Like Honda For Chocolate: Branding Via Keywords

Direct response marketers have long been in love with search ads and their ability to reach users already on the hunt for specific goods and services. Now, some advertisers are taking a broader view of search, buying terms they want consumers to associate with their brands, even though the searchers clearly aren’t hunting for their products.

Honda has bought thousands of such keywords as part of a new campaign for its CR-V. While it continues to buy auto terms as well, the carmaker is acquiring keywords related to its new “Crave” theme, like “chocolate,” “banana splits” and “celebrity gossip”—all designed to bring searchers to a community Web site Honda created for users to collect and share craves. RPA, Honda’s agency, mined data from tools like Yahoo’s Buzz Index to select terms that are not just crave-related, but also skewed to a main CR-V target audience: young women. In a month, the search ads have drawn over 500,000 people to the site.

The campaign is just one example of advertisers trying new avenues to reach consumers in the so-called age of engagement. The attraction of search is its ubiquity in the lives of Web users, and the cost-per-click pricing system, which makes it cheap to run ads tied to terms like “fudge sundae” compared to high-demand product-related ones like “SUV.”

Diamond Foods is also turning to brand search this holiday season. Because the volume of searches specifically seeking nuts is low, it has crafted a holiday-recipe Web site findable via search terms like “holiday recipe ideas” on Google and Yahoo. Del Monte Foods hopes to ride the user-generated content wave with the promotion of its 9Lives “Morris’ Million Cat Rescue” site by tying ads to searches for “cat videos” and “adorable kitty pics.”

In all cases, the challenge for advertisers is providing relevant content to searchers rather than simply intercepting them, said Scott Symonds, media director at Agency.com, the interactive shop for Del Monte. “You have to be clever and find terms that are relevant and get some volume,” he said.

Such campaigns, however, remain the exception. Nike’s “I feel pretty” U.S. Open campaign, for instance, did not show ads on “Maria Sharapova” or the tagline, despite building a rich site with extra video of the tennis star. Ron Belanger, vp of channel strategy and development at Yahoo, lays blame for such oversights on client and agency silos. “The folks who help brands with their positioning and what their brand means are traditional shops who don’t fully understand or embrace the digital channel,” he said.

Too often, “search is handled by the search geeks, and they live in the basement,” said Curt Hecht, evp at Starcom MediaVest Group. Those “geeks” are usually compensated on how many sales result from campaigns, not in complementing brand efforts. “It’s really an education,” said Bryan Wiener, president of 360i a New York search agency that counts T-Mobile as a client. “This has to get through to those patrolling the brand budgets.”

Honda has been an early proponent of a broader view of search, in part because RPA handles its online and offline advertising, both response and branding. It used search for brand building by buying keywords relating to the animal characters in its Element TV campaign last year, and search was part of the planning process for the “Crave” effort from the beginning, said Mike Margolin, vp and associate media director at RPA. “I’m happy we don’t have to fight those battles,” he said.

While brand-building search campaigns are not held to strict sales metrics, the ability to track results helps quantify their effect. RPA has assigned values to visitors brought in through search based on their activity, such as whether they interact with the site or click through to product info. “We don’t get the dynamic graphical elements,” said Margolin. “But we are able to get for an equivalent budget more visits to the site and deeper engagement.”