Buying Brand Keywords: A Case Study

Branded listings can lift brand metrics, particularly in regard to unaided awareness. I’ve discussed this in my analysis of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB’s) study of search listings’ effect on branded.

Let’s flip the brand power concept on its head and look at the supremacy of branded terms in search engine marketing (SEM). Intuitively, we know brands are valuable search terms. When a searcher looks for information about a brand, she has that brand in mind already.

How did she choose the brand? Marketing works. It creates brands. Marketing, PR, or visibility within the sales channel was a likely contributor. The list of possible marketing channels that stimulated or contributed to search behavior is even longer than an integrated marketing/media plan. TV, radio, print, viral marketing, banners, rich media, sponsorships, promotions, referrals, store visits, direct mail, telemarketing, billboards, PR, even search media may have contributed to a searcher’s decision to look for a specific brand. The list expands to include experiential branding, such as prior use of the product or an extended visit to the brand’s Web site.

We know TV generates search behavior based on advertising messages and editorial/PR visibility. The most dramatic evidence supporting this is Super Bowl Sunday 2004. A comScore/QSearch study looks at search and site behavior on Super Bowl Sunday and the prior Sunday. Search traffic and site visits for advertisers were much higher on Super Bowl Sunday (and, of course, searches for Janet Jackson-related info were through the roof).

Sometimes, search behavior stimulated by one form of advertising, promotion, or sales activity is instantaneous. This has been proven many times. But advertising isn’t just about immediate action. Branding is based on repeated exposure to a brand message to create a lasting effect and an association of the brand with an industry or the problem the brand addresses.

What about marketers who buy brand names as well as generic and competitive keywords? How do the brands perform at every stage of the search-to-purchase process? Interactive agency Digital Marketing Works LLC (DMW) was kind enough to share relevant data regarding one of its clients, the Westin St. Francis Hotel. Though the data is normalized to show relative conversion and return on investment (ROI) instead of exact numbers, results are dramatic. Branded keywords outperform others at every level (see charts here).

Impression-to-Click Conversion

Brand keywords had a 1,952 percent impression-to-click conversion, compared to generic terms with 100 percent. This makes sense, because the site was the official, appropriate site for the brand searchers were seeking.

The superior CTR gives the brand owner a huge advantage, particularly on Google, where position is based partially on relevance as judged by CTR. The brand holder can maintain a high position less expensively than the competition.

Interestingly, competitors’ brands as keywords performed significantly better (158 percent conversion) than generic search terms with no brand included at all. When researching a brand, searchers appear open to considering other brands in the competitive set.

Click-to-Booking Conversion

As expected, branded terms outperformed non-branded and competitive terms because the searcher was looking for the brand. Branded terms had a 184 percent click-to-booking conversion rate, while generic terms had a 100 percent conversion. Competitive brand keywords did no better than the generics (102 percent), which also makes sense.

Relative ROI

Because the conversion rate is so high, branded terms delivered a much higher ROI than other terms, with 792 percent ROI. Competitive brands also have good ROI (260 percent) due to CPCs that met the client’s objectives. Generic terms returned 100 percent ROI.


Every case is different. But in nearly every scenario I’ve looked at, it makes financial sense for the brand owner to buy his own brand. In the travel category, a brand owner’s distribution channel (travel booking sites) and the competition also bid on the brand.

And as demonstrated, the marketer’s ROI for brand keywords is very high. DMW’s president, Jack Feuer, commented, “Even though the Westin has good organic rank for some of the brand keywords and [keyword” phrases, there is risk associated with not being there…. Third-party sites may take the click, and then the searcher may book a competing hotel.”

Brands clearly are powerful keywords, particularly for the brand owner, but also for the channel. Apple may come up first in the unpaid results for “ipod,” but the channel sells more than just iPods.

What’s the risk a potential customer will buy a competing brand? comes up seventh in Google for “Air Zoom Huarache.” Yet all sponsored links are from the Nike retail channel. A retailer could cross-sell to a competing brand. When crafting your own brand purchase strategy, take all factors into consideration.

Meet Kevin at Search Engine Strategies 2004 in San Jose, CA, August 2-5.

Vote for your favorite product or campaign from July 20 through close of business August 2.

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