World: Analysis - Internet brands have learned lessons of quirky campaigns

By Mark Tungate, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 28 May 2004 12:00AM

The dotcom advertisers are now embracing the rules of marketing.

Remember internet brands? Entire squadrons of them were reported missing in action towards the middle of 2001. Some were never seen again, but others are beginning to pop up all over the globe, older and wiser than before. And there is also a new generation: slicker, smarter and just as eager to get their hooks into consumers.

Whether veterans or newcomers, today's web brands behave in a more mature way than they did back when we were still arguing about how to spell "millennium".

Carisa Bianchi, the chief strategy officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles, remembers that period only too well. "The people who worked for those companies lived in some kind of new economy vacuum, and assumed the parameters had changed for everyone else, which wasn't the case," she says.

Bianchi says dotcoms would come to her saying "we want to build a brand overnight". "Everyone wanted ads that were irreverent and different, but they forgot that the old marketing rules still applied."

Bianchi worked on Pets.com, a client she describes as "the poster child of web advertising". The brand's TV spots featured a sock puppet dog with an ironic sense of humour. Viewers loved the puppet, but the website failed.

Pet food cost a fortune to deliver by post, so the brand couldn't follow through on its promise. "Like many other dotcoms, it hadn't figured out its business plan properly," Bianchi says.

Some surviving web brands have been unfairly criticised for their boom period advertising. Take AOL, for instance. The first time around, its brand spokeswoman in the UK was Connie - the digital woman who would materialise to lecture harassed "surfers" about how to get the most from the web.

Chris Willingham, the business director on the AOL account at Grey London, says: "Connie was relevant at the time, because people needed educating. Apart from a few geeks and nerds, nobody really knew what the web was all about. There was a parent-child relationship between the brand and its consumers. Now we've moved on, and AOL's advertising today reflects an adult-adult relationship."

Willingham agrees that offline internet advertising as a whole has become more sophisticated. "Everyone has made the same strategic leap. They realise that it's not enough to be different - you have to clearly explain the end benefit to the consumer."

Nick Hurrell, the chief executive of M&C Saatchi, has worked on internet brands past and present. The agency handled the launch of Lastminute.com - one of the last dotcoms to float before the bubble burst. "The brand still exists, and is now in profit," he says, adding that even back then, the agency was careful to apply traditional marketing rules. "Elsewhere, the prevalent attitude seemed to be: the stranger the campaign, the better it was. Differentiation was placed above relevance."

M&C is behind the UK launch of Wanadoo, the France Telecom-owned portal that took over Freeserve. The high-profile "Whatever you Wanadoo" ads typify the new breed of simple, but effective, internet branding campaigns.

Most Brits probably don't realise that Wanadoo is a French brand, and ironically the name works better in English than in its mother tongue.

In France, moody ads from CLM/BBDO show young people performing minor miracles in the street to the David Bowie track Heroes. The slogan, muttered in English, is "Positive generation".

The difference highlights another internet branding conundrum - go local, or global? By its nature, the internet is borderless, yet evidence suggests a local campaign can produce spectacular results.

One of the best examples is the eBay campaign in Taiwan, handled by Ogilvy & Mather. O&M's ads have been talked about and imitated, most recently by a political party during the country's elections. The managing director, Stephen Mangham, explains: "The most famous execution featured one Mr Tang, who accidentally breaks his wife's favourite vase. She puts him through years of humiliation until he finds a replacement on eBay."

The spot touched a nerve with consumers and the media, provoking a flood of articles about whether the real-life equivalents of Mr and Mrs Tang existed.

"The ad worked for the same reason that all the best ads work - because it depicted something human and universal," Mangham says. "Local adaptations are always a good idea, but when you have a global brand, your strategy must ultimately be consistent."

One French campaign that proved successful was also one of the least complicated. Created by LEG in Paris, the posters for the second-hand goods site Price-minister depicted cut-price movies such as "Friday the 12th", "Dirty Henry" and "A Clockwork Clementine". Those who enjoyed the ads could click on to the site and suggest their own titles.

"We received something like 10,000 suggestions," the site's co-founder Olivier Mathiot says. "Our strategy was to create an interactive offline campaign for an interactive online medium. It worked even better than we imagined."

These days, we all know what the web is about. But it doesn't mean we expect the brands to deliver complicated messages.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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