EDITORIAL: Lack of substance fuels the dotgone disasters of 2000

It's good to have a few seasonal signposts to guide you through the befuddling round of Christmas parties. That's why I'm grateful for the otherwise awful array of perfume ads letting me know that it is indeed Christmas time.

It's good to have a few seasonal signposts to guide you through the befuddling round of Christmas parties. That's why I'm grateful for the otherwise awful array of perfume ads letting me know that it is indeed Christmas time.

The ad for Lancome's Miracle is making me feel particularly un-merry.

In it, Uma Thurman pulls back a rather unlikely silk curtain obscuring a pristine mountainous panorama. Presumably the unspoken punchline, given her facial expression, is that someone has dropped a particularly unfragrant odour just the other side of the curtain.

Another sign that it is Christmas at the beginning of the 21st century is the number of e-mailed greetings cards languishing unopened in my inbox.

It's not that I'm ungrateful. But like the perfume ads, e-mailed Christmas cards lack substance. They may say that your company is technology-led, or even that it is environmentally conscious, but like a business-to-consumer dotcom in 2000, it can arrive and be gone without having made the slightest impact.

Illustrating the fact this week is breathe.com, which has been asphyxiated by debts of pounds 50m and is now in the hands of the administrators. The Martin Dawes-owned ISP has the dubious honour of being the biggest dotcom collapse since boo.com went bust in the spring.

One of breathe's biggest problems appears to have been the model of unmetered internet access, an offer it withdrew earlier this month and which has also proved unviable for AltaVista, among others. Not surprisingly, however, it is breathe's outlay on brand-building ads that is being blamed for much of the cash burn.

Again like boo.com, breathe invested heavily in a long-term branding exercise that began with the 'couple on a beach inhaling' ad. It came in for its fair share of abuse. Our own Drayton Bird used it as prime suspect in a column attacking the 'self-satisfied sloppy thinkers responsible for most dotcom advertising'. The company retorted that in the ten weeks from the ad's launch in mid-May, the user base doubled to 500,000 and traffic to the site trebled to over 30 million pages per month.

Who was right? The truth lies somewhere in-between. The fact is, breathe has not collapsed because of its ads, but in spite of them. Recall may have increased and use of the site may have rocketed during the campaign, but ultimately the product offered little that could not be replicated by larger rivals - assuming the rivals wanted half a million price-promiscuous users.

The strong brand identities that perfumes are based on will ensure they survive despite their atrocities against advertising. For dotcoms, 2001 will tell whether we have finally seen the end of brand-building without proper brand foundations.


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