Jack Yan looks at the phenomenon of online branding, answering how organizations
can create successful brands online in the Web 2·0 era
Jack Yan is founder and CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and
president of JY&A Consulting.
Successful brands on the internet depend on certain ingredients. And unlike
offline brands, the process surrounding vision, research, exposition and image
differ slightly, even if the ingredients of brand equity remain the same. Importantly,
a loose vision, informal research, and tapping into consumer advocacy all help
build a strong brand on the internet. All these additionally contribute to whether
a brand has acquired secondary meaning in a legal sense, although the existing
test needs to be reconsidered.
1. Introduction Despite some major texts on branding in the last 10 years, from Wally
Olinss The New Guide to Identity,2
to Nicholas Inds Living the Brand,3
and the Ind-edited Beyond Branding,4
branding is a very divisive field. Few have done studies to connect the organizations
vision to business performance, which this author did in 1999, and the majority
of companies have still failed to appoint marketers to the boardroom. Meanwhile,
others are leading the cutting edge of branding, such as Stefan Engeseth with
his new work, One.5 There is
little bridging research into the integrated marketing communications
model and the cutting-edge, consumer movement papers; and certainly very little
on how brands can be built using the internet.6
Before delving into this paper, it is useful to cover what branding
is. As outlined in one of the authors earlier papers,7
it may be thought of as:
the methods in which the organization communicates, symbolizes
and differentiates itself to all of its audiences.
The word branding has altered in meaning, even amongst the experts
such as Olins.8 Traditionally, the brand
was part of identity, which may be defined as:9
the explicit management of all the ways in which the organization
presents itself through experiences and perceptions to all of its audiences.
The brand was merely the part of this management that was directed at a consumer,
or an audience member, external to the organization.
However, perhaps through media coverage and Naomi Kleins
seminal No Logo,10 which questioned
the ethics behind branding, the word brand entered the vernacular.
At the same time, the branding model evolved somewhat: Olins began touting the
brand as an attitude that described the organization,11
and branding consultants became a little more obsessed with the message being
sent to consumers, perhaps in the wake of No Logo. It, therefore, became
important to make sure that the vision of the organization took into account
the message it would send to consumers as one of its earliest steps, and to
make sure what was being communicated inside the organization was identical
to what was being communicated outside. The word brand began taking
on the meaning once given to identity.
This coincided with another development: the mainstreaming
of the online world. With consumer input now being sought readily for things
such as product development (e.g. online surveys became common and were thought
of as a means through which the most current data about the market-place could
be sought), and consumers themselves becoming powerfula dvocates for brands
(spreading good news via emails, or indeed, bad news), there was less of a distinction
between the marketing departments of organizations and the customers themselves.
Therefore, the branding model began looking quite different. Once,
organizations could depend on training their staff to tow the official line,
expressing the brand in the way dictated by head office. But consumers could
not be managed in the same way. They needed to be incorporated into brand-communication
decisions, either by (a) inspiring staff members and getting them to work so
closely to consumers on the hope of infectious enthusiasm, or (b)
turning those consumers themselves into a de facto marketing department.12
There are good examples of each. The former group is typified
by companies in Inds Living the Brand,13
notably Patagonia. The sportswear company has staff that use its products, while
consumers are prepared to talk up its goods. The latter group includes many
of the networking services on the web, including LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com).
Arguably, the initial growth of Yahoo! (first built while its founders were
still at Stanford University), Google (which uses its user base to spread news
of its new products), and Flickr (which is being found by web users frequenting
blogs and similar services) could be credited to the second method. The author
refrains from using the viral marketing term here, largely because
it has become hackneyed.
But how does this online growth actually happen and how does it
contribute to the strength of a brand? And if this happens, can the internet
truly impact on brand equity14 and related
issues, such as providing a brand with secondary meaning15
in the eyes of the law?
2. The branding process The logical place to begin is in the regular branding model.16
The brand begins with a vision, or, indeed, a slogan (if it is far-reaching
enough to guide the whole organization). The important things are that the vision
is unique and able to summarize the organizational attitude. Audiences
learn of the vision through such things as the logo and the communications that
surround it. These should ideally express the brands attitude. They form
an association between the symbols such as the logo and the values of the organization.
