Goals Collide as Brands, Retailers Seek Search Success

Could search be the missing link that helps connect brands with the companies that sell their products? That remains to be seen, but some search marketers say it’s only natural for the worlds of brands and retailers to collide in the search sphere.

That’s especially important given the growing realization that nearly half of shoppers who research products online (47 percent according to a recent study), many of them using search, end up buying offline.

The fact is, both brands and stores often bid on or optimize for search engines based on the same keywords, be they branded or generic. Take the term “Bravia TV.” A search on Yahoo for the term yields paid listings for e-commerce outfits including BrilliantShopper.com, GoSale.com and Bestbuypcs.com, as well as an organic and paid listings leading to a Bravia-centric landing pages on SonyStyle.com. A Google search brings up similar results in which both brand and retailers make appearances.

“Sony’s in the catbird seat here to organize their vendors and distributors and come up with an overall strategy; now everyone’s operating in silos,” suggests Jonathan Mendez, director of e-marketing at DigitalGrit, an interactive marketing firm that has worked with the consumer electronics brand for the past three years.

The issues are similar to those faced by online merchants and affiliates, but brands and retailers haven’t yet worked through these issues or built the necessary communications channels to do so. Mendez isn’t seeing any of his retail or brand clients, including Sony, move in this direction yet. The notion of brands working directly with retailers to develop search campaigns, he thinks, is “really somewhat of a new issue that I think brands have to face with their retail partners.”

While search engine marketing typically has been considered the domain of direct marketers, that assumption is changing. The State of Search Engine Marketing 2005 study released this January by the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), caught search mavens off-guard with its finding that 62 percent of search marketers said branding was the main objective of their SEM campaigns. That’s not to say they’ve forsaken direct response goals. It turns out there was some overlap, and 60 percent said that selling stuff was the primary mission of their search campaigns.

What could be considered a dichotomy may simply be a recognition that search can work for both branding and direct response intents. The question is can the branders and the direct sellers work together on the same search campaigns?

“We’re definitely seeing retailers start to initiate those discussions,” comments Cam Balzer, director of search strategy at Performics, DoubleClick’s performance-based marketing division. “Search provides opportunities to do that in a much more manageable fashion,” he says, explaining that his company can provide search measurement data to both retailers and brands that are working together on SEM campaigns.

Jessica Koster, e-commerce marketing manager for dance duds brand, Danskin, affirms Balzer’s implication that retailers are seeking out cooperative search marketing relationships with the brands they carry. “In most cases, it’s them coming to us,” she notes. According to Koster, such connections are often dependant on the size of the brand company, because those liaising with the retailers need to work with the online marketing department. “It’s definitely important for them to be talking,” she believes.

Rand Fishkin, who spoke with Koster, Balzer and Mendez on Wednesday’s Branding and Search panel at the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York, also stresses the need for buy-in among all brand and retail decision-makers, particular the higher-ups. The CEO of search engine optimization outfit SEOmoz insists, “There has to be a very high level of trust between the high level execs.” Problems could occur if everyone’s not on the same page. Fishkin, whose firm works with online shoe-seller ShoeStore.com, thinks relationships between brands and retailers are “rare in the marketing and advertising world — period.”

One big barrier: differing objectives. For instance, while a brand like Sony is concerned with creating brand awareness, retailers like Circuit City or Best Buy mainly crave sales. “It’s a competition issue in terms of bidding, really, and positioning,” concludes DigitalGrit’s Mendez. Because both brand and retailer often bid on the same brand name keywords, they tend to bid up the cost of those terms. “There’s a little bit of a cannibalization, if you will, in terms of the brand terms,” he continues.

Ed Rigsbee, a strategic alliances consultant and author who has worked with Best Buy is skeptical of how retailers might approach a search alliance because their goals could be more fleeting than those of more long-term-minded brands. If retailers are thinking only about themselves, he contends, “it ain’t gonna work.”

Though it appears that the brand/retail search connection has yet to come about in full force, DigitalGrit’s Mendez predicts, “This is going to become more and more of an issue as search becomes more important to branding.”

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