I’ll be the first to admit that I really don’t understand brand advertising. I know that on some level, it works. I do find myself squeezing the Charmin at the Supermarket.

But I also know that billions of advertising dollars are wasted every year on ridiculous branding expeditions. The Ad Agency-Corporate Marketing Industrial Complex is a self-congratulatory machine that somehow convinces companies to shell out big dough for minimal results, and even less quantification.

The pinnacle of this blind buying bonanza is the Super Bowl Ad. This year’s ads cost $2.4 million for a 30 second spot. Wow, that’s bigger than 99% of all online marketing budgets, me thinks.

So what do you get for that $2.4 million? Well, let’s take Ford Motor Company as an example. They have purchased two 60 second spots during the pre-game show, as well as two “5 second sponsorship billboards”, according to their proud press release. So, if my math is correct, Ford is spending around $9.6 million on their Super Bowl advertising campaign.

And here’s the concept behind the Ford ads (again, from the press release): “Nothing gets between a Mustang Convertible owner and the open road. Nothing’s tougher than an F-Series, except possibly an F-Series owner. Ford will demonstrate these undeniable truths on Sunday for millions of viewers tuning in to catch Super Bowl XXXIX and its eagerly anticipated commercials.”

The branding message is that the Mustang is really fun to drive, and Ford F-Series drivers are studs. As Marty Collins, general marketing manager at Ford, says of the F-Series ad: “Only F-Series could do an ad like this. No one besides America’s undisputed truck leader could credibly send the same kind of message on toughness.”

In other words, Ford is spending $4.8 million to tell Americans what they already know about the F-Series – after all, “only Ford could do this ad,” and Ford is already the “undisputed truck leader”. It’s kind of like McDonalds running an ad that tells people they sell French fries, or Coke letting the world know that they are the #1 soft drink. Again, I never claimed to understand branding.

But beyond my confusion over how this $10 million campaign is going to make Ford tons of money, I also discovered another interesting phenomenon. Go to Google and type in the search query “buy a car”. Heck, type in “buy an american car” or even “buy a mustang” or “buy an f-series.” Unbelievably, Ford is nowhere to be found. In fact, the only query I could find Ford advertising on was “buy a Ford”, and they were actually in third position, behind a California Ford dealer and a car lead generation company.

To put it bluntly, Ford is shelling out eight figures to run Super Bowl ads but virtually nothing to advertise online to people who are explicitly looking to buy their vehicles. Maybe, I thought, Ford doesn’t want to advertise online for fear of alienating it’s local dealers? No, as noted, they actually do have an online campaign (albeit incredibly small). What’s worse, their local dealers also don’t seem too interested in this crazy Internet advertising thing (there were a few local advertisers, but they were generally in lower positions).

Instead, Google’s AdWords positions are filled by the lead generators, who attract buyers solely on price. The URLs have names like WhyPaySticker.com, CarsBelowInvoice.com and PriceQuotes.com. Thus, those consumers who do end up researching Ford cars online end up expecting to get multiple quotes from several dealers. Translation: much lower margins for Ford.

What’s even crazier is that Ford could no doubt dominate these keywords, and for a fraction of the cost that these lead generators are paying. When you consider the impact that Google Quality Score and Clickthrough Rate have on position on Google, you would assume that virtually any ad text Ford chose to run on a keyword like ‘Buy a Mustang’ would instantly rocket to first position at a very affordable cost.

Dare I say that Ford could even use this Google shelf-space as a branding opportunity. Why not create some ads that say: “Ford Mustang. Experience the Open Road. Get Official Info!” You could even send searchers to a cool multimedia site (to keep the ad agency and corporate marketers happy). Mr. Collins (the Ford marketing manager mentioned above) could release a very hip press release that describe Ford’s “cutting edge Internet advertising campaign, fusing the direct marketing of paid search with an incredible rich media experience.”

And let’s not forget, Ford is spending $10 mil on the Super Bowl. Assuming that the average auto keyword costs $1 on a search engine, Ford could be generating 10 million self-selecting car shoppers every year, simply by scraping the Super Bowl ad and throwing that money at Google and Yahoo.

Let’s recap then. Ford is spending $10 million to reinforce their existing brands to consumers who are probably not looking for a car, instead of spending any money marketing to consumers who are actually in the market for a car. Oh, and they’re also spending money writing press releases, which will never be read by anyone, other than a few snarky bloggers.

But, hey, what do I know. I don’t understand branding (and Brutus is an honorable man).


  1. Andrey Milyan January 15th, 2007

    Hi David,What you are saying is not entirely true. Branding is important, especially for an auto industry. Consider this. When people see Toyota or Nissan, what do they associate it with? Well, I would associate it with good gas mileage, relatively cheap maintenance costs and reliability. BMW or Mercedes? Expensive but high quality and high class.Where did these perceptions come from? Partly due to customer experience but partly due to the image created by the companies themselves. I would argue that American automotive industry is suffering not because of the poor quality (Chevy is fairly reliable and inexpensive and so is Ford) but because of the poor image. Why are lease rates higher for Ford or Chrysler than for Nissan? Because they lose their value much faster. But value is in the eyes of the beholder.Unlike the Ford dealership that can just provide better rates, Ford has to create an image, a value around its brand. So, yes, Ford could possibly sell more cars by running a more aggressive SEM campaign but Super Bowl is still a much stronger brand building opportunity.Of course, there is no excuse for not doing both.

  2. DavidZHawk January 17th, 2007

    Great points Andrey – you are right that branding can work to reinforce an image in a consumer’s head. Certainly with cars, consumers associate “safety” with Volvo, “affordable” with Hyundai, and so on. But there are thousands of contrary instances where branding campaigns fail miserably. For example, take the recent Daimler-Chrysler “Dr. Z” campaign. Chrysler spent millions creating commercials featuring its chairman Dr. Z. Sales dropped. There’s a great book called The Origin of Brands that gives countless examples of branding campaigns that fail miserably. So I would agree that a branding campaign – done correctly – can create a positive perception in a consumer’s mind and lead to more sales. But lots of branding campaigns have little or no impact, other than to fill the coffers of Madison Avenue ad agencies!

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David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including Rentals.com (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up. David is a regular speaker at major digital marketing conferences and has contributed to numerous influential publications, including Venture Capital Journal, CNN Radio, Newsweek, Advertising Age, and NPR's Marketplace. David has a B.A. with honors from the University of Chicago and a J.D. with honors from the University of Iowa. In his spare time, David enjoys salmon fishing, hiking, spending time with his family, and watching the Iowa Hawkeyes, not necessarily in that order.