April 17th, 2013 | 5 MIN READ

Why Branding Commodities Matters to Your Ecommerce Website

Written by author_profile_images Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

Your ecommerce website is a commodity.

In the 90’s, simply having a website may have been a competitive advantage in your industry. Today it’s table stakes. Even with a full catalog of products, robust features and lightning page load speed, your website is really nothing more than a pile of code. And everybody’s got one.

Of course, some websites are more successful than others – and branding is a major part of this. Whether you’re a brand selling direct-to-consumer, a marketplace, a content publisher, or a retail operation, your competition is a click away. As a digital marketer, your challenge is to differentiate your commodity web presence from the rest of the pack.

The good news is commodities can be differentiated. Water is a perfect example. What’s readily available for free in the Western world is also a multi-billion dollar industry.

I caught up with our friends at The Blake Project (branding gurus and publishers of the top-ranked Branding Strategy Insider blog) to pick Chief Branding Strategist and author of Brand Aid Brad VanAuken’s brain on branding commodities in an ecommerce context.

Driving brand insistence

How can you make customers insist on your business’ brand, and consistently choose your website as the place to purchase amongst your competitors?

The Blake Project has determined there are 5 key drivers to brand insistence.

Awareness Are consumers aware of your business’ website as a shopping destination amongst your competitors, and is your business brand top-of-mind?

Accessibility Does your business’ brand and digital presence reach the consumption channels where consumers are (including mobile and social, if relevant)?

Value Do consumers believe your website is worth the “price”? (In context of your website, does your website and purchase experience live up to the time and dollar investment in transacting with you?)

Relevant Differentiation Does your brand own consumer-relevant, consumer-compelling benefits that are unique and believable?

Emotional Connection Does the consumer know your brand, like your brand, trust and feel an emotional connection to it (and does your website reinforce this connection)?

What makes a strong brand differentiator on an ecommerce site?

Amazon.com is a perfect example of an ecommerce site that effectively pulls all five levers. But not all businesses competing with Amazon enjoys its scale, operational efficiencies, selection or community content.

Let your brand character shine through

Brad mentions Patagonia as an example of strong brand character. It’s apparent from their charitable involvement and its team of ambassadors that the company is committed to outdoor life, a story that’s far stronger than its competitors.

Capture a niche

Amazon disrupted the book selling industry, and many brick-and-mortar shops have not survived. Those that have survived tend to cater to a specific genre, or demonstrate superior product knowledge and customer service to deliver value missing from competitors.

Ecommerce sites can also win when they understand how to capitalize on gaps in experience.

Support the buying process

Tools like the former Garden.com’s product finder tool solves customer problems.

Other notable examples are Vodafone’s mobile phone finder and Crutchfield’s TV Fit Finder.

Branding direct to consumer

Manufacturers selling direct are in the position where brand awareness and preference drives traffic, but the website competes against channel partners for the sale.

Branding commodity services

Mobile network operators don’t just compete for device sales, but also on commodity services. Creative plans and bundling with and without physical product help differentiate. For example, free calls within the network, family plans, value-added services and triple/quad-play bundling.

Don’t fix what’s not broken?

A brand’s web design is important. But one of ecommerce’s favorite make-work projects is website redesign, often in the name of a keeping things fresh. What’s the branding expert’s take on web design overhaul?

Brad says, speaking himself as a “creative type:”

Companies with strong creative presence have product designers and marketing departments that love to create new things, including the brand’s look and feel. The problem with branding is consistency in presentation. I roll my eyes every time a new marketing VP comes in and wants to update the logo, change the colors and so on. When US Air rebranded to US Airways, all its planes had to be repainted, but there was no real difference to the brand or its services.

In my days at Hallmark, I oversaw product placement in grocery stores. Grocery stores will deliberately change the location of products to shake things up. If they go in specifically for milk and cheese, they don’t pay attention to what’s in other aisles. This can be frustrating to customers, but pays off in this industry.

Does this work on a website? There’s no need to overhaul look and feel unless you find the store isn’t working or there is some functionality to correct.

I asked Brad about his thoughts on Overstock’s domain rebranding, from Overstock.com to O.co – a $350,000 strategy intended to distance the pure-play from just overstocked items but failed to resonate with customers. Brad advises against veering from the very obvious (conventional .com and country-level TLDs) to unconventional extensions like .co, .net and .info (sorry ICANN). Web users simply think in terms of dot-coms, it’s very difficult to establish domain recognition with any other extension.

Don’t be a commodity

Your website is just one way to conduct commerce, and just one way to present your brand to the consumer, but it’s critical that it does a good job representing your business. To stand out, determine what makes you different, what values you have and what benefits you deliver, and communicate it strongly on your website.

Brad will be sharing more about branding commodities and more in-person at The Un-Conference: 360° of Brand Strategy for a Changing World, a 2-day intensive branding workshop May 16-17 featuring ex-Pepsi President and ex-Apple CEO John Scully.

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