Ask yourself this question.

If your brand was a person, what type of person would it be? How would it act, what it would look like? More importantly would its value be solely determined by how many people knew of it? These questions are at the heart of branding and the value of branding.

Branding is normally defined as “activities that increase a potential customers ability to identify (recognize or recall) the brand, within the category, in sufficient detail to make a purchase” (Advertising & Promotion Management, 2007). This standard definition would dictate that large established brands such as British Airways or Mercedes Benz, with high degrees of awareness and recognition, have little need for branding online.

The reality is that branding is not solely about awareness but association. Like a person, a brand is not defined solely by its level of recognition but defined by key attributes such as its tone of voice and character. In an environment where social networking and word of mouth are becoming increasingly influential, shaping and influencing the way brands are associated has never been so important. The role of branding is then to “associate the brand to specific emotional and cognitive attributes, leading to an increase in sentiment, interaction and purchase consideration”.

Earlier this decade me and the other two founding partners of Web Liquid had the responsibility of developing British Airways’ online media strategy and capabilities. The airline aimed to become a pioneer in the online space; recognizing the commercial benefits provided by the online channel from a distribution, cost of sale and brand positioning perspective. In August 2000 the airline announced it was to change the structure of commissions paid to travel agents. Prior to that decision, British Airways gave travel agents 7% of the ticket price as commission, an expenditure of nearly £300m a year. It was a bold move considering travel agents accounted for 85% of sales, with online contributing a mere 1% of total sales. For the next three years the airline embarked in an aggressive online marketing program, aimed at driving channel shift and growing the usage of its new flagship site ba.com. At the heart of its online communications and acquisition strategy was the concept of innovation. British Airways recognized that the online channel was not purely a distribution or sales channel but a channel in which its brand would live permanently. While the airline could have focused their online marketing investment on tactical direct response programs, it invested heavily in branding online. We didn’t assume its brand heritage or high level of brand awareness would organically transfer online.

The case for online branding can sometimes be challenging in a commercial environment focused on maximizing profit and immediate return on investment from advertising investments. While the value of branding is recognized, it is usually ignored. Lets examine some of the questions raised when considering branding online.

1. My brand already has very high levels of awareness and consideration. Why should I investment in branding online? Unfortunately awareness and consideration are not perpetual, they fluctuate and become susceptible to change 1) relative to the larger environment in which the brand operates in and 2) the customer experience with the brand. Furthermore, while consumers do not view brands different online or offline, the transparency of prices and content online can challenge the baseline perception and awareness of the brand.