Heathrow and Paddington has a very international purpose.



This month, sees the unveiling of the newly-branded Heathrow Express,

which has until now been bumping along with an interim ’FastTrain’ brand

image. The advertising theme will be ’Famous for Fifteen Minutes’ and

the web site (http://www. heathrowexpress.com) will be a key part of the

brand building.



’Our aim is to position the brand globally - that is to tailor content

depending on the region that the customer comes from,’ says Najam

Kidwai, head of digital services at Crown Business Communications, the

company which designed the web site.



The launch this month will include the first phase of the new web site,

which will focus on raising awareness of the new service, the business

and environmental benefits, such as taking 3,000 cars off the road. ’The

web is very effective for this, because it is global,’ adds Kidwai.



The home page, which features a moving strapline with the words: ’the

world in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes’ leads to more pages, such as Fast

Train ticket sales. This provides browsers with a contact number for

enquiries and details of fare prices. Another page, the Heathrow Express

Gallery, lists frequently asked questions.



As a part of BAA, Heathrow Express will build on the established

corporate identity used in printed media. The second phase of the web

site, planned for this month, will see customer services branded with

the new corporate identity.



The customer service will provide information about customer care,

hotels, tourist and business information, as well as information from

BAA’s partners, such as airlines and hotels.



The third phase of the site will include e-commerce, a service which

allows customers to buy their tickets in advance over the internet. They

can then collect their tickets at a dedicated window on arrival at the

airport.



Design for the global brand included eliciting feedback from a ’focus

group’ of 15 people of various nationalities and characters. Most of the

users had convenient access to the internet already.



With their assistance, Crown chose to obtain a set of colours,

metaphors, layouts, and images that appealed to a wide variety of

cultures and tastes.



’Positioning the brand globally could take a couple of years,’ says

Kidwai.



The web site designers will study visitors’ web browsing habits and then

experiment with different promotions to find the successful blend.

Foreign language services are a possible add-on, with US/English a

likely starting place.



CASE STUDY: EMPLOYMENT SERVICES OFFERS A CLEAR PATH



Perhaps the idea of providing corporate design guidelines for Employment

Service web sites sounds a bit dull.



But this is the same nitty-gritty approach that global organisations

need to take if they are to restore a semblance of corporate

branding.



It is essential that local or regional organisations are allowed to

tailor their messages for their local audiences, but maintain their

brand values.



A good parallel from the commercial world is the Kelloggs UK

(www.kelloggs.co.



uk) and Kelloggs US sites (www.kelloggs.com). If you happen to find the

US site first, it will re-direct you to your own national site in the

UK, Korea, or Japan. Follow the links and the regional flavours are very

apparent.



Until recently the internet presence of UK Government agency Employment

Service was completely unordered. There are still many sites answering

to the description ’Employment Service’ with all sorts of content. It is

a confusing picture, made worse when parts of the national agency had no

recognisable look or feel. However, the agency has now adopted standard

corporate design guidelines. ’However you get there, you will recognise

that you have arrived,’ explains Alison Clark, former MD of Shandwick

Public Affairs, and now director and content strategist of new media

company Fahrenheit 451.



The regional organisations of the Employment Service are highly

devolved, and able to manage most of their own affairs. The service as a

whole is affected by the Government’s New Deal for the unemployed, which

is run by the Department of Employment. Although they are separate

organisations, the New Deal will provide the de facto branding for the

Employment Service.



This is reflected in a ’starburst’ logo specially adapted for, and now

prominent at all Employment Service sites. (start at http://www.

employmentservice.gov.uk/eshome.htm)



Guidelines on content are determined by what Clark calls ’take-out’

analysis, which focuses on reducing content to what your visitor wants

to take out from your site, and what you want, and are able to provide

them with.



Regional agencies still provide whatever information they want to, but

they are also given the facility to link up to the central ’corporate’

site and share common resources that every site is likely to want. The

links are cunningly disguised so that people browsing through the

Employment Service do not notice when they flick between different

sites. To help stop people from losing their way, any external links are

opened in a new window, so that readers keep their place in the

Employment Service site.



ONLINE INFORMATION: CUSTOMISING INDIVIDUAL MESSAGES



IT industry media relations is still a hi-tech generation ahead of the

rest of most other PR work. So it is to high-tech PR practitioners the

industry looks to provide examples of the kind of software tools that

will become far more widespread as the media eventually gets to grips

with internet technology.



And for a stylish example of how any practitioner could make a mark on

the internet, look at Manchester-based PR agency Communique’s

award-winning site (http://www.communiquepr. co.uk).



Brodeur A Plus and Profile PR have both been using a service called the

Internet Press Centre for several months (see

http://www.internetpresscentre.com/).



This combines a web site for journalists to look up or search for press

releases, with an e-mail-based direct mail function.



’We have to keep separate lists of our online journalists,’ explains

Andrew Smith, business group director at Brodeur A Plus. ’But in our

case, e-mail is the preferred form of information for most journalists.

We’re now keeping the database up-to-date, which is a job that firms

such as Two-Ten and PiMS have had in the past.’



There are two principal benefits of an off-the-shelf package geared

towards media relations. Firstly, it is easy to use. Adding a press

release to the web site is slightly simpler than printing in your own

office - you just paste the raw text into an online form. Formatting is

taken care of automatically, using templates designed for each

client.



Maintaining the contacts database requires you to type an e-mail

address, the clients that the journalist is interested in and their

preference for e-mail notification. Journalists can also add their own

details and preferences on the site. You can e-mail journalists the

headline of a press release, with an internet link to the whole text, or

you can send the full text. You can also choose between immediate

notification with every release, or periodic e-mails combining all the

most recent releases.



For journalists who visit the web site to collect releases, there is a

variety of search tools and a press release archive to help them look

for other relevant information. These features are very powerful and are

normally restricted to highly-customised corporate sites such as the

Shell International press centre

(http://195.12.3.201/shellbase/press/current/summary.cfm), or other

commercial media services such as IPMG Newsdesk

(http://www.newsdesk.com/).



Newsdesk, which hosts IBM’s press centre among others, is still a leader

in customised news service presentation - journalists can create their

own ’profile’ of interests such that they receive a tailor-made news

summary when they visit the Newsdesk web site.



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