SearchTHIS: Who's Protecting Your Name?

Every marketer struggles with branding. Brand building, brand lift, brand perception, brand development, and the worst offender, brand love -- terms tossed around the ad industry like so many hacky sacks at a dotcom summer picnic. The goal of all this exertion and creative labeling is to sell more crap, and of course the best way to sell more crap is to make some really good crap, stand behind your crap, and treat the buyers of said crap, really, really well.

Most brand owners or stewards would take offense to my referring to their precious offerings as crap, and many go to great lengths to protect brand <insert catch phrase here> interests. That doesn’t seem to be the case with search. A new study from the digital brand protection and intelligence company Name Protect suggests the relationship with brands and their search terms is not all sherry and giggles.

Name Protect calls their service AdTracker, and a recent analysis of the Interbrand and BusinessWeek’s analysis of the presence of the top 100 brands in search results revealed that many of these household names may be losing ground while third parties capitalize on precious equity, possibly to the detriment of prized brand value.

So what’s a trademark owner to do? Defend maybe, but as I learned from yet another brush with a famous water walker, the best way to protect your brand might just be getting out there and doing it yourself -- and, of course, creating some magnificent crap.

Protect this!

What to do about brand when it comes to search has been the subject of much debate, particularly when it comes to search. Recently, the IAB released their study on the impact of brand in search, and we discussed competing with sales channels in this forum last year, but it seems the question about brand hijacking is now hotter than ever, thanks to Name Protect.

The initial report concluded that 92 percent of the brand names observed in Google and Yahoo! paid listings had third parties positioning against brand keywords. Further, an average of nearly 11 paid listings existed for each brand. The nastiest portion of this business is witnessed with third parties using the brand name in the listing itself.

The resulting action of multiple providers purchasing an advertiser’s brand name might answer a question brand marketers frequently ask me: Why should I buy my brand name if I already rank highly in natural search results? In addition to the benefits -- high return, guaranteed rankings, timely messaging, etc. -- paid search offers, if you aren’t buying your brand terms, someone else probably will.

A brand owner might also be cursed with a generic name which not only ensures clutter in the sponsored listing world, but appears so commonly throughout the web that rankings in natural search become a problem. Say for example you are an industry pundit with a name so common it’s "Google-proof." In this example, yours truly might just launch my own little search initiative as a defensive tool, a tactic which has proven quite successful in making certain searchers have at least the choice of clicking in to read my crap.

The Waldorf brand love-in

Search brand term paid listing multiplicity case in point: The Waldorf Astoria search. A pinnacle of class and refined excellence in Manhattan, and the only hotel in New York that I like to call home when I return to the city of my birth. The Waldorf is not just a brand, it’s an experience destination featured in countless films which conjures thoughts of joy and, dare I say, brand love for the millions who have stayed there.

Now, I could regale you with the story of my experiences in and around said location, but I’ll save that for another time because simply finding the Waldorf website can be a tale of woe in itself. A Yahoo! search for Waldorf Astoria reveals multiple purchase points for the hotel and many of the messages a user finds contain the Waldorf Name, despite one immutable truth. There is only one official Waldorf site and keyword ownership arguments aside, there is only one site that clearly depicts the image and presence the brand owners intended.

Name Protect also dug into the "who and what" portion of the brand search terms discussion and despite which site is deemed "official," the report concluded that of the brands monitored, 45 percent had paid listings with competitive or unlicensed offerings while 23 percent had listings with related commercial service offerings, leaving only 7 percent of listings purchased by the brand owner. 25 percent of listings were concluded to be for "other" services which might include ubiquitous eBay and Amazon listings, among "other" third parties.

The practice of using another’s protected name has instigated many high-profile lawsuits against perpetrators of perceived brand piracy and even search providers as well. Some of these suits have concluded in favor of the brand while others in support of search provider or alleged search brand hijackers. Though the jury is still out as to whose legal responsibility it is to protect a brand, many marketers are simply stepping up and taking control.

