Robert Goizueta, the former chief executive of Coca-Cola, famously said: "If all our assets and bottling plants burned down tomorrow, it shouldn't affect the value of the company one bit. The value lies in our brands and they'll go on forever."
Few would challenge Goizueta's statement, but many brand marketers have been working in a marketplace where it appears the value of the brand has hit a ceiling. They face intense competition, price and margin pressure, tough retail distributors, endlessly demanding consumers and are operating in mostly mature, saturating markets.
And yet, as online prepares to take its final leap out of the doldrums, smart companies are waking up to how it can change the basic market paradigms, improve brand perception and extend brand proposition.
Online advertising is moving away from the typical direct-response model ("click to buy", "apply now", etc, which was only ever suited to a handful of industry sectors, let's be honest) and marketers are finally starting to play to the medium's strengths. Helped by steady growth in internet penetration, broadband and wireless access, they are finding smart and often cheeky ways to use interactivity to great effect.
Take Heineken. The beer brand has long struggled to engage 21- to 30-year-olds with whom its resonance is not as strong as it would have liked.
TV ads and print ads in lads' magazines played a part, but ultimately it had limited impact.
But last summer, an online extension of a print-based promotion finally got under the skin of the Heineken target group. The "Heineken headline hoax" encouraged consumers to create their own humorous newspaper headlines involving their friends, then, by e-mail, trick them into believing the headline was live on a major news site.
The promotion's viral element snowballed to help Heineken reach more than 140,000 consumers. What's more, it generated more than 60,000 e-mail addresses in just three months. Not a bad turnout for a brand that doesn't rely heavily on digital channels and for a promotion without a prize.
Heineken tapped into a tool that is proving very successful for brands online - viral. It encourages active participation, fuels word-of-mouth and multiplies reach beyond anything a traditional media campaign could achieve. But, crucially, viral marketing online can strengthen and reshape the relationship between consumer and brand. Rather than 20 to 30 seconds, the consumer may be hooked for three or four minutes, at least. When Johnson & Johnson adapted its "having a baby changes everything" TV and print campaign for online, consumers spent on average six minutes with the brand, before forwarding it to a friend.
Engagement on this level is not just about the product and its appeal, nor about eliciting a traditional direct response from the consumer, as there's no click to purchase. It works on a more emotional plane, encouraging participation, changing a consumer's perception of a brand and broadening its personality and footprint. Long after the Heineken campaign ended, consumers are still visiting the site to indulge their inner prankster. The hoax website regularly appears in blogs, viral league tables and stars in online halls of branding fame.
Delta Airlines is another champion of online brand building. Delta runs one of the world's leading airline ticket websites and has been on a six-year crusade to fine-tune its online offering. It has changed the way people, be they frequent or non-travellers, feel about the brand. It has also grown brand loyalty and sales and saved millions on processes from travel agent fees to the cost of printing tickets.
Sure, the site gets direct response from its target customers, more and more of whom prefer to buy online. But it also magnifies its brand through extended, customer-driven services. In response to the fact more of us get anxious about flight safety nowadays, there's a tracking facility offering take-off time, hours into flight, landing times as well as a "letting you know" progress to keep loved ones reassured. Travellers feel more comfortable in touch with their friends and family. More obvious services are about making air travel easier and hassle-free. Check-in, confirmation, seat selection and upgrade availability can all be done through the website. You can also print your own boarding pass to help you get through the airports quicker.
Delta.com shows how an advertiser can use online to reach out, engage, interact with customers and build loyalty in a way no other channel could.
These companies are not alone in recognising how online can add muscle to their brand marketing. They realise that online advertising is about more than response rates and are no longer in slavish pursuit of the clickthrough. The automotive sector, in particular, has championed the use of the internet as a branding tool and has made a healthy contribution to the recent surge in online adspend.
So, are there finally rosier times ahead for online? Well, we're definitely seeing signs of companies revising their web budgets upwards as they see firmer proof of the effectiveness of the medium, particularly within multichannel campaigns.
The availability of brand metrics helps to demonstrate the value of online and makes a strong case for online growing adspend. In fact, the Internet Advertising Bureau has found online actually improves the performance of the overall media mix, and predicts that 2004 will be a record breaker in terms of online advertising spend and audience numbers. Advertisers, take note.
Michael de Kare-Silva is the managing director and Rachel Kelley is the associate marketing director of Modem Media.