Over the past decade, there have been some excellent examples of how big brands have redefined themselves beyond the brick and mortar box by creating cutting edge online experiences. Whether it’s the Nike shoe configurator, Volkswagen’s “Build your VW” or an entire online playground delivered by Disney’s Imagineering group, many top brands have learned how to leverage the latest web technologies to build a virtual experience that mirrors or deviates (in a positive way) from the store, dealership, theme park or whatever real world venue has been a part of that brand’s evolution.
However, what about those household names that never had a store? What about those brands that are built in the depths of cyberspace without doors, store hours, a product on the shelf or a slew of TV commercials? The next generation of “brands” have built their bones on the intangible: experiences, mouse interaction, features and full exploitation of eye-catching and tactile technologies that are transparent to the average user, but active on the mind of every web developer and digital designer in the marketplace today.
Amazon was an experience before it was a brand
I’ve used this phrase a couple of times when addressing brick and mortar and traditional businesses that are concerned with redefining or merging their brands online, or even just rolling out an existing brand into a viable web experience. The sentiment is that if you can create or mirror a great experience online, the brand (even an unfamiliar one) can evolve, in part, from its success. After all, in the web world, competitors can originate from very different places, whether it’s traditional retail dynasties or pure cyber-businesses that have grown from venture capital and a series of unusual ideas.
Amazon is a great example of the new kid who could run marathons before it even learned how to speak its own name. Is it possible that without many of the key elements of brand identity (such as carefully developed visuals, verbal identity and a concrete business strategy) that a bunch of pages and code files can become the next household name?
It’s all in the tabs
When Amazon launched in 1995 as an online bookstore, the web was in its infancy. E-commerce was finding its feet, and many traditional businesses that had managed to roll out hundreds of stores across the country couldn’t manage to get a proper shopping cart up and running. Most e-commerce sites from established brand names were clunky and unpredictable, and most of all, did no justice to the excellent customer service and in-store experiences that their retail equivalents had achieved.
Source: The History of Amazon’s Tab Navigation (LukeW Ideation & Design)
With easy to use manila folder styled top tabs, a Spartan design and useful features galore, the Amazon experience (as well as those infamous tabs) became one of the most copied designs on the web. Most of all, as Amazon continued to grow, it paid special attention to how it re-organized its offerings, and expanded to include features such as recommended buys, one-click shopping and wish lists. All of this came from a company that didn’t see a net profit until January of 2002 (which by our own Best Global Brands standards, would have put Amazon in the waste bin before that year). The moral of the story, is that Amazon defined itself as an experience before it became a viable brand, complete with profit, projections and a clear strategy. The Amazon logo is easily recognizable from yards away – not because you’ve seen it on the face of retail shops or milk cartons, but because that logo emerged from one of the most notable online experiences ever developed.
Ebay also holds a similar honor; not only did the online marketplace giant redefine how we shop (our parents never had to put in a “bid” to buy designer shoes), but created a series of shopping and user experience mechanisms around a very basic, almost child-like design and little to no verbal identity or supporting imagery. Those defining brand elements, by our standards, may not have been there – but the experience itself compensated for it…and well. It too, like Amazon, has become one of the most recognized brands in the world–so recognizable, that you may feel like it’s always been there.
User experiences and functionality, shaped by today’s technologies, can make or break the next big brand in cyberspace. These intangibles don’t replace the core aspects of what defines a brand, but they most certainly have become an additional factor in an already complex formula for success.