It is not unusual for the old to struggle with the new. But perhaps we should be more surprised when the old struggles with the established.
It has been 10 years since Google launched, and five years since it started charging for search. Since then, there has been an explosion in search marketing, and it has become a vital weapon in the marketer's armoury, making Google one of the biggest media companies in the world.
Search isn't new, but we are hearing some remarkable thinking about it from the traditional media world. I was at the WARC Research Conference a few weeks ago, and was struck when one of the speakers opined that he 'wasn't really sure that search is really advertising - it is just distribution'.
Nobody picked him up on it, and clearly smoking the same meme, M&C Saatchi chairman Moray MacLennan at the FT Digital Media Conference a couple of days later picked up on the same theme. 'When you are putting money into search, you are taking it out of marketing,' he said. 'All you are doing is buying a space on the internet high street. You are commoditising your brand.'
Are they right? Is search advertising or marketing at all? Is it just distribution? Let us for a moment assume that MacLennan is right - search is simply buying space on the internet high street. If he means that it is a part of distribution, then that would make it part of McCarthy's four 'p's of marketing. If he means that it is part of what many marketers call 'the last six feet', then to dismiss it as commoditisation of the brand is to similarly exclude in-store merchandising.
And are you commoditising your brand by using search? A commodity has no differentiating characteristics, and is bought on price only, so is search leading brands this way? That is up to us. If we choose to throw up our hands in resignation at this challenge, the brands we nurture will probably wither - either becoming commoditised, or more likely, beaten into submission by those who rise to the challenge, because consumers make brand choices in search.
This isn't speculation, it is empirically demonstrated by the data. Search engine users don't make just one search before a purchase, typically, they make several. We can track this behaviour, and understand how the process works as they progress - say, 'flat-screen TV', 'Sony TV', 'Bravia', and often the model number. We can see where they were diverted to competitors, and where competitors lost them to us, and, most importantly, we can influence this with the text we use in the listing, and test that copy to refine its effectiveness.
If we say the right things, and do so in the right places, we can work to protect, and even build, our brand premium.
This is marketing, and, moreover, it is advertising, in a pure, analytical and rather detail-obsessive way. To master it truly, we must understand how it creates value in the marketing and media mix, and where and how it influences users on their journey to being customers. We are not going to get there if we dismiss it.
I suspect MacLennan was being deliberately provocative. However, what he said plays to the prejudices of the Luddite faction, and is on the lips of many in what, for want of a better term, might be referred to as 'traditional' advertising. For these increasingly beleaguered folk, these fresh forms of advertising and marketing are sparking a semantic debate, rather than a determined attempt to master techniques that bring real value to marketers.
For these folk, the barbarians are at the gate, and they are using Google to get in.
- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 SECONDS ON ... MCCARTHY'S FOUR 'P'S
- E Jerome McCarthy, a professor at Michigan State University, proposed the four 'p's - product, price, place and promotion - in 1960.
- They make up the marketing mix and describe the strategic position of a product in the marketplace.
- By offering a product with the right combination of the four 'p's, marketers can improve their results and marketing effectiveness.
- Small changes in the marketing mix are considered to be tactical, while big changes in any of the four 'p's can be considered strategic.
- Peter Doyle argued in 2000 that the marketing mix approach leads to unprofitable decisions because it is not grounded in financial objectives such as boosting shareholder value.
- An expanded system, based on seven 'p's, stresses the importance of place, product, price, promotion, people, process, and physical evidence.
This article was first published on Marketing