Ah, 007. Take a look at our new secret weapon

electronic commerce
As business on the Web matures, strong brands will dominate and be used to sell all kinds of products. But, says Mark Vernon, the Web is not so much a fertile plain as a potential minefield.

Successful branding requires a precise control of the medium through which the image is communicated, and the Internet still remains largely unpredictable both in terms of the experience it offers and the audience it reaches.

BMW is one of the strongest brands in Europe, with its close association to state-of-the-art engineering - to say nothing of the antics of James Bond. Last year, the company launched a Web site (http://www.bmw.co.uk) which has since won several awards, including Best Brand Web Site from the Internet Research Council.

Ajaz Ahmed, director of AKQA, which designed the site, says it is driven by the goal of creating an experience that promotes the BMW brand. The question asked at the start was: if BMW was a Web site, what would it be?

"BMW is a car that has the power to do anything that is asked of it," explains Ahmed. "All of BMW's marketing, whether it's a TV commercial or an invitation to a dealer event, cleverly echoes this public perception by developing a world where the car is the master of communication, where wit and cool confidence are key."

For the site, this meant, for example, that the company did not opt for publishing an online magazine (a common feature of corporate Web sites), as this was perceived as a diversion from the brand. Instead, the Web would provide useful information that was not readily supplied elsewhere. Hence the company took out a double-page newspaper spread that advertises not a car but a service on its Web site. This is notably in the form of a used car directory, from which customers in the UK can search the details of certified secondhand BMWs - a process of authentication which reinforces the exclusivity of the brand.

"We actually developed our own database to deliver this function," says Ahmed, "in order to optimise it for Web searching, particularly in terms of speed." Ahmed was also aware of the of dangers to be avoided if the Web was to work with the brand. At a basic level, it was vital that the experience of surfing the site did not conflict with the reputation of BMW cars. Not only was the word crash never far from his mind. He also tried to ensure that the "clunkiness" of the Web did not hinder consumer enjoyment.

"People also have higher expectations from a brand like BMW," says Ahmed. "For example, at the moment we are running a James Bond screensaver download. This could be risky because software is regarded as 'buggy', and it is important that the site demonstrates a reliability commensurate with BMW cars."

With a current hit rate of 30,000 per week and up to 55 per cent of total advertising sales leads deriving from the Web site, it is not surprising that a performance monitoring system is in place so that warnings are given immediately issues arise.

"The idea comes first, then the technology," he says. "Some big brands on the Net have produced not so much multimedia but what we call 'multi- mediocrity'. This creates a quality gap between traditional and new ways in which the brand is represented."

To avoid this it was important not to treat the Internet like an advertising or direct-mail campaign but to understand it as a medium in its own right. "The main difference is an emphasis on service: that is, content which is useful," Ahmed says. "The crucial thing is to offer exclusive electronic facilities that are relevant and which reinforce the brand."

The least controllable aspect of putting a Web site online is also arguably the most important for brand promotion - the individual who views it. With other media, organisations spend significant parts of the budget "placing" the advert appropriately. When it comes to cars this must reflect national preferences: it is perceived wisdom that Italians prefer smaller cars, Germans like high performance, the UK and Switzerland are concerned about safety and the French with status. The difficulty is that on the Web, anyone from anywhere on the globe might arrive at the site. An image of a car whizzing down a motorway may be inappropriate for those who would prefer to see, for example, the car's safety aspects highlighted.

Many sites, BMW included, now make selection of country of origin a necessity before the site can be accessed, a feature which provides the viewer with the appropriate translation of text and customises the content, too.

Nor does that most sensitive of attributes associated with brand - price - roam freely on the Internet. Or, as Ajaz Ahmed says, "BMW actively encourages sales through the dealer network. The site design ensures that the dealer is the main call to action."

No doubt dealers add value to the price of a car but, in this market, at least, manufacturers are making sure that it takes more than that supposed great leveller, the Web, to harmonise car prices across Europe.