Interflora 1-0 Google (HT)

Today Interflora, the self-professed ‘flower experts’ are delighted with a European court ruling that agreed their trade mark has indeed been infringed by Marks and Spencer, via a Pay Per Click advertisement on Google’s Adwords platform.

It is only Half Time though as a judgement is still outstanding on M&S liability, which the Interflora blog suggests is due sometime next year.  But this judgement raises an interesting debate and one that has ebbed and flowed throughout the relatively short lifetime of Search Engine Advertising.

In the UK, Google and Yahoo historically did not ‘protect the trade mark’ of their advertisers through the Paid Search channel but capitulated under brand pressure and eventually offered a manual opt in option.  The value of this protection was great as the cost of a click could be reduced from an average of say £0.20 to £0.03 or even less, across tens or even hundreds of thousands of clicks that large brands can attract in a month. So big savings were made when Google particularly offered this type of protection in 2004.

So when Google reversed its stance on May 5th 2008 to allow ‘free bidding’ on all keyword terms in the U.K. (it had already relaxed the ruling in the U.S.), there was an uproar from well-known brands as a plethora of companies seized on the opportunity to ‘steal’ customers from their larger competitors by buying keyword position on Google’s Paid Network alongside the more familiar brands.

There was much debate…  Some opined that things would settle down after an initial period of gluttony.  Google themselves stated that their ranking algorithm would ensure that only those companies who were absolutely the most relevant to the consumer (searcher) would remain and those that were unwanted by the searcher would drop off the listing due to (relatively high) costs and low conversion yielding a negative Return On Investment.

But what about this ruling?  Is it fair?  Do large brands have the right to exclusivity of a keyword search?  I’m not so sure.  Michael Barringer, Interflora’s marketing director argues “People searching the internet for ‘Interflora’ want ‘Interflora, the flower experts’ and no one else.”  But the evidence is to the contrary.  People searching for ‘interflora’ or other brand words don’t always click on the branded advert. Therefore, at the point hat they are presented with other options, they consider them.

It’s this point that is interesting.  If a brand chooses to invest money in the awareness of their company and product and consumers are sub-consciously drawn to that brand as in the example here – I want to send some flowers and Interflora pops into my head so I search ‘interflora’ – that does not mean that those consumers will not consider other options.  This is evident from the data.  Consumers still change their mind at the point of purchase.  It’s not the consumers fault that the brand decided to invest millions of pounds into their brand marketing.

If I go to a shop and think to myself “I fancy a Coke”, I often come out of the shop with a Fanta, Pepsi or Orange Juice after I am presented with other choices.  And this is the crux of the argument for me.  A brand should be able to protect their trade mark, absolutely. So no other advertiser can use their trade mark in their advertising.  There should be no passing-off (misrepresenting your goods or services as being the goods and services of another). With this in mind, any advertising that is displayed on Google’s ad network should be well-monitored for this activity.

But as a consumer, even if you are compelled to search for a brand as the first action in the Purchase Lifecycle (e.g. I need a new hoover), the most appropriate outcome for the consumer is to be given a choice (e.g. hoover, dyson, vac).  As a brand, if you have done your job right you will win those consumers anyway.  But if you lose a few along the way, it means there is a more relevant option for the consumer and you need to work harder in future to convert those consumers into customers.

Good luck to Interflora, as a brand owner myself I would fight tooth and nail to protect the investment in our brand and it will be interesting to see the outcome of the M&S case. But I am disappointed with the ruling for Interflora and the impact it might have for advertisers, but more importantly consumers.

Martin Cozens
Managing Director, Banc Media