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08/12/01 - Brand Wannabes

Well, it's been a month since the wheels flew off Webvan. The bankrupt e-grocer recently raised about $3 million in an Atlanta public auction of its assets. Attendees reportedly snapped up Webvan shirts, delivery bins and other souvenirs, expressing more enthusiasm for the dot.com dead than alive.

Interestingly enough, collecting e-failure memorabilia is becoming a trend. There's a fellow in Virginia who's been buying up and reselling the bright orange scooters used by Kozmo, the defunct dot-com delivery service (what Webvan was trying to be in its last days). Pet.com sock puppets and inflated dot-com stock certificates are also hot collector's items.

However, as noted in a previous installment, it's questionable whether Webvan and other web wipeouts were indeed even brands. They were certainly wannabe brands, but is two years a sufficient amount of time for a business concept to establish a relationship with consumers? To become a name they "know and trust?"

To be sure, most e-tailers accumulated all the classic brand identity props. In fact, Webvan had two different logos and three ad campaigns during its brief run.

Shortly before being put to sleep, Pets.com was heralded throughout the ad press as one of the web's strongest brands. Why? Apparently because it had a spokespuppet which its PR people presumptuously claimed was warmly embraced by the public.

These cosmetic notions of branding, along with some wacky TV spots with zero relevance to the sites they were promoting, meshed well with the get rich quick mentality behind venture-capital funded web startups.

Yet, despite ad budgets shockingly disproportionate to earnings, the only thing most wound up proving was that brands are built not bought.

Their heavy investment in brand advertising generally returned little in consumer awareness. E-toys.com has only been gone about 6 months now. Remember anything about of their brand image besides that fact that they sold toys on the web? Any E-toys TV spots come to mind?

I'm sure Webvan's marketing communications have already been forgotten by most folks. A mention of the Pets.com sockpuppet at a party recently generated blank stares.

Admittedly, the advertising of many dot-coms was geared more toward gaining visibility in the investment community than cultivating customers. Which, of course, contributed to them not having a customer base to build a profitable business on.

There was no compelling reason for consumers to change their "unwired" habits other than--ta-da--the convenience/novelty of shopping on the web. Nevertheless, this basic premise was all it took for Webvan, Pets.com, Wine.com and others to raise hundreds of millions in funding.

A blind eye was turned to the fact that catalog and phone shopping have offered the same thing for a long time.

Besides basing their brands on the novelty of shopping on the web, some e-tailers went a step further and attempted to define their brand in terms of being the market leader in their category. A Home Depot, category killer approach.

That's what Webvan attempted in its purchase of HomeGrocer.com in a 1.2 billion all stock deal (hope that wasn't Webvan stock).

The same is true for "losing money and proud of it" Amazon.com. When it was a book retailer, it had the hook of being "the world's biggest bookstore."

Remember those lame TV and radio ads with characters searching for a place big enough (like the Great Pyramid) to hold "all those books?" At least those communicated a point of difference.

Then greed/desperation sunk in and Amazon.com is now what? A web superstore? Well, their tagline says "Earth's biggest selection" but it should be expanded to "Earth's biggest selection of stuff you can buy for less elsewhere."

I know that's how I use Amazon's site. I'll read the detailed product descriptions and customer comments and then buy the item from someone else. Prove it to yourself by running a few Amazon.com prices through a pricescan.com.

As I write this, I opened the Sunday paper and found an 8 page color insert from Amazon filled with various computer and electronic gear. This is obviously an effort to reach beyond the web and generate some sales before what might be a very unmerry Christmas season.

However, laying their prices out among the paper's other sales inserts invites some rather unfavorable comparison shopping. A quick cross check revealed that Best Buy bested Amazon on similar items as did other "bricks and mortar" retailers.

So what would the attraction be to buying from Amazon.com? Certainly not price. Then what?. Retail environment is not a factor. There is no Amazon shopping experience as there would be at, say, Bloomingdales or FAO Schwartz.

The key benefit here is the "Earth's biggest selection of stuff for shut-ins." Though obviously no thought was put into the development of many e-businesses, the target for Amazon and others appears to be agoraphobic who, for whatever reason, can't bother searching the web for the best price.

This newspaper insert is the first Amazon.com advertising in a long time. That's probably because their identity is so confused that it'd be tough to put together a coherent campaign.

By the Christmas season, they'll probably come up with some grab bag execution that composits as much of the stuff they can put on screen in 30 seconds. Or maybe 30 seconds of product strobe cuts to a techno track.

If new advertising is anything like the generic design of the insert I'm looking at, it'll further help define Amazon as an anything for a buck web merchant.

Or they might dust off their award-winning campaign of the past few holiday seasons, an intentionally hokey '60s era sing-a-long touting the convenience of cyberspace shopping and the breadth of Amazon's product offerings.

Of course this anti-bricks and mortar attitude is the same old song Webvan ads featured. And by now it could be falling on deaf ears.

Besides sharing similarities in size, Amazon might be as endangered as its namesake. Though hyped in the media as "Web's Biggest Brand," a profitably sufficient number of consumers haven't been buying since it was founded in 1995.

It's interesting to note that besides losing money on their own site, Amazon.com has lost millions investing in a dozen other sites they thought were promising "brands," including Webvan and Pets.com.

The failure of these pseudo web brands has demonstrated that, no matter how well funded or hyped, the laws of economic survival must ultimately be obeyed.

Welcome to the jungle, baby.