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Defensive Branding 101: The Role of Search

  |  March 7, 2006   |  Comments

Is a good defense the best offense?

Last week at Search Engine Strategies, I asked the audience attending my panel a very simple question:

How many of you have purchased search keywords against directionally negative queries? Put another way, if someone types your brand plus the word "complaint" in the search field, do you have any form of advertising presence?

Only a couple of hands went up in a jam-packed room of over 200 participants.

What a pity! There are more SEO (define) firms and search evangelists out there than grass blades on a golf course. Apparently, few are watching the brand's back.

It's in our DNA as marketers to create positive, happy media impressions we hope will translate into awareness, trial, and purchase of products. Even when we're not in total control, we urge consumers through word-of-mouth marketing tactics to spread the love.

But we usually don't think about bad impressions: consumer complaints, negative reviews, or bad ratings, as media. Moreover, we usually look to PR firms or external relations departments to help manage that activity zone, as if it were divorced from marketing and advertising.

Search 101

Search drives this point home in a big way. These days, brand equity is the sum total of your search results. Search results are like a store shelf that puts unique meaning on the "first moment of truth" principle from Procter & Gamble's A.G. Lafley. In categories such as automotive, electronics, and healthcare, most purchase behavior starts with search.

The objective of targeted keyword advertising via Google's AdSense and other programs is to intercept consumer attention in a highly relevant, contextual, non-intrusive manner. Increasingly, brand-centered, consumer-generated media (CGM) is filling the search shelf space, complementing or, in some cases, substituting for paid advertising.

But so much of what fills the search shelf today reflects negative consumer experiences. This, too, acts like advertising. Just about every brand and industry are vexed by this reality, and wireless and electronics are among the most susceptible categories.

Despite what most SEO companies suggest, you can't re-shelve organic search results overnight. It's a long-term process, often dependent on brand willingness to retool key business processes, such as customer service. That said, there are important defensive branding tactics brands can employ to reduce risk and even sandbag the spread of negative impressions.

Seeking and Sandbagging?

Consider the long tail of queries associated with buzz-catalyzed consumer curiosity. Bad buzz spreads not simply because consumers hear about it for the first time, but because initial buzz is solidified by the presence of reinforcing evidence. A quick search on bad buzz, a rumor, even gossipy innuendo can trigger a tipping point in consumer perception.

A consumer who hears Mazda has warranty issues will immediately seek counsel from Google and type in "Mazda complaints" or "Mazda safety." By the numbers, such queries may be small, but the viral consequences and risk of exposure to other influencers (e.g., analysts, regulators, media) are enormous.

This is where SEM (define) misses the mark. It obsesses with acquisition and shrugs defection. Media planners and SEO experts avoid negative inventory like it's the black plague inside a no-fly zone.

Smart marketers should spot brand vulnerabilities aggressively and embark on defensive branding. Practically speaking, this includes purchasing keywords against the negative to ensure the brand's side of the story is always available to consumers.

Say your brand is in a crisis fueled by a false rumor. Since I'm a new parent, let's consider the Pampers and Huggies brands. Search for "pampers complaints" and "huggies complaints," and you'll see a shelf space of hostile reinforcing evidence. You'll also notice neither brand has purchased any ad placement, even to their FAQ pages, suggesting there may be another side to the story.

Can any brand stakeholder look his CEO in the eye and tell her it's not worth roughly $0.05 per click to direct a consumer obviously concerned about the safety of your products to safer ground on your own site? Just seeing a "Get the Real Facts" banner or text ad without clicking can provide consumers with some measure of confidence that all is not rotten in the state of Denmark.

Of course, you can't be disingenuous or use such tactics to masquerade the truth, as a thoughtful blogger, Nan Dawkins, noted to me last week in response to my SES presentation. Defensive branding only works if you have something truly valuable to add to the conversation.

The really good news is consumers do give you the benefit of the doubt. A recent CGM study my company conducted concludes consumers who hear rumors and bad buzz about companies default to the company site for clarification:

Key Question Influentials Non-Influentials
I would be very interested in hearing the company's side of the story after seeing someone's personal account of a really negative experience with that company's product or service. 7.7 6.8
If I don't see a company defending itself, I tend to believe the accusations. 6.9 6.4
Nothing a company could say would change my mind once I'd seen someone's personal account of a really negative experience with that company's product or service. 4.8 4.9
Notes:
1. n=660.
2. Respondents replied on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being strongly disagree and 10 being strongly agree.
Source: Nielsen BuzzMetrics, 2006

Quick Tips for Defensive Branding

  • Anticipate consumer curiosity. If your brand is in trouble or under attack, consider how curious consumers might act to validate the truth. Will they search for more info? If so, how, and against which gut impulses?

  • Serve the seekers. When appropriate, buy keywords against key topics where the brand is at risk and seekers focus their curiosity. If there's legitimate, fresh news to share, make sure such content is targeted against such needs.

  • Prep the site. If you intercept a consumer in doubt, take her to the right place on your site. Moreover, make sure you've got sufficient content and utility on your site to meet her needs.

  • Blank the blanks. Don't ever let your brand search engine fire blanks when consumers type directionally negative terms into your engine. Neither Huggies nor Pampers provide much in the way of search results for "complaint" -- not even a link to an FAQ.

Again, your brand equity is the sum total of your search results. Are you even part of the difficult conversations, or are you just singing Bobby McFerrin in blissful brand ignorance?

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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