i Came, i Saw, i Village, i Brand

Ron Kos built a consumer branding career helping to create such cultural icons as G.I. Joe, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Jolly Green Giant. But not once in his 15-year journey through Hasbro, Pillsbury, and General Mills did he oversee a technology department.

Now that he’s marketing boss at New York City-based women’s-interest site iVillage, Kos’ job is equal parts chief technology officer and marketeer. In fact, the 50 programmers, designers, and systems administrators who form the iVillage technology and production departments report directly to him.

Why? Because the technological creation and delivery of the site is inextricable from the brand message. You are what you click (or what your customers click), so the clicking better be easy and appealing. While his customers in the physical world could bend G.I. Joe’s arms or poke the Doughboy’s tummy, his online customers do not enjoy the same sensory interaction. As Kos notes, “they’re participating in a product rather than feeling or touching it.”

To that end, as a “community network” for women, iVillage enlists members, who gain access to chat rooms and discussion groups by belonging to the iVillage habitat. Members engage in conversations about careers, health, beauty, parenting, and sex. Membership is free. As of mid-September, iVillage boasted about 670,000 members.

iVillage’s techies may help facilitate a content-rich, easily downloaded collection of Webpages and links, but Kos’ job also entails getting Web traffic to the network in the first place. Here, Kos faces a significant ongoing branding challenge: Neither the company’s name, nor its Web address, iVillage.com, conjures up an obvious connection to its content. Kos bristles at suggestions that the name gets in the way. “We’re very pleased with it,” he protests. The truth is, they’re stuck with it, after repositioning themselves in September 1997 from a collection of special-interest, vertical-content sites (such as two on parenting and another on career decisions) to a women’s network that encompasses some of the earlier subjects, along with new ones, such as money and relationships.

His job in spreading the news has been made easier by sizable investments. Earlier this year, iVillage closed a $32.5 million round of venture financing, from investors that include Intel. This has made it possible to purchase advertising in traditional media, such as television ads last summer in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

As with most Web ventures, it’s too soon to gauge the company’s long-term success. iVillage makes money primarily through “integrated marketing programs with sponsors” which are, essentially, pricey ad arrangements that feature product suppliers near iVillage content. Polaroid sponsored a section on iVillage’s site geared toward boosting kids’ confidence through photography. iVillage.com is also foraying into ecommerce. Its iBaby business sells baby gear, and iVillage prominently features retailers such as Amazon and L.L. Bean. Perhaps that marks the ultimate popping-fresh branding ploy: Create a commerce site in the guise of a friendly online community.

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