As stated in an earlier paper, Semiotics are key:17
Symbols, logos, etc., signify certain things that form mental
pictures in our mind when we interpret them. [A branding] campaign ensures that
the correct pictures are formed and that incorrect or earlier ones are replaced.18
Repeated exposures reinforce meaning, which is why consistency in branding is
This leads to brand equity, which is the added value that a brand endows a
particular product or service. The author wrote of its consequence:19
As audienceswhether they are shareholders, future customers, students
or any other groupselect or think of the brand more frequently, they ultimately
contribute to the organizations business performance in economic or strategic
Online, the psychological process remains largely the same. In
2001, when the author last explored online brands,20
there were more audience members specifically seeking certain companies
products and services on the web. Other than online advertising, many web-based
brands were not discovered unwittingly, unlike many that appeared on television
or in print. However, there was an indication that this was changing as the
web became more commonplace.
2.1 Online brands today It is almost difficult to remember how western business was conducted
without the internet and the World Wide Web. The web is often the first destination
for any researcher today, for instance.
But there is still no follow-up from the authors earlier
work on how some online brands capture the publics consciousness and others
do not. Most people discovered Google, for instance, through referrals. (At
the time of the earlier paper, Google was still unknown, although the firm existed.)
Blogger.com, the service that enables web users to maintain public online journals
(web logs, or blogs), spread through its logo appearing on the blogs it hosted
on the internetand gained a secondary meaning as a result. Yet other brands
remain online, and have done so for years, without influencing the public.
It may be easy to say that Amazon.com, for example, was so revolutionary
that by being first-in-sector, it gained mainstream media coverage. That may
be so, but there are other ventures that were firsts in their sector that never
received that coverageFashionbrat, for example, was New Zealands
first online fashion magazine, but has become forgotten beyond this authors
own coverage. Even some of the first fashion magazines on the internet in Australia
(Marie Claire, Fashion Australia) and the United States (Fashion
Internet) never captured huge public attention and do not survive today.
Something else must be at work.
The authors earlier work21
illustrated that there were some strategic and structural differences between
successful online firms and successful offline ones. Vision. Visions were more fluid, so ventures that were
defined too tightly failed: Pets.com and Boo.com, which admittedly had other
issues, were defined narrowly and could not shift into new businesses when their
original failures became apparent. At the time, the author cited one of his
own properties, Lucire, which has survived as a web site and online
magazine; while the other two businesses cited have changed only because of
changes in their founders personal lives. Up to the times of their changes,
they had survived well, based on a loose vision. By equal measure,
Amazon.com survived by branching out from books to DVDs, toys and even lawn
One issue that was apparent in 2001 was the need to have corporate
citizenship. This shift toward more socially responsible firms has become stronger
in the last few years, with greater awareness of anti-brands.22
Internet audiences tended to be more alert to these anti-brands, some preferring
products from entrepreneurial, independent firms. Research. The earlier research also illustrated that
there was a lower-cost and shallower research process, with online entrepreneurs
willing to begin their ventures on instinct and relationships with other organizations
and customers. Successful online firms were willing to employ modern communication
techniques. Exposition. In communicating the brand, the organization
partners with others to help it get its word out. Independent contractors, freelancers
and other web sites (through links, and, today, mentions on blogs) become advocates
for the organization. Those that began offline tended to retain the same brand.
(Exceptions exist, such as Condé Nasts Style.com, the online version
of Vogue, though that can still be reached in the United States via
Vogue.com.) They also tended to be global in their approach, quoting, for example,
US dollar prices, despite their location, and made little use of their own countrys
symbols. They also attempted to use as much offline media as possible.
To reach the public, they relied more on below-the-line marketing,
and not above-the-line. Part of the reason is budgetary, but they also managed
to put out distinctive products or services. The successful firms examined tended
to have a more personal and positive attitude. They made use of
a cynicism against big business to their own advantage. Image. No changes to how brand imagethe consequence
of brandingwere found between offline and online firms. In other words,
all the hard work is done earlier, with the results of a strong
brandimage, business performance and secondary meaningunaffected
by the medium.
