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4 things to learn about paid search from The North Face

Managing a large international brand is hard work. Especially when that brand is multi-channel (sold direct and through retailers, online and through individual branded stores).

I was thinking about these challenges recently and wanted to choose a brand and deep dive into how they handle their search campaigns.

The marketing demands of these brands can be difficult when you balance all the stakeholders, internally and externally. So, let’s take a look at 4 things you can learn in search from one of my favorite brands in this situation, The North Face:

  1. Own Local – blocking and tackling when you have stores
  2. Strong organic to help fund or offset paid search
  3. Branded search – watch the competition
  4. Getting the website right

To be clear: I have never worked with The North Face as a brand and I don’t know anyone who works there, so I have no insider information. This article is from an outside point of view and how I would assess their performance if I were to be in a business development pitch for their business.

1. Own local – blocking and tackling when you have stores

Brands that have their own locations would prefer customers to shop directly with them. They can control the experience, don’t have to compete with other brands, and can take home the biggest margins.

The first thing brands should do is ensure their location data (Google Business Profile) is as accurate and up to date as possible. Even though e-commerce has grown, its offline sales are still 80% of total e-commerce sales.

The North Face does a great job of maximizing its listings. All details are completed, and they are supplemented with ads focused on what’s available in the store.

The key to optimization is to ensure you have ownership of all your locations and that the information in those listings is consistent across the web. There are a ton of great resources available on Search Engine Land here to help you maximize this channel.

2. Strong organic rankings to help offset competitive paid search

In retail, many brands find themselves in a negative or low ROI for non-branded keywords. It’s a competitive space and getting your conversion rates high enough to drive a positive ROI for non-brand alone is tough.

Below is just one example. I took the keyword costs for “men’s trail running shoes” and did a quick model assuming a 2% conversion rate. The ROI is negative.

Obviously, there are assumptions here that could be altered to get this to be higher (AOV, Conversion rates), but it’s in the ballpark. So brands will roll up their paid search into a portfolio that includes branded terms. This is one way to show a positive ROI on paid search and one I agree with.

The other approach is to have a strong organic traffic flow. Then you can offset lower ROI for volume by looking at the search program as a whole. 

The North Face does a nice job with its organic rankings. Take a look at some data points against some other competitors to see what I mean. The North Face has a paid-to-organic traffic rating of 1.75%. This is the lowest in the group.

However, they have the most organic keywords ranked, and the second highest amount of keywords ranked in the top 3 organically (only outpaced by Canada Goose which has about a third of the total ranking keywords).

The North Face has worked to make sure their organic rankings are strong so that when they do participate in paid they can win and the total portfolio looks strong.

3. Branded search – watch the competition

Branded search is something that is a never-ending discussion with brands.

Should you be bidding on it? Should you let organic listings handle it?

I’ve been a part of tests for the last 15+ years on this topic. There is no one-size-fits-all answer (for what it’s worth: I think you should bid on branded terms).

The North Face is a good example of why. It appears to me that they bid on their branded terms sometimes, but not always.

For The North Face, this is more of a defensive strategy. I found lots of examples where brands like Patagonia, The Gap, and REI were bidding on their brand.

If a customer is typing in your branded name into the search results and comes up on another brand, they’ll probably search until they find you. However, this isn’t true 100% of the time.

When you see the examples below, you know that other brands feel like they can squeeze out some sales and increase their own brand awareness. In this case, I feel like The North Face is giving too much up to their competitors and could be more aggressive here.

4. Getting the website right

Even though when it comes to search a lot of the interaction and decision-making is on the keyword side. But you still need a strong website to make it all go.

For SEO, that means strong content and a crawlable and highly performant site. For paid search, that means landing pages that tie to your search terms and can convert at a rate that exceeds the bid prices.

This isn’t easy to do. However, The North Face does a very nice job in this area.

We discussed earlier how well they do from an organic perspective. On the paid side they also do a very nice job.

All the keywords map to the proper landing page. They maximize the use of ad copy to include all the proper callout extensions and site links. It’s very well done. 

After writing this and doing some research, I’m reminded how tough it is to judge from afar. There are so many business nuances that make the decisions brands are making unique to them.

Sure, we can all bid on “trail running shoes,” but it’s really the conversion rates, AOV and broader business objectives that determine if that’s the right thing for your business.

Overall, I think The North Face has some opportunities to improve, but generally gets it more right than wrong.

Hopefully, this article gives you some perspective on your business and how you might view your competitors. 

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About The Author

Nicole Farley is an editor for Search Engine Land covering all things PPC. In addition to being a Marine Corps veteran, she has an extensive background in digital marketing, an MBA and a penchant for true crime, podcasts, travel, and snacks.

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