Practical Ecommerce

What’s an Ecommerce Brand? An Expert Explains

Cindy Ratzlaff is an expert on branding. She worked in the marketing industry for over twenty years, having developed the marketing and publicity campaigns for more than 150 New York Times bestselling books. She spearheaded the successful campaign for The South Beach Diet international bestselling book series, which got her named to Advertising Age’s “Marketing 50″ in 2003. And Fortune 500 companies frequently hire her for consulting on digital strategies on brand awareness.

Ratzlaff consults with businesses of all types through her online firm Brand New, Brand You, as well as through Red Carpet Strategies, where she is a founding partner. She takes a special interest in helping female entrepreneurs. We recently corresponded with her to discuss successful branding strategies for ecommerce businesses.

What makes for a successful brand?

Cindy Ratzlaff

Cindy Ratzlaff

“A successful brand is one that clearly communicates what I call the four V’s: voice, visuals, value and variation.

  • Voice. “A brand’s voice is its core message and the tone with which it delivers that message. Think about how a brand is perceived and experienced. A consumer should be able to describe a brand in a few short words. Nike? High end sports shoes with style. McDonalds might be fast, reliable, inexpensive food. Brands need to create a short list of three words that clearly lay out the tone they want to convey about their product. Is it sharp, fast, and pointed? Is the product smooth, easy and effective? Will the service make customer’s lives stress-free, unburdened and organized? It’s essential to choose the tone and message carefully as they must convey the brand promise to the end user.

  • Visuals. “Only once the voice is clear, a brand can turn its attention to the visuals or the look of a brand, not before. Consumers have different learning styles. Some will immediately respond to the brand voice. Others will be swayed more by the visual appeal. Matching imagery to the message is essential to both reinforce the brand promise and to capture all consumer learning styles. Remember that a ‘brand promise’ begins with the central product or service provider, and in social media that is you, the individual. The person is the brand and the person’s products or services are the brand extensions. So invest in quality professional photography and design to put your best face forward in social media and on the web in general. When you, the brand, meet clients, employers, or colleagues who have only known you online, you want to hear, ‘I recognized you from your social media avatar,’ not ‘Wow, you look so different from your picture.’ A professional looking picture engenders confidence in your potential to solve a customer’s problem and that’s really what all brands do — solve a problem. We all do business with brands we know, like and trust. Social media has trained us all to expect face time with brands. So putting a face to your brand is very important.

  • Value. “Brands must make sure they know the competitive landscape for their product or service. The offering, the price and the delivery timetable all need to meet or exceed what is currently available and they need to deliver true market value. Understanding the potential customer’s most urgent needs and solving them brings value. It’s not just price, however, that determines value. If a brand is offering something unique for which no current price structure is clearly defined, then it’s incumbent upon the brand to clearly outline the value. Consumers must feel a need for the product or service and then they themselves will place a high value on the product.

  • Variation. “In publishing, we used to call this the ‘Why to buy?’ question. A service or product variation is a brand’s point of differentiation. How does the product differ from every other product or service that is offered? Some points of differentiation might be affordability, location, education, experience, testimonials, first to market, or fame. Spend time creating a list of ways in which your brand and product can answer these questions from potential customers. Then clearly communicate the answers to those customers. The fundamental question of any brand’s variation is one every consumer is asking themselves already: ‘Why should I buy this product or service from you instead of someone else?’”

How can ecommerce merchants use their brands to communicate core company values and give them an edge in a competitive marketplace?

“We’re all operating in a social world now. The new rules of engagement require ecommerce brands to have a personality. This is a good thing when it comes to developing the ‘like’ factor and growing a brand’s social currency. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube have effectively created a gigantic small town effect. We all want to do business with people we know. We think we know them because we meet them online. We find, follow, fan, friend and listen to social gurus. And we buy from them.

“Ecommerce merchants can learn from this. Attaching a social personality to a brand, encouraging that persona to talk about why a brand does what it does or sells what it sells and connecting emotionally to the perspective buyer, is significantly easier and less expensive now than through the use of traditional advertising. But that comes with one caveat: It’s less expensive in terms of dollars but not in terms of time.”

How does one build brand awareness on the web?

“Social media has leveled the playing field between large, well-funded corporations and small start up entrepreneurs in terms of winning hearts and mindshare. ‘Attraction marketing’ is what social media is all about. A brand can launch its social sites and begin teaching, talking, sharing and attracting in hours on a shoestring. Then, it’s about consistency and quality of information.”

How can an ecommerce business use social media as a way to grow or positively affect its brand?

“Every ecommerce company needs at least five social touch points:

  1. A home-base website or blog site with social ‘like’ button integration;
  2. Facebook Fan page;
  3. Twitter account;
  4. LinkedIn company page;
  5. YouTube channel.

“Each of those social sites needs to refer to each other so that there are multiple entry points into the brand’s home base.

“The ecommerce site needs to blog about its product on an emotional level. [The blog can] teach, solve problems, share stories. The blog should feed to Facebook, which in turn should auto-post to Twitter. PowerPoint presentations of the core elements of the blog post can be posted to LinkedIn and the blog post can be recorded as a YouTube video. Again, social media is the ideal marketing tool to help create entry points to the brand for every learning style.”

Can branding contribute to customer trust and loyalty?

“If a brand has done its homework and really nailed its voice, visuals and variation — along with the value — then modeling success, desirability, and influence is a good way to go. Everyone wants to be seen with an Apple product because Apple understood that we’re willing to pay more for style, prestige and a sense of belonging to a club. Android came along and took all that and put a twist on it. Now people brag about cool style, new products, and paying less for more. That’s their variation and their brand value.

“If a brand is less lifestyle oriented, it can still benefit from an emotional play. Find the consumer pain point for any brand, communicate a powerful solution and you’ll have a marketing campaign.”

If a merchant runs both a web store and a brick-and-mortar physical store, how can he or she use the web to help build physical awareness, and also use the physical store to build web awareness?

“We can’t think in those terms anymore. Your ‘store’ is wherever your consumer is. There are ecommerce solutions now that allow you to sell directly from a Facebook page. The link back to your selling site should be on all your social media sites and you should take credit card payments right from your smart phone during live events. The consumer expects to be able to do business wherever they are and the brand that facilitates that desire, wins.

“That said, every social site should have details about the brick-and-mortar stores. Every store should have social signage and an incentive to ‘Like’ us. Online campaigns to reward people to visit the brick-and-mortar location are nice, too.

“And the most simple advice is to make sure your email signature and all of your physical collateral contain your social links and your store address.”

How does the global access of the Internet affect branding on the web?

“When I worked with the South Beach Diet brand, we had more than 36 international partners who were unconvinced that the South Beach name would be a selling point in their markets. We prevailed and insisted they use the original name and ultimately were able help our partners understand the allure of the area and convince them of the international appeal. We understood, and helped our partners understand, that consumers’ need and desire to lose weight healthfully would be enhanced by the image they already had in their heads when they visualized South Beach, Florida.”

How important is a brand for a small to medium sized business in comparison to a larger business?

“A brand identity is important for every business. I contend that every person is a brand and that the products and services we sell are our brand extensions.”

Practical Ecommerce

Practical Ecommerce

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  1. Carlos Rivera April 8, 2011 Reply

    Wow, sick article. Cindy really sounds like an incredible marketer who knows how to put theory into practice. I understand the need for market research and sketched out my own business’ voice, visuals, value and variation.