Search: Too Boring For Branding?

I’m not a big fan of TV. But my wife and I decided to cancel our satellite TV service effective next week, so I’ve found myself watching more TV than ever recently, trying to squeeze the most out of my remaining days. I guess Cinderella was right: You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.

Anyhow, my wife and I cracked up the other night at a TV commercial that’s had me laughing ever since. The commercial involves two characters: a guy and a llama. The guy (who looks suspiciously llama-like himself) chews on a Starburst, which makes him look exactly like the llama chewing cud (or whatever llamas eat). Then you see the guy’s arm feeding the llama a Starburst, which it continues chewing. Then when the shot switches back to the guy, you see a llama’s arm (Leg? Paw? Hoof?) reach up and feed the guy a Starburst. It’s unexpected and funny, which makes it memorable. I’d argue that it’s a rare example of a TV ad that does a brilliant job of branding.

It did this by appealing to multiple senses. Most TV ads use both video and audio, thus playing to our sense of sight and sound. This ad went further by playing off the unique chewiness of Starburst candy in such a funny way. It was easy to imagine being the funny-looking guy, chewing the candy yourself (touch), savoring the flavor (taste) and inhaling the aroma (smell) with your llama-esque nose.

The essence of branding

Branding has been on my mind a lot lately because I just finished reading “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” by Martin Lindstrom. It’s a fascinating book that provides great insight into how branding really works in the minds of consumers. It also explains how most companies get branding wrong by continuing to focus on stale advertising tactics and logo design instead of engaging consumers’ senses and emotions. The author conducted research using brain scanning technology to see how consumers really react to various types of stimuli associated with brands. It’s a very compelling read that yields some eye-opening takeaways about how human beings are wired.

Lindstrom posits that effective branding leverages emotion, interaction, experience, desire, ritual, faith, and our senses (the more the better). The brain scan results from study after study showed that subjects’ brains reacted to strong brands the same way they react to emotional or even spiritual experiences. But it was the ways that the successful brands were able to trigger the desired emotional reactions that really fascinated me. I was particularly disturbed to find out that the “juicy, charcoal-y… seductive aroma” one is assaulted by upon entering a fast food restaurant is not the smell of burgers on the grill but instead comes from a canister with a “just-cooked-bacon-cheeseburger-like fragrance” that the fast food restaurant pumps through its vents. I didn’t want to know that.

Regardless, I couldn’t help but start thinking about how to apply the broader principles from the book to the search world. But there’s an immediate disconnect here. If effective branding is about evoking emotion, and emotion is generated primarily by sensory inputs and built over a long period of time, then how could something as utilitarian and unemotional as search play a role in branding? Let’s start by comparing search to TV.

Why TV is an effective medium for branding

Most forms of advertising play off our senses, naturally lending themselves to emotionally evocative and thus more memorable interactions. For example, here’s the ad I described above:

YouTube Preview Image

Now ask yourself which was more engaging: my text description of the ad or the experience of seeing the ad itself?

The challenge of branding with search

Our challenge with search? The average search ad looks something like this:

search ad - dell

Did reading that ad raise your heart rate and make you lick your lips with desire? Are you ready to race out and buy a computer now? Probably not. Yet to be fully effective as a branding vehicle, we’d need to evoke these types of responses with 95 characters of text. Clearly we have our work cut out for us.

Are We Asking Too Much?

The bigger question it seems we should be asking is really whether search is an appropriate or efficient branding medium. Nobody would think of using the yellow pages as a branding medium. Maybe search is like that. Maybe we should just accept that search is a phenomenal direct response vehicle but has little to offer in the way of branding or awareness. Many advertisers have taken that path, and held their search campaigns to strict ROI objectives, never bidding for a keyword or position that wasn’t justified by the ROI.

But I’m getting less and less comfortable with that approach and increasingly wanting to find ways to measure brand lift and other soft benefits of search. To my mind, the question isn’t “Does search have branding benefit”? Virtually every form of media arguably has some potential brand benefit. The question is “How much?”

Credit just for showing up?

Is there really value just in having an ad show up in the search results? Is it really worth having your brand name show up, in green text, usually surrounded by www and .com, under your 95 character text ad, for the few seconds that the average user spends scanning results, when the average fixation on any one spot on the page is less than one second?

Seems like a tall order, doesn’t it?

Yet there is research that indicates there is branding value in showing up. Here’s a snippet from the iProspect Blended Search Results Study:

Finally, it continues to be apparent that brand equity is conveyed upon companies whose digital assets appear among the top search results by roughly a third of the search engine users. In 2008, 39% of search engine users believe that the companies whose websites are returned among the top search results are the leaders in their field…
This finding represents a significant opportunity for brand marketers in particular. Specifically, it is a convincing argument for why they should become knowledgeable about, involved in, and integrate their efforts with, search marketing. Initiatives that produce top search engine rankings can clearly help them achieve their branding goals.

