13 Important Branding Lessons from the Top 4 E-Commerce Giants

Online commerce has taken the world by storm and forever altered the way we do business.

Today’s consumers can make purchases from virtually anywhere – as long as they can connect to the internet.

And they do.

But, that doesn’t mean that all online businesses are created equal. Simply showing up online isn’t enough to guarantee success.

E-Commerce giants Apple, eBay, Craigslist, and Etsy seem to have cracked the code. Together, they brought in total revenues of over $275 billion in 2018. These online sellers are both successful businesses and successful brands.

You may notice a few notable companies missing from our list. We recently wrote about 19 important branding lessons from the top 5 U.S. retailers, including Amazon and Walmart.

The most successful e-commerce businesses know that their brand identity and brand are everything. As we wrote previously:

A brand is the sum total of the experience your customers and customer prospects have with your company.

A strong brand communicates what your company does, how it does it, and at the same time, establishes trust and credibility with your prospects and customers.

Your company’s brand is, in many ways, its personality.

Your brand lives in everyday interactions your company has with its prospects and customers, including the images you share, the messages you post on your website, the content of your marketing materials, your presentations and booths at conferences, and your posts on social networks.

We’ve studied what these 4 e-commerce brands are doing right. And, we’ve cultivated a list of 13 actionable branding lessons that apply to businesses of any size or platform – not just iconic internet businesses.

Now, if you’re ready to run with the big boys of e-commerce, let’s get started.


Evolve to stay relevant

In today’s fast-paced digital world, technologies and trends often become obsolete before we’ve even had a chance to understand them. Online businesses that stand the test of time are relatively rare. And, this makes eBay a bit of an e-commerce unicorn.

When eBay was founded, it was one of the first businesses to take advantage of one of the internet’s greatest strengths – connecting people with similar interests across vast distances. The e-commerce auction platform allowed people with niche interests to find other people with the same interests – and buy their stuff.

Today, eBay still serves that function. But, competitors like Amazon have raised the bar for e-commerce user experience and driven eBay to become so much more.

No longer just an auction site, eBay introduced the “Buy it Now” option in November of 2000. And, as the years passed, sellers started opening eBay shops that were truly dedicated to e-commerce instead of simply unloading a few unwanted items.

Today, eBay is taking steps to elevate its overall user experience. They’ve introduced guaranteed shipping times, personalized homepages, price match guarantees, instant selling, and a line of shipping supplies for sellers. The e-commerce veteran is taking cues from their competition and stepping up their game.

By evolving to provide a more competitive user experience, eBay’s brand has managed to stay relevant and thrive.

What you can do:

  • Collect feedback from your customers and prospects to learn what elements of your brand are misaligned or lacking. Prioritize improving these elements as your business grows. And if you’re working on a business plan for a new business, you can collect feedback about your future competitors to understand how you can offer unique value with your products or services.
  • Keep an eye on your competition – are they offering a bigger, better, or different experience than you? Step up your game to remain relevant – don’t be afraid to take your own unique direction to create a better brand experience for your users.
  • Develop a branding that offers room to evolve. Company names like “Just Tables” or “Headphone Hut” will limit your ability to evolve and grow as new opportunities arise. For more on this, read Why and How to Rename Your Business.

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If it’s not broken, don’t fix it

As impressive as eBay’s longevity has proven to be, Craigslist’s epic success is even more remarkable.

The most striking aspect of the Craigslist brand? The online classified site’s interface has remained mostly unchanged since it debuted in 1995. No one could call Craigslist a beautifully designed website  – even in 1995. But, it is functional and user-friendly.

The site may look like an internet dinosaur lumbering out of the mists of the HamsterDance Era, but if you used the site 15 years ago, you’ll find it easy to use now.

The Craigslist brand is defined by this simplicity and user-friendly interface. This is not an accident. As Craigslist founder Craig Newmark explains,

The design of Craigslist originated in my observation that people want something that is functional, effective, simple, and fast. That design philosophy has been maintained throughout.

