Sometimes, yes. “Raising brand awareness” is the last refuge of the marketing hack. But more and more, studies are showing that search marketing does aid branding. Searchers have higher brand recall than those exposed to banner ads. What’s more, searchers recall higher-ranked results far more than others.

Understanding the decision points of your prospective customer helps you create a search marketing campaign that targets the widest necessary set of keywords. Searchers use keywords drawn from their need early in the purchase process, escalating to brand and product names as they near purchase.

Many companies are recognizing that the keywords searchers choose are indicative of their level of brand awareness. Nescafe, for example, offered two free weeks of coffee on an episode of The Apprentice, sending people scurrying to the Web to learn more. By measuring the increase in searches Nescafe estimated the branding buzz they created. IBM used offline advertising to publicize the ThinkPad protection system (“airbag”), whose effectiveness was revealed in search increases for related keywords.

Because search is one of the few ways that companies can see unaided brand awareness demonstrated in real-life situations, it is rapidly becoming a popular barometer for brand building. Whereas a few years ago, expensive studies were the only way to measure changes in your brand, now watching search keyword volumes can supplement or replace some of these studies.

It’s a bit trickier than measuring brand awareness, but sometimes you can actually raise brand awareness through search. IBM used this technique for its “on demand” concept.

As you might expect, at the beginning of a new marketing campaign, such as “on demand,” no searchers will be looking for the term. And IBM did start to advertise using traditional means to embed the name “on demand” in searchers’ minds. But IBM used search marketing to raise brand awareness as well, by leveraging existing successful keywords.

Because “on demand” is a message that can be applied to many parts of IBM’s portfolio, it was an especially good choice for increasing brand awareness. IBM already had a #1 ranking for “product lifecycle management,” for example. It was relatively easy to tweak the landing page so that searchers for that keyword were exposed to an on demand message relating to PLM on the landing page.

Download the complete set of slides for this talk on search branding tactics.