Can Search Build Brands?

Earlier this week, eMarketer published its most recent view on the U.S. advertising space  and the spending trends within it. The company noted the point gains being made year over year for digital marketing and explained the impact in its intro as such:

"Digital marketing offers compelling benefits, especially for cash-conscious companies in a recession, because marketers can more readily measure the results of Internet advertising than with most traditional media.  This produces more-efficient advertising and higher ROI, which in turn pushes traditional media to compete with lower pricing."

So, advertisers are gravitating to more measurable forms of marketing and also looking to channels that produce higher ROI. Makes sense, but when you look at some recent findings from SEMPO's annual search survey, you start to see a disconnect.

In their ‘08 study, SEMPO asked both advertisers and agencies what metrics they track and the findings were interesting. In the case of brand impact, the agencies surveyed said - by a wide margin (20%+) -  that they measured this more so than the direct advertisers. If marketers are moving dollars online because ROI is better, then why are their agencies worried so much about brand?

It leads to the obvious question. Can search build brands?

I think the jury is still out; but I would contend that search is much more a facilitation vehicle than a vehicle for establishing a brand. Creating brand connectivity in 140 characters is a daunting task when a consumer is predisposed to a brand, let alone when engaging for the first time. If an unknown brand is trying to establish a place and is using search, then there is a one-off opportunity to become acknowledged. But it's unlikely that Apple-level loyalists are going to rise from such limited interactions.

So, what's with agencies' obsession with brand impact? My sense is two things are working here.

1. Agencies in the search marketing industry traditionally have worked under percent of spend models, whereby focusing up the funnel on brand development keywords is a financial win that can be explained as brand building.

2. Up the funnel activity should be about creating a better connection with consumer intent to help brand owners understand if value exists from buying paid search or looking at alternative investments in the search space that allow for alternative focus. Instead, agencies are trying to justify further investment away from other channels by contending that they are moving the needle on brand loyalty.

Can a brand see lift by using search as a primary vehicle? Yes. Will those brands be able to go from 0 to 60 simply using search? If so, I've yet to see a solid example of it. All cases studies I've seen show that search is a tremendous supplementary vehicle for brand building. So, when agencies suggest they are more interested in brand build than advertisers are, it comes as no surprise. Should brands be more concerned about up the funnel actions? Yes. Should agencies do a better job on that function with priming the funnel and creating connections? If they want to keep growing their investments, it would be a wise move. Because search is not a brick by brick builder for brands, it's the glue that enables blocks to be added, upon using owned brand content.



5 comments about "Can Search Build Brands?".
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  1. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions, April 10, 2009 at 4:05 p.m.

    Some quick notes on this: 1) The SEMPO Survey also highlighted that, for the first time, advertisers ranked "enhance/increase brand awareness" above selling products/services online as what they were were using SEM to accomplish. 2) Paid search offers somewhat unique benefit of brand visibility in the form of "free" impressions. 3) We use a flat fee management model so clients know there is no financial motivation for our recommendations. This works well against the commission/percent of spend model employed by traditional online and offline agencies.

  2. Steve Haar from Fanatically Digital, April 11, 2009 at 10:32 p.m.

    I have always made the distinction between building brands (developing the relationship) and leveraging them (creating the sale by bringing the brand and the immediate needs of the consumer together). I just posted a bit about the perspective a couple of weeks ago. I think one of the components missing in this conversation relates to consumer intent. Where the consumer is in the funnel determines if you are building or leveraging the brand. This directly influences how you should be treating the consumer during a search.

    What tends to trip us up is the out-dated belief that any direct reference to the Brand is an upper funnel engagement. As with most topics in marketing, the answer to search and brand building or leveraging is much more complicated that one study, one experience, one campaign. It differs based on the category, company and individual product.

  3. Nuria Sadurni from Netmediaplanet, April 24, 2009 at 6:52 a.m.

    It is quite obvious that things are changing in the search environment. Brands need to evolve, and to do so, they need to make dramatic changes, to make them stronger during the recession. However it is equally important that marketers are cautious and that they realise that brands will have other purposes in the future than just consumption.

    In a year where coupons have hit a record in the UK, many merchants are using discounts vouchers immediately to boost their sales. But, this aside, it is crucial to understand what consumers really perceive when brands do not lower their prices. According to research from Futures Company, 64% of consumers assume that “the product is extremely popular” and another 64% said that they assume “the product is already a good value”. Therefore, it appears that drastic price cutting during a downturn can actually have negative impact on your brand because customers loose trust.

    Considering that according to E-marketer, “search” remains in one of their key Internet activities, makes “search” one of the most important factors in aligning off-line and online brand strategy.

