The Road to Brand From Non Brand – An SEM Perspective

“We have almost good coverage on our brand search terms and that is paying off well for us because our brand awareness is high. Why should we spend time and money over generic category keywords and also pay our agency a lot more in the process?”

Definitely not a rare expression of sentiment that may be heard from many a brand marketer. The cautious ‘dollar allocator’ who is both wary at the thought he may be frittering away the valuable moolah of the corporation or over-possessive at the prospect of the two to three digit ROI figure starting to dwindle in his monthly dashboard reports.

At one end of the spectrum are hordes who swear by the belief that ‘brand SEM’ is the last stop; while at the other end, marketers rally against brand bidding with the familiar: “Let me spend my efforts on non-brand terms because my site ranks high in natural results banner anyway”. Now, how does one thrash out any definitive conclusion amidst these polarised viewpoints?

To throw some light upon the nexus between brand and non-brand searches, we will take a look at the airlines category.

The airlines category can be classified as one of the noisiest where airline brands, online travel agents, and meta search engines all clamour aggressively for attention from the weary prospective traveller who is trying to make an erstwhile simple but hitherto difficult decision thanks to choices-infestation. The simplicity or complexity of the scenario for search marketers depends purely on the market strength where inbound and outbound travel pace dictate the battlefield that any given brand will have to face.

For this column, we will take the market dynamics of a typical national carrier brand in its local market.

It is not difficult to imagine a high quantum of brand term searches for a national carrier in home turf given the brand stature and relationship enjoyed due to the years spent winging the home population. From our experience running global PPC programmes for leading airline brands, it has been verified multiple times that brand term conversions in the home market are by far the leaders from both volume and ROI perspective for the same reason as above.

I will digress for a moment to urge you to contain the obvious queries such as (a) why the much conditioned home population should type brand terms when they can directly visit the airline site and (b) click on paid search ads to convert when they can click on natural results; as these aspects will be delved in a forthcoming column.

Back to our discussion, given the high returns reaped from brand search, one can conclude that it may be prudent for the marketer to rest cozy on brand search bidding strategy and avoid generic or non-brand searches in the market. Sounds prudent? Think again.

The graphs, below, illustrate the importance of garnering critical coverage in the strategic non-brand turf in a highly competitive and dynamic market place for the national carrier.

And not to be overlooked, they shout out the pivotal function played by robust bid management and Web analytics tools in discovering, strategising, and executing critical business decisions that have long-term impact on the online demand generation programmes.

With competition mounting the aggression and brand search volumes not growing significantly, we had to address the mass-market flight search universe keeping long-term growth in mind. Holding the brand SEM activity steady, the non-brand SEM coverage to address the mass-market flight searches was dialed up with thematic messaging as well as restricted medium price range promotion messages.

The result was heartening with brand search volumes increasing steadily as the non-brand coverage and share of voice were increased. The sensitivity is seen to be more pronounced when brand search pace slowed as non-brand weights were reduced slightly in July (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Looking at the bottom line, a surge in non-brand revenue was seen during the immediate dial-up month (June) along with clear revenue growth against the brand terms with extremely healthy returns on investment as well (Figure 2).

Figure 2

In short, even in the face of aggressive pricing and brand-term bidding from competition, implementing a non-brand flight search strategy helped arrest the competitive onslaught as well as drive fresh audiences to interact and engage with the product (read: engage in flight itinerary building) who form the immediate future funnels for the brand (Figure 3). The increasing product views as well as product views per visitor ratio growth are clear indicators of the above impact.

Figure 3

What Does This Mean for Marketers?

1. In general, the ‘market brand search’ for reasonably well-known brands (making adjustments for external factors such as competitive clutter, price parity and competitiveness, seasonality, et al), tends to maintain a particular tempo across the year and any annual upside or downside is caused by consumer ‘brand preference or affinity’ variations (as a result of internal or external factors).

2. Brand searches should never be looked upon as a silo. Brand search activity is a direct output of both loyal and satisfied customers as well as consumers who included your brand in their consideration as a result of online search-purchase research. For the latter to become your future customers, you need to provide them with relevant and strategic presence along early purchase journey searches (read: generic flight searches). Because these are the searches which will trigger more brand searches and in turn grows and converts over a longer time period.

3. For brands that are a natural fit to ‘online demand generation’, strategies must be crafted for long-term scaling of volumes and building future consumer funnels even when the scenario seems to be healthy with ongoing ‘brand search milking’ approach. The key is to understand the nexus between non-brand and brand search phrases in order to derive the maximum returns from your search marketing programmes or any online demand generation-led programmes.

Of course, there are no set rules that can be always applied within a category, given the dynamics of the marketplace. But through smart campaign analytics and testing, every marketer has the opportunity to arrive at a set of relevant consumer behaviour insights which may then be applied to derive better efficiencies as well as unearth further behaviour-based insights.

The cycle of incremental and progressive learning is after all the invaluable contribution provided by analytics tools in the market today and not to forget your variable performance KPI satiation made real by these tools as well.

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