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Ask.com Breaks Branding Push

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NEW YORK Search engine Ask.com is rolling out a new branding campaign this week from Hanft Raboy and Partners, New York, that touts the brand as the best place to get questions answered online.

The TV campaign, featuring three comical spots that personify nagging questions, breaks in New York and 12 other markets this week to coincide with a redesign of the site that includes relevance, speed and interface enhancements.

"There has been a lot of work that has gone into making the product much better," said Jim Safka, CEO of Ask.com. "A lot of the work has been about getting people better answers the first time, every time, when they come to Ask."

The campaign, supported by an estimated media budget of $5 million, attempts to brand the site with emotion and personality, said Safka. If the marketing program proves successful, the effort will go national next year with a larger advertising budget. "We want to infuse the brand with some real emotion and start to give it some more personality," he said. "We're doing it in a measured way. We're not going to step up to the plate and take a wild hit at the bat. We're starting off testing this campaign to make sure it works the way we expect it to and hope it does."

Each commercial follows a person throughout their day as questions that might otherwise remain part of their inner dialogue are voiced aloud by a character that is pinned to his or her side. A pregnant woman has an older man asking questions about her changing body as she takes a Lamaze class, goes home and crawls into bed with her husband. "Where can I get a bucket of fried chicken right now?" he asks as a voiceover then explains, "Get the best answers to all your nagging questions answers, the first time, every time. Only at the all new Ask.com."

Other spots feature an 8th grader at school who wonders about girls and building muscle and a cop who muses about where he can meet cougars and whether a police show is on TV. The campaign also includes radio and online executions from both Hanft Raboy and Agency.com.

"We wanted to get back to the brand's heritage which was questions and answers and give the brand some emotion," said Doug Raboy, managing partner of Hanft Raboy, who had worked with Safka in his past roles at Match.com and AT&T Wireless. "We wanted to give the brand more of a pulse and make it feel a little more human."

Ask remains a bit player in the search market. Its share of searches was just 2 percent in August, down from 2.4 percent in January, according to Nielsen Online.

The campaign is part of a change in direction Ask began seven months ago to focus less on being a Google competitor to occupying a niche in the large search market serving a smaller subset of users that are seeking answers.

The switch came after research found Ask is used for finding specific answers in categories like health, reference and entertainment. The change in direction came as Safka, former Match.com CEO, replaced Jim Lanzone as Ask's chief executive in January.

"From a marketing standpoint, we want to drive trial," said Safka of the objective for the new advertising. "We know that when they try it they stay and come back more often."

The brand's last agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, positioned the search engine as a technological competitor to Google. After a series of guerilla efforts, the campaign broke TV work of a song-and-dance number celebrating "the algorithm" by showing how it could find results for obscure searches like "chicks with swords." The agency's last work for the brand ran in November 2007.

"In spite of its creative challenges it did actually drive people to the site," said Safka. "The challenge was they didn't come back often enough."