September 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Fashion’s online faux pas

Sleek, colorful images and basic functionality are present on most top fashion brand web sites, but many lack a key ingredient: knowledge of what the brand represents to consumers. Until that factor is cranked into web site design, fashion retailers are missing an opportunity and, worse, risking damage to their brand in their online offerings, says to a survey from Brand Keys Inc.

Sleek, colorful images and basic functionality are present on most top fashion brand web sites, but many web sites still lack a key ingredient: knowledge of exactly what the brand represents to consumers. Until that factor is understood and cranked into web site design, fashion retailers are missing an opportunity and, worse, risking damage to their brand in their online offerings, according to a recent survey from Brand Keys Inc.

The Internet is an advertising vehicle that stands to enhance brand awareness, image and purchase propensity simply because of how consumers currently perceive the medium, according to Brand Keys. Brand Keys classifies the web as a "high consonance" brand enhancer vehicle, along with cinema advertising and cable TV. "Neutral consonance" vehicles that inherently neither enhance nor detract from the brand include fashion and lifestyle magazines, billboard advertising, network TV and catalogs. Newspaper ads, mass transit advertising, direct mail and kiosk were classified as potential fashion brand detractors.

As to the individual brands` web sites themselves, "Generally speaking, most of these companies think a pretty picture is going to do it for them, but they don`t really have a sense of what they are about in the minds of their consumers," says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys. Without that knowledge to work from, even a talented web designer can flounder in creating or updating a fashion brand`s web site, he contends.

The survey, conducted among 1,500 women, assigned a numeric rating to each brand based on how well it fared against general category attributes in consumers` estimation. It then compared that rating to how the brand was rated by consumers after they visited the brands` web sites. Whether that number rose or fell for each brand determined whether their respective web sites functioned as brand enhancers, had a neutral impact or had negative effects on the brand.

The survey initially included consumers` reaction to the web sites of 15 fashion brands. The survey found that sites that enhanced the brand included those of Armani, Donna Karan, Nike, Gap and Ralph Lauren. Sites whose execution was brand-neutral included Brooks Brothers, Chanel, J. Crew, Perry Ellis and Tommy Hilfiger. Sites that were judged to have a potentially negative effect on the brand included Versace, Dior, Levi`s and Wrangler. A Calvin Klein site, originally intended to be part of the survey, was dropped as respondents couldn`t readily find it online.

The survey findings, Passikoff notes, serve as diagnostics on whether brand values are being reinforced on a site. "These consumer assessments give web designers something to work with, instead of simply saying to them, `Do something new,`" he says.

Fashion brands, and he contends, many other brands as well, need to develop a better understanding of the consumer values that drive their category to optimize their presence online. "They need to stop thinking of the Internet as a below-the-line vehicle in terms of its ability to reinforce image and brand awareness and even sales," he says, noting that some high-fashion brands have historically held themselves up as haute couture over brands with roots in catalogs, which are now some of the most successful brands online. "This is the 21st century—it`s not 1965," he says.

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