It used to be the case that to get visitors to flock to your website, all you needed to do was stick those three magic letters “www” in front of your name. Of course, it also helped if you had an irreverent sounding name. One that hinted at the glamour of skateboarding computer-science graduates dreaming up billion dollar Web empires from their bedrooms (Yahoo! springs to mind here). And you certainly didn’t have to worry about old-media notions of rigid branding and inflexible corporate identity. You just did it.
But that was before the dotcom boom: now it’s different. If you devoted the rest of your life to looking at websites you would only have time for a fraction of them, and every day dozens of new ones clamour for attention. So how do you decide which ones to visit? I recently heard an Internet pundit on the radio say that dotcom companies must spend £20 on marketing and off-line activity for every visitor they wish to drive to their site. As competition for on-line traffic escalates, that figure seems set to rise.
In light of the current jitteriness surrounding the financial performance of Web-based companies, the off-line presence of the dotcoms has become vitally important, for no other reason than the principal way we are driven to sites is through activity in traditional media. As anyone who has watched TV recently knows, ad breaks have been colonised by dotcoms, and although some Web evangelists predicted the death of print, far from bleeding to death in the gutter, print is now of prime importance to dotcoms as they seek to increase traffic to their sites.
But how successful are the dotcoms at using traditional media? Have you seen a dotcom identity that excited you? Do the mail shots, the billboards, the press ads, the TV commercials, and the give-away mouse mats evoke the limitless potential of the e-universe? I don’t think so. The Web is an exhilarating place. It hums with optimism and unfulfilled potential. So why do most dotcoms have tired, old-style identities?
In a recent magazine article, Stephen Bailey attacked the woolly thinking that surrounds current branding philosophy (he took exception to a press release from Fitch claiming that brands are “the new religion”). Bailey’s waspish critique is particularly relevant in the dotcom era. He points out that it is people and not companies who make brands, citing the adoption of Tommy Hilfiger by street culture as a good example of this. Certainly, traditional notions of branding are under threat from new models of commerce forged by the Net. Some radical theorists even predict the death of on-line retail brands, in a future where the only brand we will care about is our personal Internet shopping agent. In this futuristic consumer utopia even brands like Amazon are seen as redundant. It may seem far-fetched, but who can predict the future shape of our e-world?
The Internet Ã¼ber-brand is Yahoo! It’s an irreverent shout of optimism, and potently evokes the glamour of the new Web economy. It is genuinely iconoclastic, and I bet it doesn’t even have a design manual. The TV campaign for www.outpost.com by Cliff Freeman & Partners was similarly sharp and deservedly waltzed off with a handful of yellow pencils at last year’s D&AD Awards. Elsewhere, the dead hand of corporate branding appears unable to respond to the challenge of projecting the dotcom companies in traditional media.
To help with this article, a handful of well-known dotcoms were asked to supply printed material for a spot of critical analysis. Unfortunately, only one company responded. Beme.com submitted a package of printed items, including CD-ROM packaging, mail shots and stationery. Alas, despite its admirable willingness to be scrutinised, the material was formulaic and lacking in attitude. This is disappointing, as its website is a vibrant e-magazine, which, among other things, seeks to build an on-line community – a worthy feature of the early days of the Net, but now mostly swept away in the on-rush of e-commerce. Beme.com’s printed literature urges its audience to “be whatever you want to be at Beme.com”, but its off-line “look” only encourages thoughts of conformity and timidity.
And this seems to be typical of this sector, but there are one or two quirky exceptions. In the press ads for www.ready2shop.com, the site started by fashion gurus Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, these glamorous ladies are photographed without any clothes on. Nudity and the Web is perhaps not the most wholesome of partnerships, but top marks for trying to be different. The new campaign for on-line music retailer Boxman creates a similarly idiosyncratic impression. A man with a cardboard box over his head communicates the notion that buying music on-line might be fun.
You might have thought that the music dotcoms would go in for something daring and iconoclastic: not so. MP3 is the most searchedfor term on the Internet after “sex with aliens”, but these brave challengers to the seemingly impregnable power of the major record labels do not project an image that encourages people to see them as viable alternatives. Two particularly disappointing examples are www.peoplesound.com and www.getoutthere.bt.com. Both have sites that offer realistic challenges to the monopoly of the major labels, but neither allows their off-line material to convey any sense of barriers being broken.
As for the new Amazon.co.uk logo by Turner Duckworth – talk about a missed opportunity. The A-to-Z smile is old-school graphic design; the sort of wearisome visual punning that was big in the 1970s. It pushes Amazon back into the crowd at a time when they should be loudly proclaiming their supremacy.
This seems to be the problem. Dotcoms appear reluctant to express the fundamental excitement and new-ness of the e-revolution; they seem to be saying, “Make us look like the competition.” And they find willing accomplices among today’s branding experts, who preach the doctrine of “differentiation”, but in reality, serve up sameness.
Adrian Shaughnessy is creative director of design consultancy Intro. He is the author of Sampler: contemporary music graphics (published by Laurence King)