Marketers See Shift in Search From Direct Response to Branding

Going beyond low-funnel tactics

A study released from Google today reveals that marketers are moving towards search campaigns that build top-of-mind awareness. The search giant’s new report with Ipsos MediaCT finds that branding-focused ads elevate awareness by an average of 6.6 percentage points. "What’s interesting is we found recently that some advertisers are starting to use search in new ways. Specifically, brand marketers are starting to take a fresh look at search and view it through a lens that they never have before," said Matt Lawson, Google’s director of performance marketing.

Here’s how the study worked: Google ran 61 studies (each included 800 participants) looking at 12 verticals including CPG, automotive and retail. Participants were first asked to make Web searches for broad keywords like "small cars." They were then served either a test or a control search engine page. The test group’s search results included a brand in the top search ad position on the page while the control group’s did not mention a brand.

Afterward, the group was asked to name the first marketer with which they associated the category. Within the test group, 14.8 percent picked the name that popped up at the top of search results compared to 8.2 percent from the control group. The 6.6 percentage difference between the two samples is equivalent to an 80 percent increase in top-of-mind awareness.

Search results with a brand at the top of the page improved unaided brand awareness, too. Consumers in the test group were asked to think of four more brands that fit into a specific category keyword, resulting in a 26.7 percent in unaided brand awareness. The control group brought in a 17.5 percent unaided awareness.

The findings go a step further to examine brand lift by verticals. CPG brands unsurprisingly scored the highest in terms of top-of-mind awareness at 11.1 percent (the industry is well-known for prioritizing branding over direct response advertising), but other findings around the automotive sector are intriguing. Nineteen percent of the consumers served the test search ads associated the brand with the keyword later compared to 10 percent of the control group.

One automaker that has seen success with search for more than direct response is Chrysler. Chrysler ran a beta search campaign with Google from the fourth quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of this year with image extensions to promote its Cherokee SUV line. Hard findings were not provided, but the marketer said that the ads were effective enough to now be applied to efforts helping relaunch the Fiat model in the U.S. market.

Fiat builds campaigns that place images of cars next to keywords like "small car" and "compact car."

"Those are pretty vanilla terms if you just look at them, but when you add in the power of the imagery, the ad copy and the flavor of the brand and what Fiat stands for, then you have something really powerful when people are searching on 'small car' and you’re broadening their consideration for you," said Amy Peet, senior manager of digital marketing at Chrysler.

The Auburn Hills, MI-based car brand also plans to invest more in mobile search as consumers turn to their mobile devices to research cars.

At the same time that brands like Chrysler pour more money into mobile, a recent report from eMarketer indicates that Google’s dominance in search will taper off thanks to the growth of local search apps like Yelp and foursquare. The research firm predicts that Google’s share of mobile—which will represent about 85 percent of digital search dollars by 2018—will drop to 64.2 percent from 82.8 percent in 2012.

However, Sargi Mann, vp, director of search marketing at Carat, pointed out a bigger opportunity for retailers to tie desktop and mobile search insights into all aspects of marketing. For example, the agency worked with skin care line La Prairie to find highly searched products that were then used to improve in-store and online marketing tactics. Carat learned that searches for the keyword "face serum" have grown significantly in the past few years, causing the brand to create a new section of products on its website.

The idea is that as search becomes a bigger part of ad budgets, it would behoove marketers to think of its implications beyond digital tactics. "[Search has] evolved from hitting the darts to understanding the consumer’s needs and getting them to take an action," Mann added.