Can search build brands? The quick answer is no -- at least not in the way that television can. Any marketer who thinks that search can build a brand does not understand what branding is.
OK, now that I have offended you, let me explain why.
Don't get me wrong: I am a stanch supporter of internet search and its increasingly important ability to create, sway and influence market trends -- but it primarily does so through enablement and facilitation. There is no emotional connection made when searching, and therefore no direct brand building opportunity. To brand is to imprint a product on a consumer in a way that allows for positive recall of that product.
Emotional context of the consumer and your memory
Television is successful at being able to build a brand because commercials are able to tug at the emotional purse-strings of the viewer. It does this in three primary ways.
First, the very nature of television programming is long-form, in comparison with internet consumption. This long-form delivery medium allows for much richer, immersive sound-and-imagery consumer experiences.
Second, it is a passive, rather than active consumption process, and where one would think that the active process denotes more interest, it usually just denotes higher curiosity. In the passive experience, the brain has more time to process without switching topics inherent in the active short-attention-span-theater of online.
And third, television is often a shared experience, as opposed to the singular consumption model of the internet. This shared aspect of television creates a communal bond with the viewers. Appointment television sporting events create high emotional context and group-think imprinting, as opposed to individualistic consumption. And even if the actual act of consumption may be singular (in that you may watch television alone at night) the shared aspects of key water-cooler programs ("Lost," "24," "Survivor," et cetera) heighten the emotional context of the viewer during consumption, knowing that although they are alone, the consumption is currently being shared by like-minded individuals. Telephone calls of "did you just see that?" can happen in this medium, but are largely absent on the internet.
Advertising and marketing -- be it product placement, or commercials -- not only benefit from the halo-effect of the television medium, but can also deliver powerful emotional messages themselves.
Advertising mediums that can evoke emotions are naturally better at branding. The emotional context creates stronger neural paths in the brain for storing positive associative product attributes. Combined with product usage, those pathways become more neurally stable, transferring from short-term to long-term memory, and therefore easier for the brain to access while away from consumption. You are branded mentally with the product. It is the reason that very strong events in people's lives seem so vivid and clear. It's not that you want to remember them more: your brain is just wired to do so due to the strength of the emotional context.
When the brand name is mentioned, then those neural pathways fire and evoke the same emotional context that triggered their creation. Hence, positive reinforcement of brand attributes through memory recall. When you are dealing with impulse purchases branding has even more influence as the choices, although they seem conscious, often are not. The product-memory that is easier accessed with positive associations in the brain is usually the choice we go for. Most other ancillary marketing and advertising methods only increase the ease with which the memory can be accessed: print, radio, internet et cetera.
Other media can be the emotional trigger, but it is usually much more difficult.
The emotional brand conduit and the cool quotient
The easiest way for other media -- and thus search -- to build brands is through the use of an indirect advertising method that acts as an emotional brand conduit, i.e. Word of Mouth.
Word-of-Mouth is the most trusted method of brand building because it is based on the emotional context of the product with other people and your relationships with those people. Your relationship with each person carries emotional weight as to the influence that their views hold sway over yours.
Think of this, for lack of a better term, as a cool quotient. Strangely, it has less to do with your closeness to the person as to your desire to emulate them.
As an example, just look at what kids wear, and what is the next hot item. When shopping with your kids, they will respond with "but all the kids have it," and "but Hilary LeBon has one!" You will almost never hear them say "because you wear it Mom." Even though they may have a much stronger emotional bond to Mom, Mom has a cool quotient of 1 and Hilary LeBon has a cool quotient of 9. Therefore, Mom is not an emotional conduit for brand building.
This does not just happen with kids, it is merely more apparent in them due to their high media consumption combined with their desire to emulate others due to social influencers. Older consumers' relationships become staid over time, and thus are not as subject to influences external to their now small influencer group.
Ever wonder why 18 to 34 is the prime advertising demographic? This group still socializes!
There exists within almost every Prizm cluster the influencers within the group who connect them to influencers of other groups. It is these people who are the emotional conduits. They are social influencers, technical influencers, trend setters, meme makers. They are, essentially, the locus of societal influence.
All is not lost
You can build a brand through search, but only by smartly identifying those people who influence the cluster you are targeting, and then triggering their word-of-mouth for your product. Search can trigger interest and purchase, increase knowledge about a topic or product attribute, but the consumer must have primary interaction with the actual product to develop those neural highways of brand influence. With television, the initial emotional product-memory pathways are more easily etched, and the product experience just detracts or enforces them.
Why are so many advertising dollars still going into television while media consumption of the internet is rising? Branding. The death of the 30 second commercial spot will have more to do with technological time-shifting influences impacting television advertising like TiVo than it will be from internet search advertising.
Search cannot brand, but it can catalyze the interest of the influencers to build it for you via word of mouth.
Now you just have to find them.
Sean Cummings has worked on the digital side of advertising and marketing for over 10 years. In that time he has consulted for a number of government agencies, spoken at Internet World, AdTech, and the Yahoo! Summit, and has appeared on ABC News discussing the impact of the Internet on marketing. A self described "hacker-geek with a marketing degree," Sean currently serves as vice president, product development for Dipsie, an internet search start-up located in Google's original space at 165 University Ave, Palo Alto, California 94301.Much of his career has been spent in advertising, where he worked as an award winning copywriter, account director and digital strategist developing innovative, internet marketing solutions for brands including; MSNBC, Hyatt, Corona, Niketown, iExplore, American Airlines, CBS Sportsline, Playboy, and many others. More recently, Sean managed the external internet marketing efforts of American Express Financial Advisors (now Ameriprise Financial,) one of the world?s leading financial organizations, with over $400 Billion in managed assets. When not hermetically sealed in the digital world he can be found jumping out of planes, traveling to places with government warnings for tourists, or working on motorcycles. Having lived through one too many midwest winters, Sean moved out to California to seek fame and fortune.