Richard Murray : Dotcom… or dotcon?

In many cases the Internet can be an effective marketing medium and information resource, but Richard Murray thinks too many websites are just a waste of cyberspace

With anticipation and excitement we have spent the past few years witnessing the marketing world come to terms with life on the Internet. Shopping was set to become a thing of the past; dotcom businesses offered all would-be entrepreneurs a seeming opportunity to print money. It suddenly became imperative for brands to have a presence on the Web.

However, now that the dust begins to settle, comes the reality that the world of brands on the Internet frankly hasn’t proven to be the greatest thing since the industrial revolution. People look set to continue the activity of shopping (we now even see companies like Amazon opting to move into conventional retail).

Despite the City championing dotcom ventures, we have seen a spate of very high-profile flops. And anyone who works in design will know that websites have failed to be the exhilarating new medium which was expected.

With particular regard to the last point, I would like to question what exactly has gone wrong? Is it a case of the medium, or is it that the hype surrounding it became bigger than the products it tries to sell? It would seem that the majority of brand owners have completely failed to cope with the speed at which things have happened. The pressure to create a site for your brand as quickly as possible means that many have succumbed to an indiscriminate purchase of Web design.

I may be prone to cynicism, and don’t profess to spend an inordinate amount of time on the Net, but it strikes me that 80 per cent of websites are totally irrelevant, and I’m not just talking about things like “Cats on scanners”. While I can understand someone looking at the BMW range details, or checking Odeon times, you have to ask if Utterly Butterly or Chicken Tonight really has a role on the World Wide Web? Fine, the sites may be accessible and user-friendly, but if they add little to the brand, or mean nothing to the target audience, then what’s the point?

If 80 per cent are irrelevant then I’d go as far to say that 95 per cent are very badly designed (I’m sure I’m not alone in only knowing VW’s Beetle as an example of best practice). While there is a growing elite of respected Web-design specialists, the fast-track route to Internet branding appears to have been led by brand-naive techiesí closely followed by design businesses, leaping on to a bandwagon.

Having spent years convincing clients that design can truly build brands, and that design businesses are worthy brand guardians, many appear momentarily to have ditched their principles. The need to master technology has got in the way of the need to build a “brand world” effectively. Browse the Net and you find far too many sites that are both visually incongruous with other parts of the mix, and far too complex in their content.

But I sense that we are about to witness an enormous shake-up of brands on the Internet. The owner of the brand that has had just 47 hits since it went on-line might realise that the effort involved in maintaining the site cannot be justified. Likewise, the marketing manager who commissioned an enthusiastic computer whiz to create a website at a good price is going to find himself having to reappraise his ineffective domain (which could be very good news for businesses that understand brands more than programming, but are currently priced out of the market). The maturity of the Internet will hopefully mean that it will cease to be regarded as a must-have-nowí panacea for all brands.

The same sort of rigour that goes into media planning in advertising will be applied to the placement of brands on the Internet. As a consequence, we will begin to see a lot fewer of the irrelevant sites (tap in Chicken Run and you won’t get Chicken Tonight appearing on your computer screen).

And as the medium becomes better understood will a new set of rules emerge that go far beyond icons, navigation and message bombardment? In a predominantly visual world are we to expect language and vocabulary to become an important means of creating brand differential? Surely simplicity has to replace information-overload, and content or conceptual thought will replace technique and electronic wizardry.

For me, the recent highs and lows of brands on the Internet serve as a sobering reminder that while the world is increasingly digital, Man remains analogue, responding best to simple narrative, logical processes, and well-synthesised information.

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