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
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
’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
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
’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
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
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
Or just type in ’http://www. marks-and-spencer.co.uk’ on your
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
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
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
’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
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
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
It is essential that local or regional organisations are allowed to
tailor their messages for their local audiences, but maintain their
A good parallel from the commercial world is the Kelloggs UK
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
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
This is reflected in a ’starburst’ logo specially adapted for, and now
prominent at all Employment Service sites. (start at http://www.
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
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
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
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://220.127.116.11/shellbase/press/current/summary.cfm), or other
commercial media services such as IPMG Newsdesk
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.