Two brands today may be instructive, as their growth is happening
at the time of writing and are considered successes by the media. One is Flickr.com,
a photograph-sharing service recently acquired by Yahoo!.Its growth has been
gradual, but it shows that a company that did not have a huge marketing budget
can become an integral part of the web. (At the time of writing, Flickr has
158,000,000 hits on Google, while a search for US Supreme Court
results in 37,400,000 hits.) If it follows the pattern of Yahoo!, Google et
al, which it is expected to,23 it
will become a normal way for people to share digital photography.
A second brand, which is more fleeting, is the name of a movie.
New Lines Snakes on a Plane, starring Samuel L. Jackson, began
pre-production in 2005. The name was mentioned on a blog in August 2005, and
its star insisted that the film be called that, after the studio attempted to
change it to a more generic Pacific Air 121. Because of its odd name,
it began circulating around the web, mostly with bloggers. By the end of the
year, Wired had published an article about it in its print edition,24
and unauthorized cups, T-shirts and even a blog (Snakes on a Blog)
had been created. Some even went so far as to say that snakes on a plane
had become a common phrase akin to Cest la vie and had input
it into the Urban Dictionary, a site where colloquialisms and slang
can be entered.
The buzz was so strong that New Line went back to the studio to
shoot for five extra days to satisfy fans.25
A fan-designed logo even became the official logo for the film, to be released
in August 2006.26 One news source even
believes that a parody line that appeared on a blog will make it into the film.27
Finally, it may be worth considering Google, since it was not
as strong at the time of the earlier study. An upstart search engine is now
the primary search engine on the internet, with 80 per cent of searches for
the authors own web site coming from it. Google has branched from its
core search service into Google Earth and Gmail, neither of which would appear,
on the surface, to be connected to finding information. Google Ads has become
a force in the online advertising arena, and might be influential enough to
branch into offline advertising.
These three represent three very different parts of the web. Flickr
is part of the much-vaunted Web 2·0, which in a laypersons
terms is a more interactive evolution of the World Wide Web where everyone has
a chance to create their own dialogues, networks and web sites, with richer
user experiences.28Snakes on a Plane
is an intentionally fleeting choice: it was not set up as an online venture
per se, and is merely reflective of a conversation taking place on
the web. Google is well known and began as a single application in the time
of Web 1·0, but is adding services (and has added services) such as Blogger,
representative of Web 2·0.
2.2 Do they fit into the branding scheme? 2.2.1 Flickr.com
Flickrs offering, however, is simply stated. It is a photo-sharing
service, with a difference: it allows users to tag their images, thereby ordering
them under different topics. Those searching for images for tsunami,
for example, will find all photos with that tag, regardless of photographer.
Prior to that, photo-sharing services tended to be grouped by users, so they
were shared only as far as one user was able to spread the word.
The idea, perhaps, is not new. Del.icio.us, another Web 2·0 service,
allows users to group blog posts. Professional photo libraries have been grouped
using keywords. Flickr democratized not just the library, but the ability to
create those keywordstags under the latest parlance. The difference was
that there was an intent about sharing, and the site is typical of the social
media made possible by the internet.
But on the surface it appears to be a well defined company with
a single offering, enough to tempt Yahoo! into acquiring it. (Google was reportedly
interested, too.) However, the original vision was not necessarily of this service.
Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield, suffering from food poisoning,
had a dream about a multi-player game built around sharing photographs.29
The original Flickr site actually centred on instant messaging with some digital
photography support. Early members were gamers and bloggers, with an interest
in photography. Butterfield made use of Flickrs loose vision
to emphasize the strength that was emerging from its user base: users who were
conversing but setting the tone using digital photography in their instant-messaging.
That same looseness meant a certain level of experimentation,
rather than formal research. Flickr noticed where its strengths were by letting
users find their own feet and interests.
Flickr does partner with others to spread the word. But rather
than through formal alliances, it does this by bringing its users into the fray.
Users become the editors for sorting the photographs. In effect, organization
and user are on the same side, in an expression of the One principle
espoused most heavily by Engeseth.30
Its strongest advocates were its users, and Yahoo!s own
interest came from an email from a Flickr fanatic in Bangalore, India.31
That eventually led to a $30 million deal.
