The digital realm

Despite having the best of products or services, the reach of a company that has global aspirations remains limited without strong online branding

No company aspiring for global recognition that surpasses the physical limitations of traditional branding and advertising can ignore digital branding.

Strong online presence is a major factor that extends your credibility internationally as standard advertising mediums are rendered ineffectual in an international market with a passive audience that is not yet familiar with the product or service being offered.

With organisations in the Gulf region realising this, media agencies offering specialised services for e-branding have set up offices in Dubai. Called digital agencies, they specialise in revamping or designing ad campaigns that extend a company's brand identity into cyberspace.

The philosophy is similar to traditional marketing but it takes into account the technical abilities of your prospective client. What is important is that you recognise every available touchpoint for your brand online and give them the same respect you give offline channels," says Yousef Tuqan, CEO of Flip Media, which has successfully launched a number of websites for clients such as Emaar, Emirates and Jumeirah.

Going online is potentially the most powerful tool to influence attitudes because it employs a three-pronged strategy of creating awareness, marketing pitch and public relations all together. It allows a brand to foster a sense of community around it and build up a complete personality of its own, which can hold it in good stead with potential clients, investors or even a passive audience.

The ability to respond quickly using the Internet is now considered a standard benchmark of customer support and without a user-friendly website, a product has no ground to anchor its reputation. Johan Engelbrecht, creative director of Start Creative Dubai, which recently comple-ted the brand identity for MBC, says certain avenues of marketing qualify as digital branding.

"A website is always a good idea, but the question 'what kind of website' is more important. You need to ask yourself: What does my website need to communicate - a brand message or product detail? Would it need to be accessible to mobile devices more than traditional browsers? Above all, you need to look at who you are trying to reach, and work back from that."

Asked whether there is any standard procedures for anyone aspiring to create a digital presence, both say the process requires meticulous planning and flexibility. "Any branding exercise is a journey, not a destination and you cannot simply put a finish line on what you are doing. It requires constant investment, innovation and enhancement. I strongly advocate taking your time to define a strategy and understand what is capable online vs rushing blindly into a website redesign as it goes well beyond that initial project," Tuqan explains.

Traditional and digital branding

Experts say brand image has to be aligned with the brand identity and not vice versa. Digital branding can go wrong when companies treat traditional and digital branding alike and apply a similar strategy to both. "The core principles remain the same, but what makes online branding different is the rate of change and the ability of viewers to influence the dialogue around the brand," says Engelbrecht.

However, Tuqan is of the opinion that it is difficult to segregate branding as traditional or online and it should just be one single seamless experience. Alison Kerr, client director, Start Creative Dubai, also believes that branding on the Internet has some similarities to traditional branding.

"For any brand launch, online or offline, you have to start with a clear idea of your business plan and commercial objectives. You need to segment your customer base, identify target customers and then focus your communication around them."

But there are differences too. Traditional branding is inflexible in terms of consumer interaction but it provides you with the means to broadcast and deliver a message. In digital branding, the message may originate from you, but it will start gathering form or shape as a result of customer inputs. Many look at it as a positive thing because of direct feedback.
Companies like Boeing are actively encouraging feedback from passengers on the design and functionality of their aircraft. "A company cannot own a brand online. It is owned by its own customers as well as those of other brands. Important conversations and debates are now happening online that cannot be controlled by a brand," says Alison.

Benefits of digital branding

Tuqan says it is important for Gulf-based companies to invest in online profiles. "As a regional brand works to build a relationship with an overseas stakeholder, be it a new employee, investor or trading partner, the Internet offers it the only real opportunity to build credibility and trust. A solid website is the centerpiece of that opportunity."

He says regional brands ignore the Internet at their peril, and can swim against the tide only for so long. Engelbrecht says a strong digital brand presence builds credibility and in itself tells the customers or visitors that the brand they're interacting with is not only in the 21st century and contemporary, but also successful and forward looking.

"Above all, it projects the image of a brand that is interested in making their lives easier and more convenient by bringing its offerings and story closer to them - so close that it is no further than the mobile device in their pockets."

The added benefits include having an audience way beyond your core consumer base as it gains the attention of many more people than it would through traditional media. And of course, at a time of declining advertising budgets, a viral association for brand identity works wonders on market shares and profits.

Another aspect to the free 'shelf face' that online branding offers is the word of mouth that goes about in online communities and social networking sites. This idea is better explained by Engelbrecht, "Any brand with a strong online presence and open mind allows itself and its story to be exponentially redistributed throughout the Internet and online population without any cost to it, recreating something powerful and groundbreaking. It will be talked about in a million tweets and re-tweets in a week. That kind of attention used to cost a lot of money in traditional media."

This, he says, is the interactive facet of online branding that gives consumers the ability to own and contribute to the brand.

The hows of digital branding

Most of the agencies that offer these services begin with a branding workshop for the company, which may be preceded with a communication audit. Involving the employees of the company is very important, especially people in the marketing and IT divisions who know about the brand experience and the technical expertise of that company. They are the real brand ambassadors and know the best selling points of their product.

Tuqan elaborates on what their general process is with new clients. "We normally work in partnership with branding agencies when developing an online brand presence and stay involved with our clients once the projects are completed."

Flip Media has developed digital style guides and training documents, but prefers to act as a regular consultant to its clients to help them work with a fast-changing medium. The other important aspect to any digital project is to understand the customer journey online - how a customer will find and use the information given by a brand.

This revolves around the experience of the end consumer in a virtual environment that will push or motivate him enough to make a decision in the real world.

The downside

Like every other brand marketing exercise, digital marketing too has issues but these are mostly with regard to compatibility and are miniscule compared to the benefits. These issues may arise only if marketers approach digital branding in a traditional way.

Simple issues of compatibility in web browsers or music players are enough to turn off prospective clients. Says Engelbrecht, "There is a downside to the entire digital branding exercise if you get it very wrong or worse, ignore your customers and clients and underestimate their intelligence and interconnectedness. There are many examples of brands getting it wrong - two examples I can think of are Burger King's clever but flawed 'delete 10 Facebook friends for a free burger' campaign and Habitat's Iran elections hashtag hijacking scandal."

However Tuqan believes that being too cautious or reserved is not going to help either. "The only downside in my opinion is the poor quality of most regional websites. We live in an increasingly international world, where the first point of contact for many partners, employees and international stakeholders is the Internet. So it is inexcusable not to use that as an opportunity to make a strong first impression."

Both Flip Media and Start Creative moved into the Gulf market with the aim of filling the vacuum in this region. Both feel localising too much and trying an online experience indigenously may not be advisable. Giving it the right mix of authenticity with an international touch will help a company create an approachable brand with its unique identity.

Alison says Start Creative is currently in consultation with a few leading Omani brands with regard to online branding. "We have also been working with The Dubai World Trade Centre for the last year on their online brand strategy and communications besides organisations in the UAE and Qatar."

Digital branding is an investment companies will have to make sooner or later. However, the earlier an organisation migrates and clones its identity online, the faster it will reap the benefits of increased follower clout. Of this only a few may be consumers but they will help the brand achieve the critical mass ratio that is essential for having an identity that eventually translates into a brand equity.

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The digital realm
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