Internet PR: E-tailers log on to the benefits of branding - Rapid expansion in the e-commerce industry has caused e-tailers to scramble for PR aid in a frantic bid to distinguish themselves from their on-line competitors

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of new internet retailers hiring in PR expertise to build their cyber brands.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of new internet

retailers hiring in PR expertise to build their cyber brands.



US children’s e-tailer eToys has appointed Jackie Cooper PR; media group

Bertelsmann’s on-line book and music outlet BOL.com has picked

Powerhouse; and jungle.com, which sells CDs, videos and DVDs, has turned

to Cohn and Wolfe, to name but a few.



In the run-up to Christmas, competition in the cyber high street is set

to be fierce. For PR, this is an exciting prospect.



With many strong internet brands - such as book retailer Amazon -

already out there, and an increasing specialisation on the net - Boots

and Hollinger are about to launch a women-friendly site called

handbag.com - it is no longer enough to set up just another web site. An

increasing number of companies are thus likely to need consumer

communications expertise.



For a brand which already exists in the real world, this is a genuine

opportunity to extend core values on-line.



Joe Public Relations managing director Matthew Wood says that this is

just what his company has been doing for Tesco Direct. ’Tesco is a huge

consumer brand, so as we rolled out its internet shopping service to the

regions, the same brand messages of value for money and service still

apply,’ he says.



But for cyberworld-only brands, there is a need to create a distinct

identity. Jan Stannard, joint MD of PR agency Marbles, which carries out

consumer PR for a range of e-tailers, says: ’After you’ve analysed the

brand characteristics, the main differential with competitors is always

going to be content-based.’



At a basic level, this means that whatever a brand promises, if an

e-tailer fails to deliver on-site navigation, product or service, its

brand values are empty. However, Stannard adds: ’If a company chose to

do some platform work - a book site might decide it is going to position

itself as an educational specialist - then you would have to look at

off-line activities such as sponsorship to gain a competitive edge.’



Although a PR strategy has yet to be unveiled, these are the sort of

activities that BOL and its agency Powerhouse plan to implement over the

coming months.



While around 10,000 new users go on-line each month, establishing a real

world presence is still regarded as central to any launch strategy for

those who can afford it.



Last month, to drive traffic to its launch site, jungle.com pushed its

key message ’We’ll beat all prices’ to potential customers through

radio, print and poster advertising featuring jungle animals and a

pounds 10 million product give-away.



Jungle.com team leader at Cohn and Wolfe Chris Cox explains: ’We gave

people a compelling reason to visit the jungle.com site and taste the

jungle shopping experience, without ’taking the plunge’ of giving out

their credit card details and paying for a transaction.’



After last week’s security crisis over Microsoft’s Hotmail service, this

’something for nothing’ initiative has proved to be a smarter move than

originally planned.



But with on-line consumers able to be fickle at the press of a button,

building a distinctive brand is also a matter of maintaining customer

loyalty.



In many ways this so-called problem of ’stickiness’ is one of site

content and levels of service. Grace Fodor, director of Fodor Wyllie

which handles the on-line arm of book publisher Harper Collins,

fireandwater.com, says: ’It’s incredibly difficult to develop loyalty,

but you have to create a reason for the client to come back. As the

internet is a real-time medium and you have very little time to make an

impression, compelling incentives and special offers that are

continually updated are essential.’



This creates interesting choices for companies which exist both on-line

and off-line. Dixons’ out-of-town software outlet Jakarta, for example,

sells products both in-store and through e-commerce.



’To make it more competitive on the internet, it has to offer large

discounts. But it also has Jakarta.com terminals in-store,’ says Vikki

Stace, managing director of Powerhouse, which handles the Jakarta

account.



However, some companies have decided to create a cyber-only brand for

their e-tail presence, despite having a strong real world identity.

Prudential, for instance, has marketed itself to young professional

net-users with its Egg service, while Fodor says that Harper Collins

went for the name fireandwater ’because with books, the relationship

tends to be between author - not publisher - and consumer.’



This highlights the need to pay attention not only to what people want

to buy, but also how they like to shop.



In the US, on-line retailer e-toys has targeted young mothers by

creating word-of-mouth about its ’different’ shopping experience.



According to European marketing director James Bidwell, over the coming

months his company plans to create similar excitement in the UK.



To entice parents and other relatives to its site, e-toys is likely to

push such unique offerings as its ’wish list’ service, where youngsters

can create a list of top toys that is e-mailed to various relatives in

time for some serious shopping before birthdays or Christmas.



While the core work of differentiating an e-commerce brand is in many

ways the same as that of any brand, there are also less traditional PR

techniques for creating a unique personality.



In the US, video e-tailers are increasingly looking to post

off-the-wall, independent reviews of films on their sites. ’You can be

much more anarchic on-line,’ says Stace, ’You can set up autonomous web

sites that are official, but take a more guerrilla approach to

customers.’



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