Flickr is now ranked 90th in Alexa, the service that examines
where web sites are placed on the web. It can be said to have a strong image,
if measured in brand equity terms: it has ever-rising brand awareness, it is
positively considered by its users, there is a great deal of loyalty to the
service, and its perceived quality is high. The value of its proprietary brand
assetsits trademark and intellectual propertymay be considered to
be high, given what Yahoo! had paid for the company.
Flickr confirms the original criteria set down by the author for
a successful online brand.
2.2.2 Snakes on a Plane Snakes on a Plane is an unusual choice for this paper.
It is not a venture, therefore it could not be said to have a vision per
se. It is a movie title whose quirkiness led to an initial round of blogging,
an article in Wired, and a decision by the studio to shoot for five
more days given the buzz on the internet. That prompted more mainstream media
The author first heard of Snakes on a Plane as Pacific
Air 121, when Lucire was first asked to participate in the movie.
The studio, New Line, states now that Pacific Air 121 was a working
title used to solicit support, though there are claims that it had wanted to
change the name to avoid ridicule.
Its Google references have gone up and down since word first got
out that Snakes on a Plane was the decided title. Before January 19,
2006, they rested on 96,900, rising to 461,000 by February 1. However, there
was a fall from that point: 380,000 on February 5 and 176,000 on February 15.
It was New Lines decision to shoot extra footage that piqued the interest
of the mainstream media, and the hits started on an upward trend: by March 25,
this had risen to 880,000.
Given there is no organization that is called Snakes
on a Plane, it is hard to consider if it had a loose vision or not. Perhaps
one could say that its producers had an open mind in considering all the attention
the film had received on blogs; and that if the vision was tight,
there would not have been a reshoot. Nevertheless, this inquiry cannot be academically
However, other branding aspects can be considered from the perspective
of the production company. Evidently, research was informal and inexpensive:
the preference for Snakes on a Plane was signalled most by bloggers,
not by the studio. Samuel L. Jackson chimed in to say that the title should
be retained, but that appears to be a more recent development. Listening and
monitoring blogs indicates a willingness to incorporate modern technology in
researching how well the Snakes on a Plane title was being received.
The communication of the name has come from not just the studioNew
Line pays lip service to it on its web site and snakesonaplanemovie.com, the
official site, is barely more than a home pagebut from the internet audience.
Therefore, the advocacy requirement for a successful online venture
is more than presentit could even be said now to be Snakes on a Planes
The consequences ofall this cannot be measured at this time. Providing
the interest in the venture does not waneas it did in Februarythen
Snakes on a Plane will enjoy a sizeable audience. Perhaps with the
extra footage, it now will, because New Line was willing to show it would participate
in the dialogue with its advocates. Only then can one measure brand equitywhether
the brand loyalty is strong enough to be maintained until the films release
in August. Snakes on a Plane could be said to be a brand, notwithstanding
the absence of a vision. It symbolizes, communicates and differentiates a product.
Furthermore, like Star Wars figurines and the like, the Snakes
on a Plane name has extended into cups and T-shirts, even if they are not
formally merchandised and endorsed by New Line.
But only on certain aspects can one say for sure that Snakes
on a Plane fulfils the earlier criteria. However, on those that can be
considered at the time of writing, they are met.
There is less similarity between Google and the other two brands
examined to date. It is the oldest venture of the three and has received the
most coverage. Its name has become so ubiquitous that it is now a verb: to
google means to search for something on the internet,32
specifically using the Google web search service.
The history has been dealt with many times before, and is a familiar
story: two Stanford University students began tinkering. Larry Page had a fascination
for back links pointing to any given web site and built a program to compile
them. The offline press began noticing Google as early as 1998. The Google culture,
however, was not one of formality. New ideas emerged from Googles staff
and many were implemented, the most famous being Google News. Google never intended
to be in the news-editing service, but Google News analysed stories that a web
spider found and ranked them on a page of headlines. By 2000, it had introduced
AdWords, a keyword-targeted advertising service. Other acquisitions illustrated
that Google was not just about search. If it had a tightly defined vision, none
of these developments would have been encouraged, let alone see the light of
As told by Heilemann in GQ:33
But beneath the comically clichéd trappings, Google
was becoming something interestingand powerful. Having cut deals with
an array of companies, most critically Yahoo, Google was processing more than
100 million searches a day and indexing an unprecedented 1 billion Web pages.
