The Online Brand Experience: Nature and Dimensions

Published: 19th December 2008
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With the advent of Internet the marketing communications environment has changed profoundly and there is a recognised need of continuous conceptual addition to the existing branding theory. Some authors pronounced the advent of the "experience economy" and the "experience marketing", while others have taken more extreme postmodern stance and have denied the validity of the traditional branding inferences. Encompassing all these perspectives and drawing on the traditional branding concepts from customer- based perspective this paper will concentrate on the construct of the online brand experience (OBE) as a central part of the contemporary branding strategy. In particular, building on the existing ideas, gathering insights from observation of contemporary online branding campaigns and conducting qualitative study among consumers, I am intending to explore the phenomenon of OBE. Central points in a future theoretical framework will be the notion of the brand as experience, the dimensions around which brand experiences are built online and the very
technology of OBE process.

The central theme of a future research is the challenges faced by companies in their decision-making about branding in online environment. The focal point of the research would be the creation of brand experience as the most important element of the firm's online branding strategy. The first sub-question evolves around the definition of brand experience; to what extent is the notion of brand identical to experience and are there any grounds to believe that we are entering experience economy? The second sub-question refers to the main dimensions of the online brand experience. The last objective of the paper could be to create a theoretical model of the online brand experience in accordance with the above findings. The paper's focus on the notion of online brand experience would be based on the view of the brand as "a cluster of functional and emotional values which promise a particular experience" (de Chernatony and Segal-Horn, 2003). The importance of the issue is underscored by the view of the brand not as an identifier, but as an experience (Schmitt, 1999). Since this shift of definition and focus of branding is triggered namely by the incessant technological and communication change, the importance of building a theoretical reference to brands as online experiences is exigent.

In view of the new communications environment there is a need of rebranding and more
importantly rethinking of the traditional branding concepts. A number of authors (Ibeh et al., 2005; Christodoulides and de Chernatony, 2004; Bergstrom, 2000) propose addition to the existing branding theory instead of replacement with the warning that Internet is not just another distribution and communications channel, but rather a branding tool with new unique features. The central in this paper notion of online brand experience is discussed from different perspectives by several authors. Ibeh et al. (2005) describe the "high-impact customer online experience" as "a key source of added value in the internet
economy". Going even further, Pine II and Gilmore (1998, 2000) define the experience as the "fourth economic offering" in the "progression of economic value" after commodities, goods and services. Drawing on their ideas, Schmitt (1999) classifies five different types of experiences. For Cova (1996) the consumer is not only a target for, but also "a producer of experiences". Furthermore, various authors discuss the importance of issues affecting brands online such as interactivity, connectivity, creativity, vividness, customisation, community, relevance, engagement (Cova et al., 2007; Coyle and Thorson, 2001; Christodoulites and De Chernatony, 2004). However, there is a need of systematising the primary dimensions of the OBE as perceived by the consumer. Hence, one of the primary tasks of the future paper is to reveal the most important dimensions around which brand equity is built online. The notion of online brand experience will be reviewed from the following perspectives: traditional branding theory from customer-based perspective (Keller,1993; Aaker, 1996), experiential marketing (Pine and Gilmore, 1998, 2000), and postmodern marketing (Brown, 1993; Firat and Venkatesh, 1993). The rationale behind this decision is the need of theoretical anchor in the research (traditional line), the focus on the experience (experiential perspective) and the need of an updated view of the contemporary consumer behaviour (postmodern marketing). The principal aim of a research paper would be to build an integrated conceptual model for the notion of online brand experience. In attempt to systematise the findings about the OBE and provide further theoretical clarity for branding managers and researchers the following objectives have been set:

- To explore the nature of the experience as a new notion for brand;
- To explore in detail the dimensions around which online brand experiences are built;
- To propose a theoretical model of online brand experience based on the above findings.

