Recession drives up online brand interception

It may not come as a surprise that online brand hijacking in the travel industry has increased sharply in the past year as bookings have fallen.

The annual Great Holiday Hijack report from brand and digital consultancy Nucleus suggests Google’s decision to relax its trade-mark policy on keywords last spring, combined with the current economic climate, have created a free for all in online marketing. More people are chasing fewer customers with less cash.

There was initially a frenzy of activity around the brand-protection issue, with “cease and desist” letters flying back and forth in spring 2008, but attention died down as predicted by many at the time. However, the problem has intensified as companies have taken their eyes off the ball.

Nucleus reports that 80% of the 125 companies in its survey were victims of brand interception, up from 67% in 2008. The total number of interception attempts was 467, more than double the 202 last year.

The biggest perpetrators are online travel agencies (OTAs) and online beds and flights aggregators, possibly because they are newer entrants and have a better understanding of how the technology works.

While some brands, including Haven Holidays and Eurocamp – one of the biggest victims last year – have managed to reduce the number of interceptions, others are still falling prey to the practice. This includes Going Places, one of the biggest victims last year, with 10 “rivals” trying to hijack its brand.

Possible explanations include unscrupulous pay-per-click agencies targeting competitor brand names as an alternative to popular search terms. This could be done with the permission of brands – as when OTAs sell tour operator packages. But that only works if search results are deep-linked to the relevant branded content.

Nucleus also found 23% of its sample companies attempting to intercept other brands – a rise of 10 percentage points on last year.

In addition, the number of brands bidding on their own name fell from 45% in 2008 to 39%, suggesting companies are either reducing advertising spend or redeploying it elsewhere.

It is natural in a recession that companies would do everything possible to protect themselves. Clearly, in a tough trading environment, attention has been drawn elsewhere and many players are taking advantage.

The question that remains is whether consumers are fooled? 

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