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Net consumers oblivious to most brands

Harris Interactive poll reveals tepid brand recognition for most online companies.

Despite screaming Net hype, a new Harris Interactive poll has revealed that online consumers are oblivious to most online retailers and that branding initiatives have, for many fledgling companies, flopped.

Over 19 days, Harris Interactive polled 103,000 people randomly picked from a database of 3.4 million consumers, quizzing them on their recognition of online brands, Web site awareness, and online buying habits. The lengthy report, one of a slew of recent e-commerce market surveys, is called ecommercePulse. It will be released Tuesday.

Results show online retailers have much room to promote brand awareness--and that the Net remains an untapped gold mine for marketers.

"We've got a long ways to go before we can be considering ourselves succesful in establishing our brand," said eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove, adding that eBay had done some brand building to date, including ads on the radio and in niche magazines.

"It's very, very, very early in the game," he said. "Brand building is in its nascent stages. There's a long way to go before anybody feels successful in this area."

"The sheer lack of penetration in the minds of most Americans is really the most stunning finding you can have," said Ben Black, director of business development at Harris Interactive. "Even with all the attention paid in the media there's no particular brand that's captured their hearts and minds."

For example, when asked to name a Web site that sells computer hardware about half those polled didn't answer the question.

"The only inference you could make is that they couldn't name one," Black said. No online electronics firm came to mind to poll-takers asked about that category, though there are many companies, including Buy.com, 800.com, and Netmarket, jockeying to be the Amazon of online electronics retailers.

The poll also found that while consumers are using the Web to window shop, they are still buying most often over the phone or in stores. Black said that while more than 90 percent of the online population used the Net to shop last month, only 18 percent made a purchase.

The poll, which will now be done quarterly, also measured "open mind share," or the percentage of customers who don't yet associate a product or service with an online brand name.

Online firms with the highest brand recognition in the poll included Amazon in the books category, which has just 17 percent open mind share left, eBay for auctions (42 percent open mind share), Amazon for music/video, and Microsoft/Egghead for computer software (46 percent).

Not one Web site was named by those polled in the insurance and fitness categories, which had 84 percent and 83 percent open mind share, respectively. And although WebMD, Drugstore.com, and Soma have all made high-profile deals in the past several months, it was Avon that snagged the health/beauty category.

Debby Fry Wilson, spokesperson at Drugstore.com, said the company's site has been up and running for four months and can't be expected to build its brand overnight.

"The Web is a very large universe and it's difficult to break out of the pack," she said. The company recently launched the testing phase of an offline television, radio, and outdoor advertising campaign in four cities. It hopes to build its brand success based on good service.

Harris's survey results are similar to those of the latest survey from Opinion Research, which found that Amazon, Priceline, eBay, and E*Trade are the top four most recognized e-commerce sites on the Web. Beyond those four, brand recognition drops sharply, according to the company's May 3 survey of 1,000 adults in the United States.

"Recognition drops like a rock after the top four e-commerce companies," said Brian Ek, spokesman at Priceline, which sponsors the poll.

In the Harris poll, Amazon's brand was so strong that it came to mind twice as often as Barnes & Noble with online consumers, which translates into twice the online traffic and more than twice the number of serious shoppers, Black said.

The message to online retailers? Get marketing to the 40 percent of online consumers who couldn't name an online retailer in 12 of 13 categories.

"We're in the first inning of a nine-inning game," Black said.