The exploration of the online brand experience and its main dimensions would be also the main object of the qualitative study to be undertaken as part of the future research. In accordance with the complexity of the explored area I am considering to employ the method of laddering interview. This qualitative technique has proven useful in allowing "the evaluation of ongoing experience" (Orsingher and Marzocchi, 2003) and "in uncovering insights related to the source and the nature of a brand equity" (Wansink, 2003). Furthermore, I have decided to use laddering since it allows in-depth research of the reasons for expressing certain attitudes. Unlike the factor analysis where the focus is more on the generalisation of gathered items as factors, successful laddering permits the discovery of the underlying values behind consumer behaviour. In order to thoroughly address the object of the study, a convenience sample of 20 respondents will be selected. One should keep in mind, that the purpose of the laddering method is not to be "representative of the population", but rather to focus on the technique's purpose - "to show how they [the respondents' answers] can be used to understand a brand's equity" and to "find the root reasons for the consumer's purchase" (Wansink, 2003).
The main question of the interview will refer to the dimensions around which online brand experiences should be built. In order to uncover the dimensions, the interviewers will probe according to the criteria recommended by Reynolds and Gutman (1988). Respondents will be asked to specify no more and no less than four dimensions. If fewer than four dimensions are given, questions such as "What other dimensions can you think of?" will be used for probing. Then, the respondents will be asked to state three reasons for each of the four dimensions. The result of this technique, known as hard laddering, will be 4 x 3 matrix of idiographic responses. During the hard laddering "[r]espondents are forced to fill a grid of predetermined dimensionality" (Orsingher and Marzocchi, 2003; Bagozzi and Edwards, 1998) and in this case each respondent will indicate up to 12 superordinate reasons and 6 linkages. After the content analysis of the results, these will be input in "Decision Explorer" and the formal output will be twenty individual causal maps. Additionally, a number of websites of renowned brands will be observed and a list of experience messages/promises will be compiled. In such a manner, the other side of the relation consumer-marketer will also be represented. As a result, dimensions and characteristics of the online brand experience will be gathered from three angles: literature review, consumer testimonials and observation of online branding campaigns.

A number of limitations would apply to such a research. One practical limitation of the hard laddering technique "is the forced directionality of the probing process: starting form the first level of stated attributes respondents cannot be probed downward (asking 'what') in addition to be probed upward (asking 'why')" (Orsingher and Marzocchi, 2003). Further obstacle to the generalisation of the qualitative results is the nature of the sample which could not be representative for the population. However, considering the purpose and the domain of the research it is unlikely that a statistically representative/reliable quantitative technique could be meaningfully used. Additionally, it is always possible that the respondents find it difficult to express their attitudes and feelings towards an issue.
Hence, unveiling the underlying values might prove a hard task. Another impediment is the different level of Internet awareness and usage among demographic groups. In other words, not everyone could be tagged as "Internet savvy". Nevertheless, considering the fact that the awareness of Internet is higher among younger consumers, we may easily predict that the importance of the World Wide Web as marketing branding tool and communication channel will be even more significant in the future. In accordance with the set objectives I will select respondents who access Internet on a regular basis.

A potential conceptual obstacle could be the lack of agreed upon theoretical base for the notion of experience in the context of branding. Further impediment may be the fact that "the literature on internet branding ? is currently in a formative stage" (Simmons, 2007).
Another problem is the tendency of "[m]arketing communications in the e-business context" to go "beyond the traditional boundaries of marketing communications and marketing departments" (Rowley, 2004). In particular, we should bear in mind that the process of conveying brands as experiences is an anthropological phenomenon as much as it is a
technological one. Consequently, much broader view and an approach that accounts for the social, ethical, moral and philosophical shift in the contemporary western societies are required for the appraisal of the role of experience branding.

With regard to the ethical aspect of the research, I do not envisage any implicit pitfalls for the respondents participating in the survey. Nevertheless, the exploration of the notion of brand experience could entangle the issues of hedonism, narcissism, etc. and one should be careful during elicitation and translation of the results. The respondents will be informed about the purpose of the study and their responses will be anonomised so their identity is not revealed. I am aware of the political nature of the observed organisations and I will attempt to be unbiased and seek robust conclusions by the use of triangulation of data sources. In such a manner it will be more difficult for respondents to influence the results by inconsistent statements.

One of my first immediate actions will be a review of the major ideas in the field from all the aforementioned perspectives (traditional, experiential and postmodern). I will look for common threads which might help in achieving the objectives of the paper. I will also immediately begin the compilation of a list with URLs of major brands in several industries. Simultaneously with the compilation I will commence observation of the websites of the selected brands with the goal of eliciting and grouping messages/promises of particular experiences which are currently used in branding campaigns. These initial steps, along with the qualitative study, will aim at analysing the phenomenon of experience branding as: a new firm offering (the emotional core of the offer); a new notion for brand (reinforcing the brand effects beyond name and symbol); and a new process (executed online). The context of the exploration will be further defined by two general considerations: the possible substitution of the widely proclaimed marketing goal "to add value" (in order to win the customer) with a new one, i.e. "to deliver experience"; and the future role of the marketer - a screenwriter who "designs" the experience and leaves the "directing" to the consumer.

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