The counter attack

Search shops and agencies are willing help out with brand protection, either working with third parties like Name Protect or Cyveillance, or building their own systems. Along with brand measurement, brand protection has become a part of our daily lives in search engine marketing.

"Brand stewardship is the practice of not only monitoring those unscrupulous marketers who are hi-jacking brands, but working to affect positive change in the industry," says Ron Belanger, vice president, search engine marketing for Carat Interactive.

In instances where total keyword control may not be an option, Belanger suggests aggressive search tactics, as opposed to blaming search sites for the problem. "Paid search providers are simply a marketplace, and should not be relied upon to police brands. Good copy and keyword selection can help to minimize the effect of brand pirating, but if brand hijackers are writing more compelling copy and bidding more, they will get your traffic," he says.

Although Name Protect’s research only included top brands, it’s clear that either authorized or unauthorized third parties bidding on terms in the category killers like travel and entertainment might show us a best practice for search brand protection. Range Online Media’s CEO, Cheryl Pingel, offers some advice for brand search advertisers.

"When working with corporate brands, especially in the travel category, we are constantly evaluating who can or can not buy our clients name brand terms," she says. "Several of our clients, such as CompUSA and Wyndham Hotels have decided to not allow anyone to purchase their brand name terms. Since this choice has been made, we have seen revenues increase and costs go down."

Search firms and advertisers will tell you that brand terms often see high double digit conversion rates for brand based keyphrase ad units combined with consistently enormous return on advertising spending (ROAS) figures yet it’s a tough decision for advertisers in establishing affiliate or other sales channels in deciding who shall have the right to bid on brand terms.

"Affiliate marketing and aggregators are a great way to drive revenues but figuring out those percentages of sales versus revenues lost due to brand dilution and loss of total market share on your own brand is a heavy burden," says Pingel. "There is not an easy answer, each advertiser has different goals, metrics and ideas of how to drive and/or protect their brand— it is an area we are evaluating constantly."

The first rule of brand building holds true

Yesterday, as I wrapped up a much needed workout at my favorite fitness center in Los Angeles, I noticed a medium build lanky looking feller with an oddly familiar face sporting a Pearl Harbor movie t-shirt as I headed back to the locker room. Minutes later, said stranger opened a locker near mine and all at once I became aware of the person standing next to me.

Now, anywhere else on planet earth, meeting Michael Bay in a gym locker room would be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. In L.A., it’s a once or twice in a week kind of thing. So what did I do? Instead of thanking this man for all of the hard work and remarkable entertainment he had brought me over the years, I came out with a patented smart-aleck Kevin Ryan comment.

"Don’t you think 'Pearl Harbor' was more or less a two hour Gap commercial?" I asked indignantly.

What can I say? I was awestruck, I panicked -- this man is an absolute filmmaking genius and I couldn’t be a bigger fan. I have seen every film, "The Rock," "Armageddon," and, of course, "Pearl Harbor." I have even listened to the DVD commentaries and ironically, I had been watching Bay’s first film, "Bad Boys," on workout vision minutes before.

Bay looked at me and said nothing, so I tried to reinitiate the conversation and bring myself back down to earth. "I’m actually a big fan, I love your stuff and I can’t wait for 'Bad Boys Three,'" I said with an uncontrollably big smile.

"I figured you might be [a fan]," Mr. Bay finally replied, returning the grin. "And it was actually a 3-hour movie, loved by millions," he concluded, and headed out the door.

Wearing a shirt with your own movie logo, thereby inciting a quality discussion, might not be the most efficient way to offer brand love protection, or in this case movie love protection -- but my encounter offered a great reminder for brands in search of a way to control perception. You can buy your own brand terms, and preclude others from using these terms -- but despite what you might find in a search result, making a better movie, building a better machine, or offering a better service is still the best way to keep people coming back for more.

About the Author: iMedia search editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a "who’s who" in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.