If You Brand It, They Won’t Just Buy, They’ll Buy In

The Brand." Ugh. Just hearing the term makes me want to puke. "Branding" was the most over-hyped concept forced on econtent companies by the media and VCs in the dot-com era. And that's saying a lot because almost everything in the online world was over-hyped a few years ago. The result was countless econtent executives who got their knickers in a twist about the outward manifestation of their brand including logos, image ads, and even tchotchkes.

So what about now? Yes, the brand is certainly important to econtent companies. But what's really at stake—in fact, what branding's really about—is a focus on the customer. As each customer builds an emotional response to a company, that emotion becomes the brand image for them. Fortunately, many great econtent companies understand that the provision of quality information together with a useful UI and reliable customer support does more to build brands than pretty logos, cool giveaways, and hip partner deals. Yet, for every econtent company that's taking this knowledge to the bank, there are still more focusing on branding for its own sake.

My first experience with brand abuse was in the early 1980s, when fashion design houses like Yves Saint Laurent licensed their logos to any old shoddy manufacturer. Logos were slapped on everything from handbags and scarves to cigarettes and perfume. I even saw a toilet lid with a YSL logo. It seemed the prevailing attitude of these brands was: "if you brand it, they will buy." Inevitably, the brand image tarnished (or, as in the case of the commode seat, worse) due to poor quality and over exposure. It took YSL a decade to crawl back and some design houses of the era never fully recovered.

Unfortunately, some econtent companies are headed down the path of 1980s Yves Saint Laurent. Dare I say it, Yahoo! is one. As Web pioneers, the marketers at Yahoo! wrote the rules for online branding. However, the sheer number of brand extensions and service partnerships will make it difficult for Yahoo! to maintain a consistently positive brand image with consumers. For example, in just a few short months, Yahoo! launched such major initiatives as Yahoo! Web hosting, Yahoo! Platinum (a premium online video and audio service), and SBC Yahoo! DSL.

The press release with partner SBC Communications announcing SBC Yahoo! DSL says: "Yahoo!, a leading global Internet company, brings the strength of its brand, compelling content, and millions of loyal users." The Yahoo! brand, huh? Loyal users? It seems they think that if they brand it, we'll buy it. Recently, one of the dial-up services used at my home converted to SBC Yahoo! when Prodigy, our previous ISP, was acquired. From the moment the SBC Yahoo! disk was loaded, problems occurred. The connections through SBC Yahoo! were much slower than Prodigy and we received a tremendous increase in junk email. But most frustrating of all was the inability to receive email from Japan because the service discarded all emails from .co.jp domains. After numerous visits to the online help—five calls to SBC Yahoo! customer support (who suggested five different fixes)— we gave up and switched to Earthlink. I've heard of similar problems with SBC Yahoo! from others intimately familiar with the service. Yes, Yahoo! has been a great brand with millions of loyal customers. But the Yahoo! Brand is sorely tarnished in my home. I just hope Yahoo! doesn't follow YSL into the men's room.

Examples of econtent companies with careful attention to their customers (and their brand) abound. In the B2B space, consider Bloomberg. Over more than 15 years of growth, Bloomberg executives have always remembered their core customer is the professional trader at a financial institution who was worth the $1200 or so their employer plunked down each and every month for their screen. Bloomberg extended the brand beyond their online core to magazines, books, radio, TV, and the Web. The strategy of building a consumer brand on the back of a B2B brand was so successful for Bloomberg that it greatly contributed to placing Michael Bloomberg into his current role as Mayor of New York City.

Since the birth of the company in 1994, The Motley Fool's mission has remained the same: to educate, enrich, and amuse individual investors around the world. They've stayed true to their brand, and the customers who rely on it, even as they've extended from econtent to offline markets. The Fool's nationally syndicated weekly newspaper feature debuted in 1997 and now appears in more than 200 papers. The Fools are on National Public Radio and have four books out (each has climbed to Business Week's bestseller list). To be sure, The Motley Fool has been enticed by big "co-brand deals," but they've had the guts to walk away from inappropriate brand extensions. Good for them. The Fool's success—and that of other wise econtent companies—will continue because of a focus on core customers and the original econtent service.