Fueling this growth was a relentlessness about innovation. [Founders] Larry
[Page] and Sergey [Brin] were openly, brutally elitist when it came to hiring
engineers. (Job applicants, no matter their age, had to submit their college
transcripts.) In software and hardware, Googles innovation was remarkable.
Using off-the-shelf components, the company was building what was, in effect,
the planets largest computing system. And its official missionto
organize the worlds information and make it universally accessible and
usefulextended far beyond searching the Internet.
I did not understand when I came to the
company how broad Larry and Sergeys vision was, [Former Novell CEO
Eric] Schmidt says. It took me six months of talking to them to really
understand it. I remember sitting with Larry, saying, Tell me again what
our strategy is, and writing it down.
At the same time, the boys had fostered an environment
that was flamboyantly idealistic. Search was all, profit peripheral, Dont
be evil the corporate motto. (Asked later what the slogan meant, Schmidt
would say, Evil is what Sergey says is evil.)
In short, Larry and Sergey had already encoded
the DNA of the company Schmidt was supposed to run. The character they instilled
in Google could be summed up in three phrases: Technology matters. We make our
own rules. Well grow up when were damn good and ready.
The boys reality took some getting used
to for Schmidt. It wasnt just the dot-com fripperies that fazed him or
the dogs trotting up and down the halls. It was the squatter in his office.
(The interloper was an engineer frustrated with the bustle in his own shared
quarters. After first attempting to evict him, Schmidt gave up and endured the
situation for several months.) He also found himself frequently occupied with
grounding Larry and Sergeys flights of fancy. There was the time the boys
suggested having Google enter the business of low-cost space launchings. And
the time Larry reportedly tried to ban telephones from a new Google office building.
In terms of research, Google relies on the inspiration of its staff. This
informality has almost become legendary, shunned by some traditional business
experts and praised by those who believe an entrepreneurial style should be
maintained by an organization. At its first post-IPO investors meeting,
Google was so informal its chef wound up explaining the food on the menua
move heavily criticized by the Wall Street establishment.
Its growth did come from people spreading the word about the search
engine. The initial 1998 press came well before Google secured large financing,
and was a direct result of everyday users. Given that the late 1990s and early
2000s saw a dot-com downturn, Google weathered this thanks to users spreading
the word and, of course, through delivering a quality service.
Its brand equity is strong. The initial public offering, according
to CNN, indicated a worth of $24 billion in 2004.34
Its brand loyalty and perceived quality are high, given that rivals have not
managed to dethrone Google. Brand awareness can be little higherAlexa
ranks it at no. 2, behind Yahoo!. Google was found to be a top brand according
to Brandchannel,35 while branding
shop Landor found it in second but predicts a Google win for 2006.36
There is some negativity relating to its more recent developmentsoffering
Red China a censored version of its search engine, Google.cn, for instance37but
not enough to signal that its image has been tarnished in a major way. Again,
only recent events have indicated that Google is anything but a dynamic, entrepreneurial
and almost anti-establishment firmeven if its founders are multi-billionaires
who have the financial worth of the establishment.
Google also confirms the authors earlier work on the ingredients
of a successful online brand, though it may be useful to examine the consequences
of its most recent actions in Red China with Google.cn. The Chinese market itself
may opt for other services should the political climate change and the people
enjoy greater freedom.38
The three brands examined also illustrate that while the authors
earlier work was directed at Australian and New Zealand enterprises, the rules
apply in the United States, too. Indeed, the author advances that they are universal,
given the global nature of the internet and very similar online browsing habits
between all cultures and creeds.
3. Secondary meaning It may be worth, in a legal inquiry, to see if the online branding
model can endow a brand with secondary meaning.
