On The Link Between Search and Branding

Why won't Yahoo or Microsoft ever spin out search, as I and others have counseled in the past? I had an opportunity to bat that question around with a particularly well informed fellow this week, and the most interesting part of the answer became quite obvious to me: They…

Why won’t Yahoo or Microsoft ever spin out search, as I and others have counseled in the past? I had an opportunity to bat that question around with a particularly well informed fellow this week, and the most interesting part of the answer became quite obvious to me: They need search to protect what they already have: Brand advertising.

Before you declare “What are you smoking, Battelle!?” – it is Friday, but it’s not quite noon, guys – let’s pick this one apart a bit.

Traditional thinking around categories of advertising draw a very clear line between search advertising, which given its deep roots in CPC is seen as driven by direct response (DR), and brand advertising, which has awareness and demand creation as its main goals.

Most agencies, until recently, have stuck search (SEM, SEO) inside a speciality arm of their holdings, usually lumped in with their DR functions. Brand, on the other hand, was where all the cool kids live, making award winning creative that compelled, convinced, cajoled.

The history of online advertising has been marked by three major eras. The first era – 1995-2000 – was dominated by brand advertising, in particular, crappy brand advertising that, for the most part, didn’t work very well for any number of reasons. The second era was dominated by direct response advertising – the rise of search and the yellow pages model. The third era – the era we are in right now – marks the reconciliation of these two forms. If you look at the percentage of online spend presently represented by search, you can see what I am talking about: Search is the largest single factor, at 40%, followed by display + rich media, at about 30%, and classified at 18% or so.

So why am I arguing that the two will merge? Because I have been listening to customers – the marketers. And they are starting to realize a couple things.

First, they are noticing that when they run brand advertising both online and off, searches for their brands increase. Second, they are noticing that when searches for their brands increase, sales (or at least valuable, measureable leads) follow. And they certainly want searches for their brands to increase. But they have noticed something else as well: There’s a lot of stuff that comes up when folks search for their brands that they don’t control. In particular, there’s a ton of messaging out there – the equivalent of brand advertising, in a sense – that reflects the world’s view of their brand.

So the trick is this: How to coordinate the two sides? In a world dominated by conversational media, how does one truly integrate demand creation (branding) with demand fulfillment (search)? The answer is not as easy as one might think.


Search results, as we know, are more than paid results. Organic results are critical to a person who is searching on a brand. If I see an ad for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, for example, and I put that into Google, what do I see? (see image above)

I’ve marked in green all the sites that, from the point of view of a marketer, not in that marketer’s control. Each of them, it turns out, are conversational media sites – forums, blogs, photosharing sites, wikipedia – where the brand is being actively discussed. Try this search for any number of specific brands, and it’s surprising how often this occurs.

In short, there are a lot of conversations out there that marketers can’t “control”, but that are vital to the brand’s perception, consideration, and performance. I have to run to an appt, but I’ll be updating this post with thoughts on what this means for Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, as solving for this issue is a key task that major advertising platforms – and all of the aforementioned companies are just that – must execute upon. Facebook’s announcement this week was a first step toward this, but it lacks several key factors necessary to create a fully realized ecosystem. But so far, no one else has that ecosystem either.

More on what such a system might look like when I get back…

15 thoughts on “On The Link Between Search and Branding”

  1. “Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook, as solving for this issue is a key task that major advertising platforms – and all of the aforementioned companies are just that – must execute upon.”

    John, you probably address it in your update, but it is not clear what Y,M,G should do about it? Are you suggesting some implicit in house SEO at the search engines? And if they are seen as solving this for the marketers, they lose the user trust with the search results and hence their advertising platforms?

  2. Look forward to round 2 and more possible specifics, John.

    On a related note, my 5 year old son (who spends very little time online) has been coming to me excited not about websites, but searches. “Dad, we did a search for Avatar Games Online and got great results. Maybe we can try Avatar Games Season 2 next time. and see what we can find with that.”

    Even to a five year old, it is the words one picks to choose via search that is often the most exciting part. Times are a changing . . ..

  3. So is this to say that SEO & SEM should be more of a priority among Ad and PR Agencies??

    Branding is important to traditional media simply because it is necessary to establish a psychological bond with consumers.
    Whether it be status (for the upwardly mobile), trendy, sexy, environmental, geek coolness, patriotism, or social consciousness – there is an emotional need that is being filled that the brand is seeking to exploit. No on knows which commercial will come on, or which billboard will appear while driving.

    Search – on the other hand – is more intellectual and practical. People are looking for facts, answers, comparisons or for the brand directly.

    Hopefully, online research will stay cerebral – and branding can be left to the traditional media outlets to provide entertainment during commercials.

    Branding is PR and emotional manipulation – since it does not mean that the product or service REALLY is superior to all the competitiors.

    However, Google and Apple are one of the few to master online and offline branding of sorts among Geeks.