Then we have this snippet from research conducted by Enquiro on the Brand Lift of Search:

Using Honda as a test brand and “fuel-efficiency” as a brand attribute, the study focused on consumers early in the purchase process who had not yet selected a particular car model. Key findings of the study included:
  • A significant lift in brand affinity: Online consumers who saw Honda in the top ad placement and the top organic search result were 16 percent more likely to think of Honda as a fuel efficient car than when the automaker’s brand didn’t appear on the page at all.
  • A significant lift in brand recall: Online consumers were 42 percent more likely to recall Honda if the company appeared in both the top ad placement and the top organic search result, rather than just the top organic listing.
  • A significant lift in purchase intent: When Honda was featured in both the top ad and top organic listings, purchase intent for Honda increased. However, other automaker brands absent from the page suffered a significant decrease in purchase intent.

It seems counter-intuitive that an interaction like search, which is so fleeting by nature, would have such a significant branding impact. Yet the evidence indicates it does.

Too good to be true?

Is someone really more likely to buy a particular type of car because a particular manufacturer showed up at the top of the search results one time for a given term? That seems like a stretch.

But what if the same manufacturer showed up every time I conducted a search—with a consistent message that was well-written and differentiated from the others—so that at some point it broke through my semi-automated scanning behavior and made a conscious impression on me? That doesn’t seem impossible. In fact, that seems like a pretty good strategy, in principle. I just don’t know how realistic that scenario is given a) all the complexity behind user behavior and b) the constantly moving parts underlying most search campaigns.

Maybe impressions aren’t the goal

I think we’re looking in the wrong place to find the real branding value of search. You don’t maximize your branding potential from search by merely “showing up.” You maximize your benefit by showing up, inducing users to click to your site, and then providing a memorable experience. The brandable moment isn’t really on the search results page. It’s the whole experience. Just as with ROI-focused campaigns, it’s what you do “after the click” that really counts.

To be sure, search is still an integral part of the branding effort. If you don’t show up, you don’t make the consideration set at all for that interaction. Even if you have a strong brand that people would otherwise prefer, you won’t get the chance to wield your competitive brand advantage if you don’t show up. So showing up is a critical first step, but only the first step.

You can’t use imagery, video, logos, or other forms of media that more easily evoke emotion in the limited environment of the search results page. But you can differentiate your ad copy, utilize trigger words and provide the scent of information in order to draw attention to your ad and traffic to your site. Once a user arrives there, you’ve tilted the odds of making a valuable brand imprint substantially in your favor.

It may not be as fun as making ads about candy-eating llamas, but that’s the tradeoff we made by getting into search marketing. The upshot is that we don’t have to put up with clients who insist on appearing in their own commercials.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is the CEO of Closed Loop Marketing, a search marketing agency specializing in conversion optimization. He also co-authored the best-selling book, Web Design for ROI.

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  • Jeff

    As you said, I don’t know how much search result titles & descriptions contribute to the branding process. Misleading descriptions & poor wording have the potential to take away from a brand, but positive engagement occurs on-site.

    However, if a site has already established itself as a brand, search behavior will tend to favor the brand. Users will not only search specifically for a brand, but if that brand ranks for a related keyword, it will generally receive higher CTR & lower bounce rate. People recognize brands & already know and trust what they’re clicking on.

    Other authority behavior – like linking – favors brands; and brands would tend to have more natural linking profiles. Perhaps a revamped LSI technology (latest Google update???) has granted ownership of brands mentioned in related content to the brands, considering those mentions much as inbound links.

  • George Michie

    Great piece, Lance.

    I concur that the value of Impressions has to be pretty darned small. If we then say that the branding value comes from actually visiting the site by clicking on the ad don’t we rapidly reach the point of asking: okay, how does the value of branding manifest itself? I have these obvious and not tiny costs associated with high prominence on these ads, what should branding value look like to pay off that investment. Wouldn’t it look like…um…sales? Doesn’t the absence of tracked sales following clicks reflect poorly on the value of branding? Granted, for Honda who will never generate sales online the answer is who knows, who cares. But for online retailers…

  • Lance Loveday

    Jeff – Great point. I tried to make clear that showing up was still critical, but probably could’ve been clearer about that.

    Thanks, George. That’s exactly where I was heading with this piece. I think using sales is a completely reasonable proxy for determining branding impact – and the best way for online retailers. Which argues for applying an additional multiplier to your ROI in order to measure branding value. Of course that goes against those making the attribution argument that Search is already getting too much credit. But what if both points are correct? It seems plausible to me that the unmeasured (upside) branding benefit of Search could plausibly equate to the (downside) over-counting due to mis-attribution in a number of cases. Which would argue for just using your Search metrics as is.


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