There’s a very famous ad by McGraw-Hill that’s been running since 1958 and was still being used as late as 2007:

The message of this ad came back to me very strongly when revisiting some of the research we’ve done on localizing digital strategies. It got me thinking about trust, and how important brand is to success in the online world.

We’d seen evidence from Europe about the impact of both the global financial crisis and the Ash Cloud on digital travel behaviour, which seemed to indicate a shift back to bricks-and-mortar agents. To understand this, we asked Australians about their use of cyberspace in planning and booking travel.

Cheap and convenient

The explosion of the Internet as a travel-planning tool has been driven by very functional things. As you might expect, cost is the initial factor encouraging consumers to try out the Web. If a customer is sacrificing in-person service and helping a travel company keep its overhead low, they expect brands to pass on those savings – and can get mad if they don’t.

Convenience is also a driver of Internet use. The Web is open 24 hours a day and can be a big timesaver for busy professionals and families. That has advantages in allowing marketers to target a defined market.

Bricks-and-mortar agents are fighting back

It turns out that despite their willingness to use the Web to plan and book travel, only 30 percent of Australians feel confident that digital sources are more reliable than offline sources, and even fewer think they offer better service.

Travellers continue to seek out face-to-face interactions for longer, more complicated and higher value trips, which they still do not feel comfortable booking online.

In Australia, travel agents are currently preparing a campaign to underline the value of a real-life agent. So focusing on the Web’s functional advantages alone might not be enough to drive the next wave of growth.

Trust agents

What will drive the next growth spurt for digital travel is brand, and the most valuable attribute for any brand is trust. In theory, the Internet creates an open playing field where all brands are equal, but in practice consumers search harder for brands they can trust not to disappear into cyberspace.

In our study, we asked consumers what travel companies came to mind as leaders in the digital space. Agents with bricks-and-mortar beginnings or strong offline brands were as likely to be named as operators who began their lives online.

Three Australian brands, Flight Centre, Webjet and Wotif, even trumped digital titans like Expedia and Travelocity. While Webjet aggressively promotes its brand offline, Wotif emphasizes its call-centre service as a reassurance factor. The other online travel brands that received top-of-mind mentions made up a very long tail.

Back to the future

The low share of mind experienced by most travel brands matters because customers won’t send their credit card details into cyberspace unless they trust the party at the other end.

Which brings me back to McGraw-Hill Man. The reason for his longevity is that the ad’s copy is as prescient as ever. Turn those statements into questions and ask yourself how many of your potential customers could answer them about your online business. If they can’t, why would they share sensitive information with you or put their precious holiday in your hands? Why not go back to the emboldened travel agent around the corner?

At the end of the day, it’s not about digital marketing. It’s about effective marketing in the digital age – and these issues from 1958 are still part of that. Trust and brand equity will drive business more, not less, in this new era.