  4. This is a very important, little-penetrated topic that I’ve been fairly obsessed with this topic since I left P&G in 1999. Shelf space matters! A key tenet of category management is that optimization of shelf has a direct relationship with sales/revenue. P&G’s A.G. Lafley captures the essence of this principle in his “first moment of truth.” What consumers see on the shelf, and where it’s placed, matters. Online, your brand equity is the sum total, and composition, of your search results.

    What’s troubled me in the search arena is our over-obsession with the periphery (the paid zone) versus the core organic zone (where most of the “branding” really occurs). Most of the brands I’ve worked with over the years (first with PlanetFeedback then Intelliseek, now Nielsen BuzzMetrics) have been either rewarded or indicted at this organic online “first moment of truth.” With consumer-generated media (or UCG, or conversation, or whatever term works) now being fastest growing source of indexed content in search results, the stakes are incredibly high for what shows up. And as branded search queries get more specific (e.g. Ford safety, toys and lead, hotel service) the percentage of shelf anchored to CGM usually increases dramatically. If you talk to consumers about what led them to the proverbial “dark side” of a brand crisis or rumor, you’ll find search’s role in “affirming” negatives or positives (even things they heard offline) has an unmistakable impact. In my upcoming book on brand credibility, I put an unusually amount of emphasis on the core credibility driver of “affirmation,” especially via search.

    But here’s the critical rub for brands – and we need a much more attentive discussion/conversation here. In carefully studying what dials to the top of organic search results, you typically find that stimulus lies less in marketing, per se, than business operations and processes. In consumer electronics, for example, customer service or tech support is a massive driver of high-shelf-presence content in search results. In service industries like travel or hotels, you’ll find that commentary about employee behavior owns premium organic shelf space. In automotive (and more recently toys and pet food), safety is the core driver or high-reach search results. BUT these are NOT “flip the switch” or “let’s get an agency to fix the problem” issues. They ultimately default to deeper, more long-term management decisions.

    What we urgently need to do is help senior executives understand the symbiotic relationship between key business decisions and consumer conversation…which then feeds into the organic “awareness, trial, purchase” (or defection) cycle via search. I’ve no doubt that if we make that connection, we’ll start to see dramatically higher expenditure against areas like customer service…or just ensuring products work as advertised. On the later point worth noting that I study I just wrapped up showed that “product experience” is the motivator of branded CGM and online conversation. EVERYTHING else is secondary. Viral tricks and big buzz campaigns or corporate blogs are all great, but if the product fails against its advertising claim, or fails to bring meaningful new value to the table, they may not get you very far. The reality is that managers probably need 2-5 year planning cycles to have make a meaningful dent in shelf presence.

    Please keep me posted on your work/thinking here. Eager and excited to engage. (Thanks to Matt Hurst for giving me heads up about this post.)

    – Pete Blackshaw

  5. This is a great question and very profound, enormous dollar opportunity for both a company that can solve it the companies that can take advantage of it. I think, however, that your use of the word ‘control’ is misleading in how to think about these issues. A more appropriate word would likely be ‘participate’.

    These organic results that are conversations about the marketers product is something that the marketer wants to participate in and perhaps shape it. But how can they do this?

    If the search engines allow for deeper placements i.e., placements of product specific and even conversational-related ads on those organic pages this would be helpful to the marketer and the sites themselves.

    In your example search when clicking through to some of those conversational pages I see banner ads for other cars. Why not banner ads for the particular car also? Why not an ad that is an invite to the participants to come to the marketer-specific website related to the conversation to discuss the issue of the conversation directly with the marketer of the product?

    Can’t ad platforms evolve technologically to allow for advertisers the option to place participatory ads on conversation-specific pages?

    How can this be done? Provide site developers tools for tagging or labeling for context of the review e.g., Good product, OK product, Bad product and/or other additional tools that could even get more specific; Vehicle Safety Good, bad poor etc. If the company is perceived to be selling an unsafe product allow for the company to become aware of this issue through these contextual tags and run messages that may speak otherwise. These tags become part of what of what the search engines crawl and become the means for what type of ad the marketer may want to run with regard to that specific conversation on that specific page.

    It’s not so much a ‘control’ thing as it is a mechanism being provided for marketers to participate very specifically to the page and the conversation.

  6. Great comments folks. I am so wanting to do nothing but write more on this. I am alas looking at a week of total focus on FM. Next week…

  7. This commentary is dead on the money. Internet marketing is being redefined.

    We have created a new company from a “standard” web development firm after recognizing that for a robust business presence a website is mandatory, seo necessary and the opportunity to push into multimedia/advertising/pr is the new road to online dominance.

  8. Great post! You hit home the reality that all advertising work together. Brand strengthens search, DR and what ever else you may be doing and vis versa.

    I think what is key in this equation is the ever increasing need to quantify everything on the net, even brand.

  9. hmmm — I thought I posted a link to raging discussion about branding and online advertising here before…

    apparently the URL causes problems for the software running on the site, but I’ll try it again:


    🙂 nmw

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