The web has spawned a marketing creature with no terrestrial counterpart, the 'corporate web site', which is expected to blend the toney brand experience of a glossy TV spot with the no-nonsense utility of a company phone directory. Most sites are ungainly amalgams - part grandiose Taj Mahal, part charmless marquee.
Hipsters cite Virgin Group's corporate site (www.virgin.co.uk) as best of breed. Virgin, whose brood includes planes and trains, music and cola, must serve many ends in one place, and it pulls it off. Almost.
First, Virgin's site must speak convincingly to multiple audiences, so it tailors a 'newsroom' for the press, profiles of its enterprises to tantalise business partners, and 'Richard's Diary' for consumers tracking Branson's exploits.
Second, Virgin aims to make customers feel that its site has been personalised just for them: a 'customise' button lets surfers from Britain, France, Japan, South Africa and the US view different pages. Nice. But the Virgin site still overpromises and underdelivers. Its image-laden pages download slowly, its newsroom remains 'under construction', Richard's Diary hasn't been updated since August 1998, and its multinational 'customisation' merely qualifies visitors to receive regionally targeted pitches of advertising. As with Branson's balloons, count on some hot air.