Marketing Retail Retail Deep Dive

‘Destination’ e-commerce stores: Why search and performance are no longer everything

By Nick Horne | Creative director



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

Find out more

November 17, 2023 | 7 min read

For The Drum’s retail deep dive, Nick Horne of agency True examines how brand marketing is becoming essential to online retail – and how performance has receded.

Red pushpins in a black-and-white map

'Destination' e-commerce websites: Are they result of a decline in performance marketing online? / GeoJango Maps via Unsplash

10 years ago, giant retail brands were still being regularly unseated by new start-ups using the power of e-commerce to innovate faster – and because, at the time, online retail was ruled by different measurements than the world of bricks-and-mortar.

Search was king, and the game was played on a very different playing field. Hundreds of years of brand equity could easily be eroded by strong keyword strategy, cross-linking and occasional dark arts to secure top search engine results. Brand stood for very little online and new players were overtaking the established big brands, fast.

In recent years a significant change has occurred in the digital marketing paradigm that has meant early e-commerce winners can no longer sit on their laurels. Search has changed, and the power has shifted. Pure performance marketing is losing its sway.

How everything changed, and brand resurfaced online

The very innovations – search and performance – that helped those early adaptors flourish has become more and more competitive. Service benefits for customers have come with incremental improvements to nuances of user experience (UX) and retailers ironing out the logistics chain.

And where once brand had been insignificant, online retailers are creating new measures and indicators of brand perception.

Meanwhile, Google has been gradually tightening up their ranking measurements, meaning that keywords alone aren’t enough, and UX has become more and more significant in how businesses rank. Google’s Core Web Vitals metrics cemented this a few years ago and set some heads spinning.

Not only are Google preferencing experience factors, but keywords have become proportionately less powerful and more competitive to fight for in overall search strategy. All this means that branded search is more powerful than ever in the e-commerce mix and as such building a brand that means something, that engenders loyalty, and remains front of mind for consumers is growing in importance.

The rise of destination stores online

Not just having a brand, but having a clear brand niche, identifying, connecting with, and remaining hero to one’s own tribe has delivered strong success for in recent years for many online brands, who like their bricks and mortar counterparts are fighting to position themselves as ‘destination’ stores.

Young up-starts and some longer-in-the-tooth e-commerce retailers are once again having to look to more traditional forms of brand building, from brand design and tone itself to store experience, marketing and behavior.

The ones to watch in online retail are no longer simply winning on technical innovation, but classic market innovation:; looking at societal shifts, cultural changes and genuine consumer needs, then ensuring they adapt to them.

How do they do this? Either by claiming a clear purpose, such as brands like Olivia, Patagonia, Finisterre, Smol, AKT London. Or, being built around core audiences like youth focussed fashion brands Reformation or Palace or Beyond Nine who are winning in the ‘fun mums’ market. You can’t piggy-back on purpose.

Here are the key pillars you need to consider when undertaking this shift:

1. Brand experience

User experience and the visual styling of your online store says a lot about your brand. Where once clear e-commerce templates stripped away a lot of style in aid of seamless purchase, it’s becoming ever more important that we work out how to carefully re-introduce style, branding, design and play back into ecommerce experiences. It’s about making sure your last purchase is memorable enough to not be your last purchase.

Suggested newsletters for you

Daily Briefing


Catch up on the most important stories of the day, curated by our editorial team.

Ads of the Week


See the best ads of the last week - all in one place.

Media Agency Briefing


Our media editor explores the biggest media buys and the trends rocking the sector.

2. Branding

Make sure it’s clear the moment people land: what, exactly, you stand for – or indeed who you stand for. Clear brand signifiers are hugely important in reducing bounce rate in e-commerce, so make sure that your branding makes it clear that you fulfil or exceed the expectation the customer had when they clicked the advert or the Google listing.

3. Marketing

Take your brand to market, if they’re struggling to find you, it’s essential that you find them with messaging that makes you last in the memory. That way, if you don’t elicit that first click, you’re at least on the end of a branded search.

Get ready for the retail world of the future with more smart thinking and detailed analysis over at our dedicated deep dive hub.

Marketing Retail Retail Deep Dive

Content by The Drum Network member:


19 years ago true was founded with the aim of being different; straight-talking, to the point, focussed on delivering long-term growth, not through chat, but through action. Creating work that was true to our clients’ needs, true to their customers’ needs and true to our own expectations.

Find out more

More from Marketing

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +