Online branding – Can brands find a place on the web

The web is the noisiest channel in marketing and brand power offline is no match for the quick clicking fingers of consumers. Linda Fox finds out who’s winning and losing

More than 10 years ago the internet was heralded as the great leveller, allowing everyone to compete on an equal footing. It was sold as an enormous shop window for companies, big and small, to display their products and services.

The reality is that as the online world has grown, the barriers to entry have fallen and anyone can create a web presence. This has created enormous competition just to be visible online before even selling anything. Such is the level of competition that it’s by no means guaranteed the big companies are the ones that will rise to the top, no matter how big the budget. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It just creates enormous challenges for those used to old school marketing techniques.

The rules of engagement have changed since the advent of the internet and brands are having to explore a wide range of media to build their presence online and keep it at the forefront of the consumer’s mind.

Greece and Cyprus specialist operator Sunvil Holidays has been in business for 35 years. In that time the company has built up repeat business of 75% and also sees a high rate of trade come through personal recommendations. Despite this, managing director Noel Josephides estimates he has spent about £350,000 on various versions of the website and employs two people full-time to manage it.

Press advertising is also part of the mix for Sunvil, as is pay-per-click activity, but as the site’s visibility has improved through search engine optimisation in the past nine months the operator has reduced its PPC spend.

Josephides says: “As the site has grown and we know what we have to add, we have found that we have done so much better in natural lists. I have never liked PPC.”

He feels strongly that the internet is going the same way as other forms of advertising, making it increasingly difficult to maintain a presence on it.

“The web is meant to be a great leveller but it is no longer what it set out to be as all these big-money companies come in.”

Search experts stress that although online brand building is about visibility, it’s not just about the web.

Companies are being urged to adopt a mixture of channels including both organic search strategies as well as other online and offline activity to build and maintain a presence.

Cass Heaphy, online marketing director at search specialist Strange, says it’s about seeing the bigger picture and not just throwing money at paid search.

“You need to have a user-friendly website because otherwise the perception of your brand goes through the floor and people will move on.”

He stresses the importance of organic search, not just because it’s free, but also because it forces companies to think about the structure of their websites and how they are providing the information.

Heaphy also advocates the power of deep-linking and ensuring the relevancy of landing pages by making sure the title, headings and products all relate to the area and audience you are trying to target. “It’s an overlooked area. We try to persuade customers to improve their landing assets and you can save 20%-40% of your budget and deploy it elsewhere.”

Using a network of affiliates to champion the brand is another way to improve a company’s performance in organic listings.

Web 2.0 and social networking sites can also be an option for companies to try out deals or other targeted advertising and create links back to their site.

All of these techniques carried out in an integrated way will mean better organic performance and therefore a better ranking in the listings.

In addition, marketing teams can get involved in creating conversations within user-generated content sites and encourage consumers to write reviews.

Heaphy says: “You augment this with paid search so the consumer sees organic and PPC.

“For a brand name, it is important to see that you dominate the space. If you look at it purely mathematically, the probability of someone clicking goes up. There is so much you can do to fill the space.”

Experts also stress the importance of monitoring all your activity – not just in terms of how you are doing in the rankings but also to see what your competitors are doing.

“You need to know what people are saying and there are various different tools such as Google Alerts and a blog search tool called Serph, as well as other monitoring software,” says Heaphy.

This multi-channel approach is also advocated by Duncan Parry, a director at Steak Media.

“A new brand can enter the market and use search to generate sales and aid awareness by being listed consistently, but publicity and other types of advertising have a bigger brand-building impact; search needs to be integrated into a wider branding strategy, along with display advertising.”

Parry advises search to be used as a ‘marketing sandbox’ to test out what works in terms of response rates and conversions. He urges caution with social media because it is only likely to get a brand noticed if the product or
service will create a buzz. He says: “The rule for good public relations is to find an angle that will generate buzz and coverage and apply it to social media.”

The point about social media is pertinent. Although it’s about a cross-channel approach, it’s only appropriate if the channel is relevant to the brand as opposed to it being the latest craze.

Ocean Holidays, which specialises in Florida, a highly competitive destination, has managed to build up its brand in the past three years, spreading its spend across a range of media including a number of search specialists as well as price-comparison sites, Teletext and social networks.

General manager Harry Hastings dubs it ‘spreading the wealth’, and says: “We hope customers are going to come across us no matter where they are
looking. We’re now up there with the main names by exhausting every bit of media there is.”

Social media has worked well for Ocean and particularly a forum called the ‘Dibb’.

Hastings says: “It’s relevant to what we are selling and it really works. We can get the telephones ringing through other means but people will trust you a lot more if they have heard of you.”

Conversely, Ebookers, which migrated on to a new platform a year ago and made substantial changes to branding and website, has not gone down the social media route.

The brand opted for media it had not used before, such as radio, and some it had not participated in for some time, such as online display advertising.

Ciaran Lally, UK managing director, says: “We took the opportunity to look at our positioning and branding in the UK and Ireland and the appropriate way to take that to our customers.” 

Lally points out that display advertising backed up by relevant landing pages has helped Ebookers set and meet customers’ expectations more than PPC campaigns or meta-search activity.

He also stresses that it’s not just about using a number of media to spread the word but also the consistency of the message.

Lally says: “You need to understand what it is you want to do and excel at.”

The importance of having a brand and what it stands for has come sharply into focus in recent weeks with Google’s decision to no longer protect companies’ trademarks online.

The industry has descended into a passionate frenzy of activity over the decision with cease and desist letters flying back and forth, legal threats from Teletext Holidays, Thomas Cook’s termination of contracts with online distribution partners and even the possibility of collective cross-industry action against Google itself.

It wasn’t that long ago that Google was advising companies to register their trademark so that it could prevent rivals from gaining commercial benefit by bidding on search terms relevant to other’s brand names.

Now, big names are predicting it will cost them an additional six-figure sum annually to protect their brands.

One school of thought argues that companies that invested huge sums and many years building up their brands online and offline have the right to be angry over Google’s decision.

Travelodge chief operating officer Guy Parsons says: “We object that someone else can use our brand awareness to drive sales. Our position is clear, if someone bids on our terms we will do whatever it takes to stop it.”

Parsons adds that the brand is the most important element the company has, particularly in the hotel sector where consistency is so vital.

He adds: “If the customer finds someone else bidding on it, ultimately it will be to the detriment of Travelodge.”

Thomas Cook takes an equally strong view and UK and Ireland director of e-commerce Russell Gould says its position is the same as before Google’s decision. “We will protect our trademark. It is ours and it is our goodwill – we don’t want people hijacking it and confusing consumers.”

Google claims its legal ground is firm and that it has carried out a full legal and business review to ensure it is not infringing any UK trademark and advertising regulations. It claims it is about choice and relevancy for consumers while sceptics, and there are many, say it is purely a commercial decision.

Gould says: “Google claims it is in the best interest of the consumer, but if someone not selling Thomas Cook comes up in a search I’m not sure how that helps the consumer.”

It seems the search giant has already reaped some financial reward of brand bidding in the first month since the decision was implemented. Stories of companies paying £2.50 per click to achieve qualified status and appear in the sponsored link area are not exaggerated.

The situation will run and run and while activity has already reduced to simmering point, there is nothing to say it won’t hot up again with strategic bidding going on during peak holiday booking time in December and January or a particularly aggressive lates period.

Search Works deputy managing director Gavin Ailes says: “Some could come away from bidding on trademarks completely but then do strategic bidding to steal business. By January, people will have figured out exactly what they can do and the industry will have been lulled into a false sense of security.”

It’s too early to say how the situation will play out. The possible scenarios are companies mounting legal battles against each other, companies mounting a legal battle against Google or storm in a teacup and the whole thing dies down.

On Holiday Group chief executive Steve Endacott says: “It’s all a big hoo-haa. If you’re trying to build a brand, the easiest way is to put yourself up against your competitor, so it is more about brand wars than cost-effective clicks. If your brand is that good why are you worried?”

UK law is based on case history so everyone is waiting for that precedent.

Gould says: “You can’t mislead people by using someone else’s brand, so it will play itself out and it won’t be long before a case is taken to court.”

In March, courts ruled Yahoo! did not infringe trademarks rights in a battle mounted by a UK businessman over ‘Mr Spicy.’ However, the ruling is not viewed by experts as solid legal ground for a number of reasons, not least because the businessman had no legal representation.

Trademark specialist Sian Croxon, a partner at DLA Piper says: “Infringement is where a consumer sees it and believes it, but the argument is that these adwords are not visible and not the reason people are being drawn to a site.”

She adds that legal opinion is still undecided as to whether the intentional purchase of adwords to bring yourself up the list infringes trademark law.

“Paid-for space has always been distinguishable so it’s difficult to show that there is confusion or infringement of the mark.”

In the meantime, companies will continue to closely monitor online activity, and despite Google’s decision search experts advise companies to continue to trademark, especially where they have a generic name.

Ailes says: “The changes only affect the terms you are allowed to bid on. What you cannot do still is use that term in your advertising copy.”

Others believe the initial frenzy will die down because of the cost involved in trying to steal business and companies will have to work out what they are willing to invest to stay on top.

Adrian Goldthorpe of branding consultancy FutureBrand believes we should look at it from the eyes of the consumer.

“On the internet, consumers can’t always interrogate the product and it’s validity. Be that the purchase of a tangible product or a service. Is the Viagra online really going to work or just give you a headache? Is the Visa lottery application for the US going to give you ticket to freedom or simply free you of $150? And for brands such as Google, is the hijacking trademark infringement passing off or creating a shadow product to elicit illegal revenue?

He adds that consumers simply won’t stand for activity that adversely affects their experience, but who is to say it will?

How to protect your brand and prevent online hijacking

  • Control affiliates and resellers via your legal agreements with them (which was best practice before this change).
  • Consider a gentleman’s agreement with competitors to not bid on each others terms, if your lawyers say this is okay and not market collusion or similar.
  • Ensure your own campaigns have negatives to ensure you are not infringing another company’s trademark, starting a tit-for-tat series or reprisal bidding. It does happen, especially when the chief executive or founder’s egos get involved.
  • Make sure your brand and trademark terms are in a separate campaign with enough budget to be online 24/7 for pay-per-click.
  • If you suspect a competitor will hit you – be ready. Talk to your lawyers, ensure they are up to speed on search engine policy and relevant law, and consider having a campaign ready to turn on targeting the competitor – give them a taste of their own medicine (check with lawyers first though).
  • Be vigilant! Grab screenshots and date stamps of offenders, and consider using a tool to check trademarks and brands out of hours – so you have evidence if you decide to go down the legal route.

The Great Holiday Hijack – exclusive research carried out by Nucleus

Nucleus conducted its third investigation into ‘brand interception’ in the travel industry in May 2008. Brand interception is a tactic in which an online advertiser pays to intercept search enquiries for high-profile brands.

The survey was conducted on May 13 2008, just over a week after Google UK introduced its controversial new policy lifting the restrictions on the use of trade marks in Adwords online advertising.

In this latest survey of 124 online operators and travel agencies, nucleus found that:

  • 67% of the sample’s brand names are now intercepted by others (up from 59% in the last survey in May 2006).
  • 17% of all interception attempts contain another company’s brand name in the content of the advertisement.
  • All 14 companies previously protected by Google’s old policy are now victims of some form of brand interception.
  • 13% of the sample actively intercept their competitors (down from 23% previously).
  • 14 of the top 20 interceptors are well-known brands.

The total number of brand interceptions has almost halved since the previous survey. In 2006, there were 375 attempts, an average of three interceptions per company. In 2008, the total was 202, or 1.6 per company.

Of the 202, 118 were deemed as ‘intended’ and 84 as ‘possible’ interceptions. However, the percentage of companies suffering from brand interception has increased from 59% in 2006 to 67% in 2008.

The biggest victims of interception in 2008 were Eurocamp and Going Places, which suffered eight ‘intended’ interception attempts.

Possible intended interception is where there is doubt over why an advertisement was triggered, while intended interception was judged where:

  • The victim’s brand name appears in the text of an advertisement.
  • The victim’s brand name has no association with travel (eg ITC Classics) but generates another travel company’s advertisement.
  • The advertiser shares the same speciality as the victim and is obviously a direct competitor.

Possible reasons for the decline include:

  • Advertisers may be refraining from bidding for brands with a high number of advertisers; the more advertisers, the higher the cost-per-click.
  • It could also be explained by the victims actively seeking damage limitation by protecting their trademark rights via a threatening litigation for trademark infringement.
  • Victims may be encouraged by Google’s urge to ‘resolve disputes with advertisers’ by entering into gentlemen’s agreements with competitors.
  • High-profile victims may have sufficient intellectual property protection or financial clout to threaten advertisers with legal action, or by severing relationships with affiliates.

Full Google trademark policy coverage

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