He goes on to explain in another interview:

The evolution of Craigslist was based on listening to people as to what they wanted and what was needed. People consistently told us they didn’t want fancy stuff; they wanted something simple, straightforward, and fast. We listened to consensus…

And so, Craigslist continues to thrive – in defiance of the common wisdom that sleek design is best.

What you can do:

  • Stick to your brand identity – consistency gives your audience time to get to know and like your business. As we strongly advised in our comprehensive guide on how to start a business, be sure your brand identity is consistent everywhere you show it, including on your website and in your marketing materials.
  • Identify the elements of your brand that resonate most positively with your audience. Those are the elements to hold onto as your brand evolves.
  • Rebranding can inject new energy into your business. But, avoid pointless re-brands. Rebranding a business flushes all of your brand equity down the toilet. Instead, work to make your existing brand identity stronger. For example, when you develop your brand identity, be sure you get a custom logo for your business and not a template-based logo or generic design. You don’t want your business brand to look like thousands of other businesses.


Human connection has value

When I need to buy a special gift for someone I don’t go to Amazon. I go to Etsy.

For many, Etsy’s brand is defined by that concept of “special.”

Consumers know of Etsy as a marketplace for hand-crafted goods. And, by virtue of their hand-made status, these products are one-of-a-kind.

During the industrial revolution, pants with creases were considered more stylish than those without because the creases were an indicator that the pants were made by new machine technology. Today all dress pants are creased and no one thinks anything of it. Most products are made by machine, so “machine-made” has lost its cachet.

The popularity pendulum is swinging the other way. Etsy products are sought after because they’re made with a human touch in the midst of an impersonal, machine-dominated society.

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Product uniqueness alone can’t account for Etsy’s appeal. It’s the story behind the product – the human connection to the product that makes each hand-made item sold on Etsy truly special.

What you can do:

  • Remember that business is meant to serve people – not the other way around. Let that govern your business practices. For more on this, read 16 Crucial Website Design Factors That Help Your Small Business Increase Customers and Profits.
  • Encourage human connection via customer support. Phone calls and live chat will create stronger bonds than email.
  • Share the stories behind your services or products. Show how they were shaped by humans. Because they were – right?


Embrace your tribe

Apple is a titan of technology.

They’ve been the creative counterpart to Window’s PCs since 1976. And they took the world by storm with the iPod in 2001, the world’s 1st smartphone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010.

But, Apple isn’t only a tech brand – they’ve also developed a bit of a friendly cult following. At crowdspring, one of our interview questions is – Windows or Mac? The answers are always revealing.

People who use Apple products tend to be incredibly devoted. When new Apple products debut, they garner huge amounts of speculation and press. And, YouTube explodes with new unboxing videos.

But, what drives this rabid devotion?

Apple creates great products to be sure. But, not only that, they’ve successfully established their brand as a status symbol. The Apple logo doesn’t only indicate that you use a particular product. It also communicates that you’re a member of the Apple community.

As Shaun Morgan, a branding writer at Bynder points out:

The air of premium exclusivity that Apple employs when promoting new product releases, and the meticulous attention to the aesthetics of its products, has enabled the Apple brand to be associated with luxury in the eyes of its followers. And that is what many of its consumers are paying a premium for: a symbol of status that is driven by emotion, not practicality.

Creating a loyal tribe of customers means tapping into their hearts, not just their wallets.

What you can Do:

  • Appeal to your audience’s emotions to help your brand resonate.
  • Take a genuine, unique, and authentic stance that will attract your best audience.
  • Remain true to your vision and brand-defining characteristics to avoid alienating loyal customers.
  • Reward customers for their loyalty with high-quality products, service, and support that support your brand vision.

In the vastness of the internet marketplace, branding has become even more important to business success.

And there’s no one right path to establishing a strong online brand. But, if you follow in the footsteps of these e-commerce success stories, you’ll know you’re headed in the right direction.

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