The Search & Branding Tug-Of-War, Again

"Cannes Lions Diary: Search under scrutiny" from the Financial Times at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival covers what we've seen before, traditional ad buyers worried that search is going to rob their budgets while search engines planning to do that theft try to distract with a "search is a brand thing" message.

First, let's do the sound bites out of the event. Here's what Laura Desmond, chief executive of Mediavest USA (which the FT says "advises clients such as P&G, Masterfoods and Kraft on buying and planning media") is quoted as saying:

Google is going to have to change its business model soon. Search alone isn't where marketing is today. It is about search and branding and putting the two together.

As for the search engines, we have:

Damian Burns, head of European agency relations at Google, said: "There is a need for self-education among agencies and clients. But I don?t believe that you can have people being exposed to brands on search results day after day without that having an impact on brand building."

During one conference event, campaigns by IBM and an onscreen prompt by Donald Trump, presenter of ?The Apprentice?, the US reality show, for viewers to investigate a new coffee product online, were cited as examples of pairing television and search. In both cases, online searches for keywords related to the campaigns rose sharply after relevant keywords were used onscreen.

Speakers said marketers would in future have to time their spend on search engine keywords to coincide with television or press campaigns to get the best results.

OK, let's go back to Desmond. First, is Google in trouble for only doing search? Actually, the company does more than search. All those ads across the web, the contextually placed ones through AdSense, those aren't search. Moreover, some of those placements are image and video ads sold on a brand-building friendly CPM basis.

Now let's say Google really did only have search ads. Why would it be in trouble for failing to put search and branding together? I mean, search marketers haven't depending on branding value for their stunning success over the past 10 years. What, today suddenly you need to have a brand component?

Search marketing is a fundamental advertising activity that stands alone from others, as I've been stressing in keynote speeches recently. It works because it gets your message in front of people who are overtly expressing a need, often without any exposure at all to brand advertising that tries to build that need.

Saying search must address branding is like saying that direct marketing address branding. You don't need to have a brand lift for direct marketing to be successful. Neither do you need a brand lift with search.

Having said this, search certainly can help with branding. Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 has taken a fairly anti-branding stance in his Search Advertising Does NOT Build Brands post, and here's some of my counter-response to him in the comments:

What do you think made Zappos a brand name when it comes to buying shoes online? Those magazine ads you saw for them? That TV spot? Wait ? I don't think they do that stuff. What they do is a lot of spending to show up in search engines when you search for ?shoes? and related terms. You did a generic search, you keep seeing a particular provider, and you learn about that brand.

Hey, need an espresso machine? I learned an entire new brand, Whole Latte Love, simply because when I was doing searches, I kept coming across their site. J&Rs in New York? If you?re in Manhattan, you know that brand as well as I knew Fry?s living in California. But J&R was a mystery to me until I kept seeing them in some shopping search results before making a trip to New York. Now that brand is rooted in my mind, not because I saw some offline ad but because I saw them first in search. That brand did build in my mind, to me.

I've done panel after panel on the intersection of search and branding at our SES conferences. We have another one coming up for our San Jose show this August. Actual advertisers and brand holders continue to say there's a brand value in search. They don't say they'll build brand only with search. Nor do they say they want all the branding money to come away from other venues like TV and solely support search. In fact, they want TV ads to keep going -- those help fuel the searches they buy.

Instead, the real pushing point is that they want more of the ad spend. They have a type of advertising that converts incredibly well and, in my opinion, is incredibly undervalued still. If the ad spend pie isn't getting bigger, then it has to come from the traditional space -- a space itself which has to be feeling more pressure given the relatively poor metrics it can offer.

As for the search engines, they've been pimping brand value to traditional advertisers to woo spending since Overture's big study way back in 2001 (see here and here). There is brand value with search ads, of course -- but if they really wanted to help establish search as a serious fundamental marketing activity, then how about leaning on the Cannes Lions festival to recognize that with awards just for search. Here are this year's awards. Search isn't a category, not even within the Cyber area which does recognize things like email marketing.

For more on these issues, here's some selected reading:

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