Top brands prefer boring websites


longshort2.jpgADOTAS EXCLUSIVE — To identify America’s most powerful and enduring brands, look no further than the Fortune 500. In 2008, the top ten corporate titans were: 1) Walmart; 2) Exxon Mobil; 3) Chevron; 4) General Motors; 5) Conoco Phillips; 6) General Electric; 7) Ford; 8) Citi Group; 9) Bank of America; and 10) ATT.

In our innovate-or-whither landscape, you’d expect this august group to be master tacticians in employing the strategies that marketing gurus proclaim best. These days that’s interactivity. But a tour of these giants’ websites challenge that assumption. And occasionally induce a nice nap.

Brand site interactivity comes in two favorite flavors: communication with peers (social networking, video sharing, etc.), and interaction with engaging gadgets (casual gaming, do-it-yourself virals, etc). The first approach builds trust. The second—exemplified by the Simpsonizer, Elf Yourself, and countless others—builds big bursts of traffic. But the country’s biggest brands don’t consistently embrace either, which makes for a methodological muddle.

The Future Is Now

Atop the Fortune 500 sits Walmart, and at the top of its website sits … advertising? Walmart runs banners for products it sells, yet these standalone brands are potential distractions. Still, it’s trying to push products, which seems almost an afterthought among many of its Fortune 10 brethren. Walmart displays products on its website as it does in its aisles—singling some out, and singing their virtues. Unique among the 500’s top ten, its home page highlights “Connect and Share” networking elements: asking and answering questions, sharing stories, blogging about babies, and so on. Most notably, Walmart has gone Amazonian, and includes consumer reviews for each item it sells. If a product performs poorly, peer opinion will sink sales. It will also give consumers good reason to trust Walmart, and seek substitutes elsewhere on site.

General Electric, #6 on Fortune’s leader board, engages online visitors with a prominent jaw-dropping gimmick. A thumbnail click lets you “see a digital hologram come to life in your hands.” You print off an image and use it and a webcam to “test drive” a wind turbine (shown here if your computer can’t handle it). At first glance, the “wow” factor seems little different in purpose than other buzzworthy web tricks. But this relates thematically to the company’s mission, and illustrates its “imagination at work” motto in action.

The Future Is Distant

Unfortunately, as we continue our tour, interactivity and innovation fade rather quickly from view. General Motors (#4) and Ford (#7) offer networking components, but viewers must work hard to find them. You jump to a specific product line site—Chevrolet, for instance—and provide contact information to gain access to social networking features. The marketing purpose is clear: interactivity delivers data, and data delivers dollars. But privacy-minded consumers often deflect the feared pitch barrage with the gazillionth fake identity created on Hotmail or Yahoo! Worse, GM actually bills itself as “Corporate Website.” If that doesn’t fire your desire for new wheels, what will? Ford at least spotlights its F-150 model as Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year, giving the modest click interaction a sales-centric purpose.

We Are The World

Exxon Mobil (#2), Chevron (#3) and Conoco Phillips (#5) sell gasoline and energy, but this isn’t Job One at their image-driven websites (minor exception: Exxon Mobil links to a local gas station finder). We instead see a focus on financial reports, investor links, safety concerns and—inevitably—reverent odes to responsible environment practices.

This is in part understandable. The mainstream media has so bludgeoned these firms for alleged crimes against nature that most Americans now assume that big business is bad for our planet. Don’t believe me? Type “Exxon” into Google’s search box. The second suggestion is “Valdez”—an incident nearly twenty years old. Understandably, energy companies want to combat that image, but they over-react by positioning themselves more as firms that don’t destroy wildlife, than as providers of products that consumers can choose. While environmental responsibility is of course crucial, it’s not the best move from a marketing standpoint to imply a disinterest in selling products such as gasoline, while seeming to cater to Wall Street investors.

We’re Here For You … Somewhere.

The remaining companies that round out Fortune’s Top Ten are Citi Group (#8), Bank of America (#9), and AT&T (#10). All sell goods and services of substantial consumer interest, yet their websites look little different than they might have five years ago. The overall impression is like walking into sprawling corporate headquarters. While you’ll eventually find what you need, before you get started you must pause at the ground floor and study a building directory. In lieu of the ubiquitous plastic-lettered signs that identify what departments reside on each floor, the websites provide twenty to thirty links to get you to the right floor—where you then stare at a new sign and restart the process.

Because so many of these sites’ practices run contrary to sales principles, you start to wonder what they’re up to. You don’t get to be a Fortune 10 by being stupid, so something else is clearly in play. Could it be that with so many companies facing CEO scrutiny or bailout ridicule that engaging sales-centric websites might seem insufficiently sober? With so many consumers either cautious or in crisis, perhaps gravitas is the right tone. After all, an advergame showing how a Citibank card funds a tropical vacation might be tragically tone-deaf right now.

But don’t kid yourself. It likely would sell some more credit cards.

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