    Turning now to the traditional search field, different research studies have proven that buyers scan a greater number of search engine results and are more brand-orientated than people merely looking for information. Therefore, paid and organic search must play an important role for consumers in the buying process, but, paid search especially adds instant brand visibility and facilitates merchants’ conversion rates.
    Using last Christmas as a case study, the data we have, shows how important brand-loyalty can be for consumers. Just having a look at the most popular search in this period, 85% of them corresponded with brand terms and, surprisingly, only 15% matched with generic terms such as ‘laptop’ or ‘digital camera’. This gives us a good indication of how important brands are for consumers, but, more importantly, it shows how branded keywords are crucial for a company’s search strategy.

    More interesting data has been published recently by SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Organization), which showed the high emphasis on branding. 61% of their respondents rated brand awareness as a top priority for spending budget on paid search, following lead generation with 63%. Interestingly, only 21% mentioned that they use sophisticated measurement methods to track their success and brand impact. Within the variables that are tracked, the most popular are the overall volume of traffic (75%), followed by conversion rates (73%), and click-through rates with 70%, nonetheless none of these variables are considered useful when a merchant wants to track the long-term development of a brand.

    A Google Study showed how appearing at the top of both, paid search and organic rankings, increased brand awareness by 16%.

    For paid search, there is debate amongst paid search advertisers and merchants regarding the need to bid on trademark, or branding keywords, such as a company name or company product name. The answer to this is definitely yes, for a number of reasons.

    Firstly, for consumers which are brand-indifferent and often search for different products from different companies, a good structured paid search strategy puts merchants’ brands in a better position. Brand bidding brings about a greater degree of exposure, and therefore helps to generate a bigger impact in the mind of the consumer.

    Secondly, brand bidding is important because as brand terms typically cost less, the amount of advertisers on the search engine results page (SERP) is lower in relation. Also, paid search might be used to protect a brand by stopping others using a specific branded keyword without permission. Not doing this is a high risk strategy, and, if not followed, brand reputation can be seriously damaged.

    Allowing someone to bid on your branded keyword does not mean losing control over it. Paid search gives a business the opportunity to boost their brand attributes and inspire confidence in consumers where organic search cannot compete. But, even more importantly, it allows marketers to push powerful messages that are aligned with their current off-line strategy. This includes approving and assessing all online activity: landing pages, content, ad-copies, images and videos, to ensure that the online brand image is consistent with a brand’s overall positioning.

    The last factor that enables paid search to support brands, in comparison with an organic strategy, is accountability. Paid search campaigns are easily implemented and can be hugely targeted, all in a short period of time.

    Looking at other types of search provides us with further interesting insights. In terms of local search, the results are completely different. According to research conducted by ComScore, 75% of the top 100 keywords searched on Internet Yellow Pages sites (IYPs) are non-branded, and 45% of people who made these local directory searches went on to make an online purchase in the fourth quarter of 2008.

    In fact, according to these results, it is hardly worthwhile spending large proportions of their budgets on branded keywords. However, search engines such as Google are rapidly developing new technology that will give prominence to branded results from local keyword searches. For instance, a local search for pizza will yield results for Pizza Hut and provide the nearest location of one of their restaurants, as a pose to simply giving general results.

    Ultimately, the way people search in the internet is changing rapidly and becoming ever more complex. These changes include powerful social media strategies that allow brands to engage with consumers in different ways. In 2009, more than ever before, it is vital that a brand has an active and coherent social media strategy. For example, Coca Cola now have a vast social media presence, with a ‘fans’ page on Facebook that boasts more than 3.3 million fans, but surprisingly they do not currently have a Twitter account. Meanwhile, as publishers continue to experience falling print sales and readership numbers, according to Gartner, it is becoming more and more important to promote and enhance the strength of your brand online. And with the Internet 2.0, there is an increasing number of innovative ways to do so.

  4. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, April 26, 2009 at 1:24 p.m.

    sorry to be late to the show here, but let me offer "one solid example" of brand building through search, which is taking place in the life insurance business: do a search for life insurance and you are much more likely to see, 24x7x365, the "brands" (which for sake of argument i'll still put in quotes) of accuquote, selectquote, netquote, insureme, etc., than mine own big name brand, new york life, or any of our peer competitors, prudental, metlife, northwestern, john hancock, etc.
    have accuquote et al. gone "from 0 to 60 simply from using search"? well, no, couldn't say they've hit 60 yet, but they have some compelling business practices behind them, as well as solid seo and sem. but to believe that these companies are not building a brand, preeminently through search marketing, is really missing out on an obvious development, one which most of the life industry seems oblivious to.

  5. Warren Cowan, April 27, 2009 at 7:45 p.m.

    Some interesting points raised, particulalrly about the supportive role of search in integration, versus search in the driving seat of the brand building effort.

    We're actually running a webinar on this exact topic in 2 days time, Wed 29th April, 1500 GMT, on this exact topic, entitled, "How to build Brands through Search Engines", and we'll actually be sharing some of our insights and case studies from having worked on integrated and brand led campaigns with several advertisers, and doing a Q&A afterwards.

    More info @ ...

    if anyone's inetersted in singing up or watching on demand.

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