More and more brand marketers and supermarket retailers are setting up bright, information-packed sites on the World Wide Web.
By February, the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, had assembled a list of 31 marketer sites, ranging from Anheuser Busch (http://www.budweiser.com) to Zima (http://www.zima.com) with other major names in between. FMI counted a similarly lengthy list of retailers and distributors on the Web.
With this growing parallel activity, a question arises: Will the trading partners link sites? Hot links between brand marketers and retailers exist. Common sense says they should expand since they're simple to install. Any site can set up a link to another site.
So far, however, the connections go more from retailers to brand marketers than the other way around. Brand marketers are keeping a tight rein on links going outward from their Web pages.
Shopping Alternatives of Bethesda, Md., a grocery home-delivery company, has set up Web pages for 13 retailers serving 25 markets. The company has agreements with most brand marketers with Web pages to establish links from retailers to those brand marketers. Shopping Alternatives and the retailers decide which brands to feature on a particular site.
The links offer benefits for both brand marketers and retailers, according to Kara Kernan, vice president of marketing. "It's customer-driven. If a customer is ordering products from a retailer site, it brings the customer closer to the product. They can get information about products that is not usually accessible to them in the stores," explained Kernan. "It's a great advantage also for the marketers since the link puts their product in the minds of customers about to order products. It adds credibility to the brand."
Byerly's, Shaw's and Cub Foods are Shopping Alternatives' customers, with Web pages that link to several brands. Direct links from brands to retailers can't be found, although consumers can jump from brand pages to the Shopping Alternatives home page (http:// www.shopat.com) to get the locations of stores near them offering home shopping.
While these and other retailers can have links going to brand marketers, the reverse does not hold; marketers tend to be extremely careful about the links they associate with their sites.
"You have to control the integrity of your own site," explained Lorelie DiSogra, director of nutrition and health for Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif. "We won't link to something that we think lacks value." She would not want to have a link to a retail site that would let viewers jump to candy or other foods that do not complement the thrust of Dole's site. "We want people to learn about the 5 a Day [program] and fruits and vegetables and change their attitudes and behavior." Other brand marketers mentioned another reason for caution: concerns about implied endorsements of other companies by links outward from the marketers' pages.
DiSogra oversees Dole's Web site, which details the "5 a Day for Better Health" nutrition program (http://www.dole5aday.com). The National Cancer Institute and the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Newark, Del., sponsor the overall program; Dole is a founding member of the foundation. As reflected in the youthful thrust of its Web site, Dole focuses on the children's education aspect of the 5 a Day campaign.
About 400 other sites now link to Dole's, a process that DiSogra said "is adding value to their sites. They are using our site as a resource for education, which is fine. We get more people visiting our sites, and that's why hot links are such a hot thing."
Byerly's, Edina, Minn., impressed DiSogra because it formally requested Dole's permission to set up a link to the Dole site. Dole does not link to other sites now, but DiSogra could foresee that happening with groups such as the National Cancer Institute.
While the Dole Web site aims to build brand equity as part of the overall corporate communications strategy, it does not involve Dole's advertising agency. That's the norm for these brand marketers; their pages are born and grow apart from advertising considerations.
Van den Bergh Foods, Lisle, Ill., for example, used internal marketing and outside technical and creative resources to create its "Mama's Cucina" page for Ragu pasta sauce, according to Alicia Rockmore, brand manager for Ragu pasta sauces (http://www.eat.com). Ad agencies were not involved. The page does fit in with Ragu's communications programs in that it features Mama's character as the hostess and image of the brand. It also offers viewers a continuity program.
"For us, it's a way to build a one-on-one relationship with our consumers," Rockmore said. "Mama is the tour guide and the relationship is her, the consumer and the brand. It's about love, warmth and good food. We really wanted this to be the personification of Ragu."
Rockmore does not track jumps from retailers to the Ragu site. Links from Byerly's and Kroger Co., Cincinnati, please her, "but we did not go out and get them." On the retail side, Byerly's set up its page last November, according to a spokeswoman. The brands linked on the page are all "strong partners" of the chain.