E-commerce has become big business and retailers such as amazon.com and Tesco have shown that consumers are more than willing to buy products over the internet.  However, whereas buying books and weekly groceries online can be shown to deliver clear benefits to customers, individual fmcg brands - including soft drinks - could never hope to emulate this. The profile of their target audience and the variety of purchasing situations means that online transactions could only play a very minor role at best.  Yet the fact remains that the internet is a mass medium which cannot be ignored; it has successfully muscled into the marketing mix over the last few years and is clearly here to stay.

The most natural fit seems to be with those brands that are targeted at young consumers. Since computers and the internet are natural territory for children and teenagers, a website is a logical way of communicating with this audience. Interactivity allows these consumers to feel far closer to the brand than advertising or pack designs ever could achieve and from the brand's point of view there is the unlimited 'canvas' of cyberspace to play with rather than a 30 second spot or a standard aluminium can. Websites are therefore a perfect medium to nurture one-to-one relationships with this group and to help reinforce a youthful, modern brand positioning.

UK brands such as Irn-bru (www.irn-bru.co.uk), Tango (www.tango.com) and Tizer (www.tizer.co.uk) are good examples of how this can be done and they set the pace with a high degree of creativity and innovation. Irn-bru and Tango are particularly adept at avoiding the impression that the sites are part of a corporate marketing machine and instead convey the image of being 'alternative' or 'underground'.

Tango builds on the creative idea from its television advertising and pushes it even further, greeting visitors with a game of video ping pong (using an orange) whilst it loads up.  The site, with graphics in the style of a ransom note, proclaims anarchy via emails, vengeance through videos, offers visitors the chance to 'smack your pips up', start an orange revolution and poses the question 'models or mingers?'

In fact aspiring anarchists would be disappointed. Despite the raw teen mag-style graphics and subversive copy, which will probably be popular with teenagers, there is nothing on the site to worry even the most conservative parent. Its one failing is that there is little to encourage visitors to return to the site and no incentive  - such as a 'hero's table' - to keep playing the games.

Edna Cunningham from Barr Soft Drinks explains the company's strategy: "Irn Bru and Tizer websites were created approximately six years ago to meet the demand set by teenagers. Our target is 12- to 16-year-olds and our sites are very much entertainment-based with the emphasis on fun, play and more fun with your friends."

But fun does not necessarily communicate brand values and it is this balance between entertainment and branding which is critical to get exactly right. The obvious solution is to ensure that logos predominate and that downloads such as screensavers are branded - Tango has created one around a bouncing orange and the 'you've been tangoed' strapline whilst Coca-Cola borrows the Coke-drinking polar bears from its above-the-line campaign.

There are less overt ways in taking the brand to consumers and for some target groups less is more. Irn-bru has an excellent interface in its 'wind up world' virtual village, from which you can indulge in numerous activities. It has the usual games and downloads but its jewel in the crown is the wind up technology.  Irn-bru takes the brand to potential new consumers through its email spoofs, which arrive unbranded at a recipient's computer, then link to a fake site which requires one last interaction before linking back to the Irn-bru site. It's not until the recipient has been well and truly spoofed that the final punchline - and the brand - is revealed.

Brands that have a more conservative adult or family positioning in the marketplace really struggle to find a purpose on the internet. For instance, the fruit juice drink, Sunny Delight  (sunnydelight.com) resorts to a competition to design your own room, which involves moving furniture and audio-visual equipment around a simple interior and then allows entrants to win one of the objects.  (If only they had included a pot of emulsion paint we could stare at our screens and watch paint dry!)

The recently launched iced tea brand, Zanzu (zanzu.co.uk) has the smell of a test site that hopes to gain reassurance before committing itself to something more extensive. Aside from very basic product information, it offers an 'urban safari' which involves trading postcode details and birthday dates for quasi-Chinese astrological advice for the following day - for example  a visitor might be told that 'Tomorrow is your day to hunt'.  The data captured will allow the brand to analyse the age of visitors to the site and their approximate geographical locations in the UK.  However, it is not the most exciting of interactive mechanics and as a device it looks ill at ease within the context of the overall site.  Perhaps a bigger creative idea is yet to come but will consumers have already lost interest by then?

