Digital Branding: Building Brand Equity for your Online Audience

(Hugh MacLeod on Gaping Void: )

The current vocabulary for thinking about attributes and characteristics of a brand is outdated. Old thinking states that brands have to be personable, and are often given individual traits as descriptors, to fit in with the target audience and customers better. However, there is place for a brand to have corporate characteristics, completely unique, that are still liked and welcomed by consumers.

Brand 3.0 will be defined by how the new companies created by millennials carve out a new genre of brand equity with a new definition of corporate values and qualities. Customers focus on trust, transparency and ease of utility as qualities applicable to both friends (individuals) and brands (corporates).


The transition to here started in the sharing economy where individuals took on the role of traditional company based activity, leasing rooms, cars, time, etc. Here, trust factors levied on individuals took on the primary risk mitigator when deciding to transact for example reviews by peers, which highlighted trustworthiness, helpfulness; demonstrated by presence and speed of response on social media and other fora, and openness to change and customization. This led to companies being imbued with the same expectations.

In 2015 Aesop released the results of its survey of the top storytelling brands of the UK after questioning almost 3000 consumers covering more than 150 brands. Charities and tech companies dominated the rankings. Aesop Director of Narrative, Ed Woodcock believed tech companies were leading the way back then because they are “platforms for other people’s stories”, also, consumers form a deep emotional connection to them.

To assess storytelling, customers were asked the following:

To what extent does each brand fulfil different criteria, such as:

  • “A clear sense of purpose and vision”
  • “Produces content you want to share or talk about”
  • “Made you want to see what they will do next”

If we map those questions against the qualities or outcomes we mentioned in the summary we get:


The survey responses gathered by Aesop adds weight to the earlier hypothesis. Deep emotional bonds (brand equity) are being formed with new styles of companies (tech platforms) that exhibit new ways of storytelling. In this way, the medium very much is the message and can define positioning strongly when competing for mindshare of the online consumer.

Because of the number of digital channels, and the consolidation of the sales funnel (awareness, sales and purchase can happen almost in one go), the opportunity for competitive digital branding has been lost amidst a confusion on where to be present, and in many cases, a ubiquitous and superfluous presence. For Brand 3.0, presence on new channels isn’t enough. It’s the judicious selection of the right channels and creating the right content to populate them.

Most ad-tech market literature addresses the problem of consumer mindshare from an angle of attention and relevance, which must of course be monetized, hence paying for better profiling of consumers and better techniques to advertise (circumvent ad blockers, rich media, or programmatic). However, the portion of the customer sales funnel this actually addresses is comparatively small in relation to how much investment has been poured into the sector so far.

The value of an online consumer across any online platform is measured in varying definitions of engagement. Whether that is a [platform specific user action eg “like”, “Retweet”, “repost”] or time spent, or shares, or bookmarking, there is a user action that results in either a user relooking at the content (repeat exposure) or sharing it to a wider audience (increased exposure). The same effects of deep bonding are not seen in ad-tech solutions which operate on a market based bidding model, capitalizing on opportunity intent, rather than customer initiated proactive desire.

The former ad-tech strategy advocates that any sale, at any price (eg retargeted discounts) to anyone (whether a customer is searching or seeing a banner ad, on any publisher) is better than no sale, the latter strategy advocates that only sales to particular people are worth any value (thereby leading with a Brand Equity model first rather than a data  analytics, predictive-outcome based model).

Imagine this; if you run a small shop you can pretty much see all the data on who is walking near your shop outside, who’s inside the shop and where they are, what gender they are, what they’re wearing, etc etc. But none of this “big data” influences in store sales. In Store sales are influenced by the displays and shopper retailing strategy along with effective sales staff. Both these two base their strategy on the brand and the emotional connection with consumers.


As shopping channels move and new tech is adopted for both the marketing and the actual sale and delivery of goods, brands must focus on retaining the customer experience. If a particular medium of experience has become obsolete, it is no good to simply write off that experience, a suitable alternative should be found. Too much digital strategy has been focused on building for the algorithms and machines (Google, Facebook, Yelp, Amazon) and less on keeping the customer invested in the brand.

Another example to illustrate this point, imagine you are a luxury accessories and fashion brand. Typically in print the customer experience would be to gaze upon an A4 beautiful imagery with top class photography, models, makeup and graphic design. An image that evoked desire, envy, and aspiration. If the medium of print is no longer available, how would the brand manage to evoke the same emotions online or outdoor?

If we use a Brand based, customer experience focus whilst transitioning across technologies and media, we can mitigate against obsolescence.

Fashion brands for example, rather than move the entire customer experience online, can actually use online to drive more (but different) footfall to stores, where better experiences can take place. Or, they may provide an interface to a new combined experience (VR for example).

Financial and market based services will exploit the online medium to scale their knowledge (content creation) and find novel ways of using that knowledge to convert to more trust and transparency. Typically scaling any type of content online requires the use of intermediary “organisers” (eg search engines, restaurant aggregators etc) which makes sense as they have up til now been best for the needs of consumers. But brands need to optimize for themselves and the stories they tell, in order to manifest a tribe of consumers.

A customer specific tool that you have created to demonstrate the brand trait of ease of use, is difficult to optimize for intermediaries, especially if such tools run on proprietary systems not crawlable by other engines. But the brand still needs to make it easy to access the content that backs up the product claims, and makes it easier for customers to trust and share that content. If the main predictor of sales for these services is trust, typically generated by an in person meeting, the company has to find ways of generating the same level of trust, if no person is present.


The crossover between an individual’s platforms to connect with others and the subsequent overtaking by an ad funded model of existence, has meant every brand is fighting to be on these mass networks / platforms, with only the variable of targeting, (supposedly becoming ever more refined) as the main driver of awareness and sales. This model works best, only when you already know the most amount of data from your customers, so you can find more “like them”. This does nothing to deepen engagement. Just because there are “more” places to create brand awareness, doesn’t mean you should take advantage of them all, particularly when you aren’t sure of the following

  1. Does the online customer have the same buyer persona as the offline one (also is there a direct route to online purchase)?
  2. Is it clear what type of content the online customer is looking for?
  3. Do I have a purpose and a vision to exist online? (what if no direct route to online purchase)
  4. Am I making the mistake of thinking about the channels first, rather than the type of content first?

Today’s consumer is used to a world where everything is built to optimize around them, they know how the algorithms work, and what they expect to see on each channel. These consumers therefore perceive a brand as more valuable, when it seems to know:

a) if and when more varied content is required and

b) what that content should be

Google has made life easier for consumers by organizing the world’s information. It has made life even easier with meta data included in search results, to the point where a keyword in the search bar can result in a phone number you can call with one click.

Brands who don’t optimize for these “facilitators” such as Google, will be notable by their absence, and indirectly also thought of as not easy to do business with.

Similarly, brands who attempt an acquisition strategy on a social network, typically accessed via mobile, but have no landing page or digital point of conversion post click, will likely be ignored in the future.

Both startups and existing small businesses who want to make more use of online channels should consider seeking out Digital Branding agencies to help them work on strategies to help them win in market.  

A Digital Brand Strategy can help uncover the insights that will help you maintain position amongst your audience both on and offline, or tap into new audiences made possible by the internet. It can identify which channels to operate on, and what content to use that best matches your brand values and company resources. It will ensure your brand can communicate trust, transparency and ease of use as competitive qualities.

Finally, it will more accurately inform your design route and collateral required, which can turn into a large cost saving later on as more elements are added to the marketing mix (such as advertising, content marketing, newsletters, events and more).

Digital Branding: Building Brand Equity for your Online Audience

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