What Ecommerce Can Learn from Mad Men-Era Branding
By Ina Steiner
Spoiler Alert: Article contains ending to AMC's television series, "Mad Men."
Unabashed fans of AMC's "Mad Men," already know that we left the series' protagonist, Don Draper, in lotus position at the new-age Esalen retreat in Big Sur. A thin smile crosses his lips as the scene dissolves into one of the most recognizable TV spots in history begins playing, "I'd like to teach the world to sing,..."
Draper, the fictional Madison Avenue ad-man, was portrayed as the creative genius behind some of advertising's most compelling brand campaigns, such as Kodak, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and the iconic "Hilltop" Coke commercial shown at the end of series finale last month.
Sixties' era ads - both television and print - are still highly memorable fifty years later. Who doesn't remember seeing Volkswagen's "Lemon" ad in a magazine or imitating the Alka-Seltzer's "That's a spicy meat-a-ball" commercial? But is branding still as relevant in 2015, and what would Don Draper think of ecommerce and of brands such as eBay and Amazon?
The "Hilltop" Coke commercial, in reality, was created by McCann Erikson's Bill Backer in 1971. We reached out to him to find out what he thought of ecommerce branding - and what a brand really is.
We also spoke to the current president of McCann's digital agency MRM//McCann North America Hank Summy and to a retail executive who left Samsonite - an established brand - and helped create what has become one of the success stories of ecommerce branding, eBags.com.
Brands Go Beyond Straight Logic
Bill Backer, now in his 80s, said brand is something with which you've had a long-term relationship. You understand what it delivers to you, you trust it. There's a sentimentality involved - you remember drinking Coke.
Backer came up with the Hilltop idea on his way to London to write Coca-Cola radio commercials with songwriters. As the Coke website explains, he had an epiphany about the beverage during a forced layover in Ireland. When his fellow passengers bonded over snacks and Coke as they waited for their flight to resume, he saw Coke not as it was originally designed to be - a liquid refresher - but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes. Mad Men fans would likely call it a "Don Draper moment."
Backer told EcommerceBytes he is electronically-challenged and couldn't speak specifically to eBay or Amazon, but he believes Internet companies change so fast - they're constantly being revised and changed.
With a brand, he said, "There's a sentimental attachment, you used it over the years - it showed up in your life and went well or badly. When you see a certain product, there's a feeling bigger than straight logic."
The Brand Promise
While a 20-year-old Internet company may not have a brand as powerful as Coke, we wondered if it's possible for an online marketplace to have a brand at all. Current day "mad man" Hank Summy of MRM//McCann said absolutely. "It's important for a marketplace to have a brand promise, otherwise, what's the difference?"
Summy said that the question isn't, "What is a brand?" - rather, it's, "What is the brand promise?" A company's brand promise might be that it's the most affordable, or have the greatest customer service. And that can change over time, but companies must define their brand promise sufficiently.
Like Backer, Summy believes there is a need for an emotional connection. "Understand the expectations of the person you're trying to interact with. If you understand the expectations, then you can create that experience," Summy said.
Summy also said there is a huge difference between an ad campaign and a brand campaign. "With a brand campaign, you're trying to highlight the unique difference, the special sauce of your business. With an ad campaign, you're driving sales around a specific SKU or item."
"Both are critically important, and marketers struggle with how much to spend on each," Summy said.
What about small sellers who don't have the resources of a Coke, eBay, or Amazon?
"It's important for small sellers to tell their own stories, to be different in a sea of similarity," Summy said. Seller ratings on various criteria like customer service are just the "table stakes." If you sell green tea, tell the story behind it. Where is it sourced, how long was it roasted. "The story is important," he said. "We like to buy into that story."
The Story of an Early Online Shopping Brand
Peter Cobb, co-founder and head of marketing for retail site eBags.com, had some advice for small merchants with low ad budgets. "Keep it simple and be consistent." When you build your brand, you should make it memorable, repeatable, and scalable, he said.
Cobb and his cofounders had an advantage that some smaller ecommerce entrepreneurs might not - four of the five founders had previously worked at Samsonite (speaking of successful brands) before starting eBags in 1998, well before ecommerce went mainstream.
As Cobb tells it, at the time, Samsonite questioned whether people would buy luggage via email.
eBags founders were prescient not only about the fact people would buy luggage online - they recognized a domain name like "eluggage" would be too limiting - they wanted to offer more than travel items. And they recognized the value in a having a short URL, hitting upon eBags.com as being short, easy to spell, memorable, and inclusive.
Asked about eBag's "brand promise," Cobb said the company's reason for being is, "We help you discover and buy your perfect bag to enhance life's journey." So successful is eBags as an online retailer, that it also carries its own line of products - eBags-branded bags are found for sale not only on its own website, but on major online marketplaces, including Amazon.
From the beginning, they wanted the experience of buying on their site to be better than at a brick & mortar store - "we needed to blow people away by the selection," he said. They have more brands than the average store has products, Cobb said: 55,000 bags from 530 brands, while the typical store carries 200 bags.
The company has sold 23 million bags, and customers have left 3 million reviews. And those reviews, which were part of the site from the beginning, are crucial to the eBags brand, Cobb said. "A big part of our brand is, "leave something for the next person.""
"Brand works in a lot of mysterious ways," he said. Asked if he ever had a "Don Draper" moment, he pointed to a crisis early in the company's history - 9/11.
While the 2001 terrorist attack in New York impacted everyone, eBags as a business was vulnerable in a unique way. "We sold travel goods," he said. People weren't, thinking, "where are we going to travel today?""
"We basically almost shut the company down. We watched the news on TV with our employees. We recognized we needed to do something, so we changed the site's home page to collect money for the Red Cross. We raised $125,000 for the Red Cross in a couple of days."
While eBags was known for travel goods, it offered much more, and that event spurred them to diversify. "We now have 6 - 7 categories, and no one category accounts for more than 30% of our business," he said.
Brand Lessons: Keep It Simple and Consistent
Cobb is brutally honest when it comes to the difficulties of building a brand. Advertising is difficult for small companies, and SEO is slanted in favor of longtime sites - even changing a website name brings you back to square one with search engines, he said.
Paid search is very expensive if you're not a big company, and it doesn't build your brand. Small companies need to create some type of groundswell, Cobb said. It can come from customers, and in the case of eBags, the brands they worked with gave them nice buzz. "You need to get some positive momentum."
He also said it's important to use social media, PR, networking, speaking and guest writing. "Get out there, write articles, and tweet." People tell him, "You guys are everywhere."
The lessons learned from talking to branding experts is that you don't have to have a Don Draper on staff to build your small retail brand, but you do have to put as much thought into it. Think about your brand promise (and deliver on that promise!), be consistent, and be everywhere. And, as Hank Summy advised, recognize the power of your story.
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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