When bookstore Barnes & Noble sued Amazon back in 1997 it was because Amazon had claimed to be "the world's largest bookstore". Barnes & Noble claimed that Amazon wasn’t a store, it was a broker. The case was settled out of court but the concept of store was changing forever.
Time was, you used to have to have worked very hard for years on a physical product and then when you were well known enough you’d be able to migrate to the internet and encourage your loyal customers to buy there too. Nowadays the likes of Airbnb manage to foster an immediately strong brand seemingly out of thin air. When we try and think about where Twitter came from, well, it just sort of appeared, didn’t it?
When the first generation of e-commerce providers came on the scene, customers still needed to go in store to touch products and compare prices. These days, online-only brands can leverage social media to personalise the buying process. Brands these days are built around word of mouth and memes instead of bricks and mortar and bulging shopping trolleys (at least the metal kind).
Jamie Watson, managing partner at branding, integrated marketing, and digital asset management agency, Pixel8, says, “There are different types of online brands from those that are selling physical goods such as ASOS and Boohoo, those that aggregate services such as trivago and booking.com and those that enable sharing such as Airbnb and Uber. With the exception of Autotrader and Shopdirect that were physical catalogues, they’ve come from almost nowhere and in some cases created whole new markets.”
Unlike traditional brands, online-only brands’ only real need is to get sales. They don’t need to worry about physical footfall, rental hikes, environmental factors, planning or day-to-day inconveniences such as weather or traffic. This allows them to focus all their resources on digital marketing, making it much easier to gain penetration. Moreover, without multiple store locations, the fiddly matter of branches and managers can be taken out of the equation.
And if building a brand is about using the “testimonial economy”, that is the power of online ambassadors, then online-only brands have it made. They have no need to persuade the little old lady down the road to spend more on her weekly shopping because for an online-only brand she’s not a key demographic.
To create a strong brand companies need to know, see and directly appeal to their key demographic. And the best way to do this is to know who’s shopping with them. Online brands have this sewn up too. Using big data to create customer profile has never been easier and targeting them accordingly a whole lot less hassle than persuading them to fill in a form at the counter.
However, these new online brands might feel like they’ve got it made but, warns Watson, “only Amazon has really managed to become a true all-encompassing brand that has the right to sell anything. We now buy both physical goods, services and media and will soon be buying our groceries from them. And if a brand can be created quickly, does it follow that they can be replaced quickly too to make way for the next wave of technology innovator? Will we see rapid consolidation as the likes of Amazon buy up brands, as they have with Lovefilm? Will it be long before we are buying our travel and booking a cab through Amazon?”