Getting the content and tone right is clearly a complex business and made more difficult by the fact that many soft drinks brands are international. Coca-Cola (coca-cola.com) clearly feels the need to make its internet presence truly global; the menu of 'local' sites which it offers through the main .com site looks impressive. However, giving local sites an integrity which will get past the target audience is another matter. On paper having a Piccadilly section probably looked a good way to make the UK site have a genuinely local feel, but the chance to see the videos played on the ad sign at London's Piccadilly Circus sounds more like a tourist gimmick and has no real street cred with young British Coke drinkers. Pepsi (pepsi.com) has found a more successful solution by including elements such as the Tesco 'Our School Awards' on the UK site - a far better way of giving an international brand a local spin.

Whatever the influence of the internet as a stand-alone medium, most marketers would agree that it always needs to link into other areas of marketing activity so that off and online initiatives can provide mutual support for each other.  But making this appear seamless is not easy.  Evian has joined forces with Kylie Minogue and the kylieevian.co.uk site was created for the British market to coincide with the pop star's tour of 25 UK cities during April and May of this year. Anne Ollivier, Evian Brand Manager said: "Linking with Kylie is very exciting and is in keeping with Evian's target audience of 15 to 34 year olds.  As we promised earlier in the year, we will continue with high visibility brand building initiatives, part of a massive Evian 2002 support spend."

Evian bottles branded simply 'Kylie' in the brand's red logotype reinforced the connection at the actual concerts and the limited edition packaging was featured on the site and offered as a competition prize. Yet, whilst the Kylie logo works exceptionally well as a visual device and is given equal billing on the home page alongside the original, the overall design and content of the site was extremely poor in comparison to sites such as Perrier or even the main evian.com site.   At the end of June the site was still in place despite the fact that the tour was over, exacerbating the shortcomings of the site.

Getting the formula right
Perrier (perrier.com) has been clever with its site because it is one of the few who acknowledge cultural differences by offering quite different brand propositions depending on nationality. Its main site acts a gateway to a French, UK and US version and whilst all are unified in terms of content and branding, subtle changes in emphasis ensure that each interprets the brand to suit the different national cultures.  For instance the UK site is distinguished by a whacky individualism whilst the US version has a glossy celebrity-conscious glamour. Recipes for cocktails, reviews of cool bars, and branded e-flyers to send out for party invitations are common to all but the differences in content and presentation show a sensitivity to each target audience.

However, the entertainment factor does not obliterate a more prosaic role; this is a site which still contains facts and information about the product.  There are sections explaining the composition of Perrier water, how to store it and information about the new PET format bottle; whilst for mineral water 'anoraks' there is background information on the ads, a potted history of the brand and even a virtual tour of the plant.  Integration of the pack design is often a challenge for brands who are either tempted to downplay packs altogether and rely on a few discreet logos or go over the top and overlay crude cut-outs of pack photos on to the web pages.  Perrier has resisted both routes and instead re-interpreted the brand's key visual equity - the bottle shape - as a variety of graphic devices which appear throughout the website.

Expert Analysis

Food & Drinks on the Internet

This report will allow you to identify and understand your consumers' Internet motivations and sensitivities and discover which types of customer relationship management channels consumers prefer to use.

 

In terms of integration with other areas of marketing, Pepsi probably leads the way with its technique for using the site as a market research tool through its 'Pepsi adviser' concept.  Visitors to the site might notice a low profile text link at the bottom of the page saying 'become a Pepsi adviser'. This leads to a sophisticated research and data capture mechanic which allows the brand to get up to the minute feedback on consumer's views, behaviour and lifestyle.  By underplaying the design of the initial link, the option appears to be more a chance to enter an exclusive elite rather than a mundane request to take part in market research.  By giving the test exercise fun value and a high level of interactivity Pepsi cleverly draws the potential respondent into a more serious level of involvement.

The conclusion for soft drinks brands is that websites can be effective in helping to develop a relationship with individual customers and for youth oriented brands this role can be particularly strong.  However consistent branding, incentives to revisit, a sensitivity to local audiences and connection with off-line marketing activity are all issues which have to be considered if the site is to make a genuine contribution to the brand's fortunes.  There is also a demographic issue which needs to be tackled.  None of the brands mentioned here really takes on board the fact that there is an older audience out there, which is currently untapped. As people grow up with the internet the average user age inevitably increases. The challenge for the near future will be to create websites, which appeal to consumers and build brand loyalty across the whole gamut of age groups. 

Adrian Whitefoord is a founding partner of the design and branding consultancy Pemberton & Whitefoord.  Tel: +44 (0)20 77238899