Online Brand Building – a Case Study from Avis Europe

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by: Mark Rogers

Recent figures from the IAB indicate that UK online advertising has reached £2bn. This number has already outstripped radio and newspapers and is chasing down television (at £3.9bn). The internet’s proportion of ad spend in the UK is the highest in the world.

It is worth a second look at the trends hidden in the figures. The online advertising total was up 42% year on year. Paid search, however, grew at 52% (above the trend). Display ads grew below the trend at 35%. Display ads – which were the dominant form of advertising during the internet bubble – now represent only 22.6% of the total advertising spend.

The reasons are not hard to find: an excellent click-through rate on a display ad is 1%. Most click-through rates are far lower. The web surfers who click on a banner are poorly qualified as prospects. They may become customers, they may not. Even back at the height of the dot-com boom, frustrated ad analysts were writing columns like this – failing to find any way of showing that online advertising had any impact on buying decisions. It is still hard to track the impact of online display advertising and advertisers have found that frustrating.

Compare paid search: here customers have qualified themselves as having an interest in the topic chosen by the advertiser. It is a far more effective way of capturing monetisable online transactions and product searches (58% of the total £1.2bn is now going on paid search). But paid search remains a medium for calls to action, not for branding. It is very hard to give much of a flavour of your brand in the haiku-like format of a Google paid search advertisement. For that you need to find a way to connect emotionally with your audience, to make them feel happy, sad, excited. This remains a huge challenge online.

An upcoming conference organised by our friends at Search Engine Strategies looking at advertising through social networks. Clever approaches here seem much more likely to drive brand value than paid search. If I become the “friend” of Lily Allen, I am clearly qualifying myself much more as a potential buyer of her future output. The same goes for anything entertainment-related. But it is much more of a challenge for brands which are not entertainment related. Social networks pose them exactly the same problems as normal web pages. They either have to post a banner or sponsor an event. They can’t rely on pull, because (as sellers of motor insurance for example) they can’t compete with the Arctic Monkeys. No one on a social network like MySpace will publicly identify themselves with a functional brand – however useful they may find it – in the way they might with a star.

So where do brand builders go? The answer is that they need to identify their own target networks. Every brand has its own universe of key authorities, people who do spend their time talking about motor insurance or pension provision. We have recently been working for the car rental giant Avis Europe alongside our colleagues at UK digital agency Web Liquid. One of the things we helped Avis Europe to do was to identify:

a) who was talking about them and in what terms; b) who was talking about car hire/rental in general; c) the key authorities with whom they needed to connect;

This work identified those who could be thought of as Avis’s own “MySpace” – that is: a community of people who hire cars, talk about car hire and are authoritative on car hire. Our work enabled Avis Europe to identify the key topics that car renters were concerned about, and to help align their product with the needs of that market. We showed them who were the key authoritities in “trustworthy car rental”. Where they sat in that in conversation, and who they needed to impress to be talked about in a more positive way. We identified the key hot topics of those influencers – what language they were using, what their concerns were.

As a consequence of this work, the marketing team at Avis led by Xavier Vallée and Rob White, and the customer service team led by Eibhlin Payne and Stephen Spiers have been doing a lot of product and service development in the background and they have just now begun to talk about that in the form of a blog The aim of the blog is to open a dialogue with the marketplace.

This kind of approach sets a benchmark – in our opinion – for what online brand building needs to become: a process of engagement with the online marketplace.

  1. You find out what your brand is – by listening to the way it is discussed, by monitoring and measuring those conversations. How important are you? What are your key strengths, your weaknesses? What are your supporters saying? What are your detractors saying?
  2. You start acting on the insights, improving the product, becoming if you like more like the best self you can be;
  3. You start – very cautiously – to talk about what you are doing, trying to attenuate your voice not to the slogans of the marketing department, but to the words of your consumers;
  4. You measure how you are doing. What is the change in sentiment around your product? Are you now preferred to your competitors? On what grounds?

Then you repeat the process. Slowly, and in lock-step with your customers, you build your brand. This process is not just about good market research, or good advertising: it puts both to the service of creating an impregnable place for your brand at the heart of the most valuable place you can be: the place where you solve problems for your customers.

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