Traditionally, brands have acquired secondary meaning through
advertising or massive exposure, establishing a trademark in
the minds of consumers as an indication of origin from one particular source.39
Tyndall offers a fairly standard explanation:40
A descriptive name, word, term, or mark will have achieved
secondary meaning when a significant quantity of the consuming public for the
goods and/or services in question understand it to refer exclusively to a particular
Courts examine the following factors in determining
whether a name, word, term, or trademark has acquired secondary meaning:
1. The length and manner of use;
2. The nature and extent of advertising and promotion;
3. The efforts made in promoting a conscious connection
between the name, word, term, or mark and the product, service, or business
in the minds of consumers.
It is accepted that the antecedents of branding, even in an offline model,
do not necessarily provide a brand with secondary meaning. This is usually due
to insufficient exposure.
In the internet world, where there is a potential global audience,
do the standards for secondary meaning differ? The three examples in §2 can
be said to have acquired secondary meaning: they cannot be mistaken either for
anything else or having been from anyone else but their creators. They had got
there without heavy (conventional) advertising or promotion; instead, it was
their user bases or fans that propelled them into the minds of consumers in
Indeed, an inquiry into the length of use may be less applicable
on the internet: Snakes on a Plane has been mentioned only since around
August 2005 and has managed 880,000 hits in Google (in seven months). The internet
is not the only place where timeframes are more compressed than they were many
decades ago: the same pattern can be found in new product development and in
the product life cycle.41
Only the third factor quoted above may be said to have relevance
in an inquiry about secondary meaning in online branding.
One approach may be to obtain Alexa statistics of all web sites,
making a judgement on each one to see where a cut-off point might lie between
online brands that have acquired secondary meaning and those that have not.
However, this may prove unreliable: there are offline brands that have ventured
online that have a low Alexa ranking42
but possess secondary meaning, such as the New Zealand clothing brand Karen
The best approach is to examine, instead, how well linked they
are on the World Wide Web. As advocates will post about their favourite brands,
and provide links to themespecially in the age of citizen media or social
mediathey will get picked up by search engines.
Google, which ranks sites in its index through an algorithm, is
best placed as an analysis tool. The algorithm includes a consideration of how
many web pages link to a particular site, and even how credible those pages
are. It is partly based on web traffic. Further, it is an international consideration,
of consumers worldwide, although given the United States position as the
leading nation on the internet, there will be more American viewpoints covered.
It is also, fortunately, independent: no one person can influence the Google
algorithm, even if some lawsuits have been started over it.
Flickr, Snakes on a Plane and Google are all unusual
words or terms, but Amazon is not. A search for Amazon does not come
up with the river, but Amazon.com, the retailer, first. The first mention of
the rainforest is the third site. Only two in the top ten do not refer to the
retailer. Within its market, it is highly unlikely anyone would consider Amazon
to relate to any other organization but Amazon.com.
In short, if a brand has met the criteria from the authors
earlier paper, summarized here, then it can qualify as a strong online
brand. If, in addition to this,43
it has achieved some success in the Google index, then a future court should
regard it as having acquired secondary meaning.
4. Summary Organizations cannot expect to employ the old, offline rules of branding
in an online sphere. But at the same time, they cannot expect that the old rules
will apply offline, either.
Importantly, the internet has helped identify consumers who are
conscious of corporate social responsibility, and public opinion now favours
entrepreneurial-style firms over establishment-style ones. These trends have
not changed since the author first examined online branding in a pre-9-11 paper.
But even more vitally, the democratization of mediathe emergence
of citizen media or social mediahas meant that individuals have become
brand advocates. Online brands find success through tapping in to their respective
advocates, providing them with a reason to spread their names. Those
that follow these requirements have found success, and some of 2006s most
talked-about brandsnew, fleeting and establishedhave done so, by
and large, perhaps unwittingly.
This has an impact on the way secondary meaning is to be considered
by the courts, changing drastically any consideration into advertising. This
needs to be replaced by a consideration of chatter on the World
Wide Web, resulting in links or a high Google ranking. Secondly, the consideration
into time needs to be altered, as brands can be built on the internet at a rapid
The internet has forced such changes that few organizations can
have an offline-only existence, so the processes described in this paper need
to be considered in any branding exercise or inquiry into a brands or
trademarks secondary meaning.