How to win the branding war on the internet
As the number of websites grows exponentially, it becomes increasingly important for enterprises to differentiate themselves from the competition. On the internet, organisations need to be easily identifiable, providing existing and potential customers with the confidence that their needs will be met in the most convenient, reliable and optimal way.

Branding – the display of unique selling points and intellectual property – has always been problematic. In the new world, anyone can view an organisation's website, slightly change or manipulate what they see and call it their own, so maintaining a unique, competitive and consistent message is an enormous challenge. Risks often come from unexpected directions. For example, an internet banking site had to stop providing Microsoft Money as part of its service because clients began to think of the site as belonging to Microsoft, rather than the UK bank concerned.

Although the new economy brings few new challenges, the nature and likelihood of certain exposures have changed significantly. This is particularly so in the area of competitive intelligence, where investigators make great use of the internet. When everyone has access to the same information simultaneously, only the analysis and interpretation of this information distinguishes a company from its competitors.

Debates still rage over the relative importance of branding, internet brochure-ware and the coverage of products, goods and services. Opinions vary considerably on the extent to which time, money and effort should be spent on e-branding initiatives and on the merits of brand promotion versus the direct promotion of e-commerce efforts that offer tangible returns.

A creative branding and marketing plan should demonstrate the identity of the enterprise and its message – expressed in an engaging, relevant and persuasive manner. An organisation's unique selling points are unlikely to be maintained once they're posted on the web – whatever appears that is unique and commercially useful is analysed, and can be used by competitors throughout the world more quickly than ever.

Planning is vital. To build a strong and resilient corporate image, current and future strategies should find ways of managing a consistent message and holding customer interest, despite the fact that ideas grow old quickly in the new economy.

Some organisations are patenting as much as possible of their work. In the US, Wal-Mart suffered considerably because it failed to do so. Its employees abandoned the company for, taking with them their knowledge of electronic processes, the key to much of Wal-Mart's success. Wal-Mart gained little from the token settlement from the resulting court case.

There are other ways to manage such risks. Eastman Chemical stays ahead through aggressive research and development. It doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about patents, because technology is changing so fast that they are not really valuable.

Clearly identifying potential risks and opportunities and defining a structured, consistent strategy for its management cannot be over-emphasised. It is the secret weapon in the branding and competitive intelligence war.

  • Edrich is a visiting professor of operational risk management at Warwick University and makes regular television and radio appearances. She is the founder and principal of Kai Corporation (Risk).