Search vs. Brand-Based: Your Best Ecommerce Marketing Journey
Skip to Content

Search vs. Brand-Based:

Find Your Best Ecommerce Marketing Journey 

Do you want your marketing decisions and advice to be right as often as possible?

Journey types will help steer you in the right direction every time. 

At Agital, our experts have spent decades exploring the best ways to provide unparalleled customer engagement throughout every stage of their ecommerce marketing journey with a brand—from awareness and consideration to conversion and advocacy. In this post, we’ll deep dive into our competitive methodology to help you answer the question, “Where must my business compete to win new customers?”  

Given two extreme options of awareness (cold targeting) and consideration (non-branded categorical search), our competitive methodology forms two clear camps of ecommerce businesses defined by their distinct customer journey types: search-based or brand-based. Once you find out which journey type fits your business, your marketing strategy begins to reveal itself! 

In this article, we’ll cover:  

  • Why certain channels or ad types won’t perform well for your business. 
  • The 2 types of customer journey brands fall within: search-based or brand-based. 
  • Why there’s a 70% chance your brand is aligned with a search-based journey. 
  • Which channels get higher returns for search-based vs. brand-based journeys.  
  • How to create the best marketing strategy and mix for your business type.   

A Single Variable That Unlocks Countless Answers  

A business owner walks into a bar and sits down next to a well-respected marketer and asks: “You seem smart—so why do you think Meta Ads hasn’t worked for my business?”  

At Agital, our first meeting with business owners often comes with such a burning question. Or it could be about Google Ads. It’s how we realized that, beyond instinct and experience, we needed a paradigm, process, or theory that could easily explain why any powerful ad platforms like Meta Ads or Google Ads might have a natural blind-spot for certain types of business. Or why one particular ad type within a platform could be so perfect of a fit that not only would it deliver efficient returns, but it would allow for incredible scale.  

A few of the popular questions we tend to get asked during initial conversations about digital marketing include:  

  • What are the best KPIs for our business?  
  • How do we balance short-term and long-term growth?  
  • What psychological methods exist to inspire purchase behavior?  

And perhaps the most frequent question: “Why do specific channels and ad types work well for some businesses and not others?”  

The latter inquiry paved the way for our competitive methodology, for which we identified the two primary customer journeys that encompass all ecommerce brands: search-based and brand-based journeys. 

The Perpetual Value of Journey Type Discovery

Once you figure out which of the two customer journey types applies to your business, you can continuously prioritize the lion-share of your marketing. There are two options: 

  1. Search-Based Journey 
  1. Brand-Based Journey  

Without this simple rubric, businesses that should be advertising in Meta will pour dollars into Google search, limiting their returns, scale, and competitive edge. And vice versa. You can think of journey type identification as a system for your business to identify your most promising channel and ad type investments. It also acts as a litmus test to accept or reject otherwise sagely wisdom from marketers who swear by their personal favorite approach.  

If it fits your business journey type, then it matters.  

Once identified, you can proceed to strategy and channel mix planning, while hedging most of the risk associated with testing new channels.  

Which type is your business?  

There’s a 70% chance your business is search-based. We’ve surveyed thousands of marketers on whether their journey type is search-based or brand-based. Consistently, 70% say they are search-based. That number holds true for most of Agital’s ecommerce clients as well.  

When understood correctly, it becomes clear that a business can only have one journey type, there are no hybrids—and a business cannot switch its journey type unless an overwhelming number of factors have been altered.  

Search-based businesses are taking an easier path—they recognize that:  

  • Demand manifests itself in their category regularly.  
  • Buyers often go search for the category when they need it. 
  • Buyers find value in selection; they use limited brand bias in their final selection. 
  • Buyers can easily be persuaded by images, videos, reviews, user experience, user-generated content (UGC), price point, remarketing, persistent, and discounts.  
  • Buyer journey remains primarily focused on the goal of the categorical purchase. 

For search-based businesses, the best channel mix tends to focus on SEO and paid search on Google Ads, Amazon, Microsoft, and Pinterest. 

The other 30% of businesses are brand-based. These businesses typically:  

  • Cannot expect their buyers to search for the product category due to its novelty (often problem-solving products). 
  • Believe customers have an extreme brand bias in making a purchase from their category (often related to life, limb, or liability). 
  • Have a target that is so niche, it’s better to focus on marketing to small cohorts, communities, purchased lists, profiles (e.g. LinkedIn), and niche publications. 
  • Are part of a lifestyle category where brand is incredibly important, but purchases are largely based on desire and impulse. 

Brand-based businesses see better results with emerging awareness mediums popularized by social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.  

Validating Your Journey Type

Search Volumes + Patterns 

A close look at the search keyword volumes and patterns that have driven sales for your business can help you uncover whether your customer journey type is search-based or brand-based.  

Search-Based Journey: You’ll find well-established search language around categorical phrases. Can often have easy-to-understand qualifier rubrics (e.g. “category + make + model + year”).  

Brand-Based Journey: Search volumes are low for categorical phrases, and customers are grasping at what to call the category or the concept. The consideration stage is relatively under-developed, or there is an adjacent high-volume search category that is too vague to fit the criteria of the brand-based business’ offerings.  

The Nature of Search Phrases 

Looking again at keywords that have driven business and traffic to your website helps identify what your customers know going into the buying journey. If they already know the language of a category, then so do your competitors—and you’ll all be clamoring for the same keywords (in rankings, paid ads, etc.). This all points to a search-based journey. 

If search is more focused on problem solving, it shows that your customers have not been able to understand the solutions very well.  

Search-Based Journey: Consideration activity (non-branded search) is the common language between competitors. While they may differ on channels and means of building brand awareness, the majority are most organized and visible in the search landscape. A Venn diagram showing keyword rankings amongst a small group of competitors will show high overlap and equiangular patterns (meaning patterns with all equal angles like equilateral triangles, or squares).  

Brand-Based Journey: Search is used more for high-level problem-based searches, general knowledge inquiries, and lifestyle-related topics. These are qualified as awareness activities since the customer has yet to show a strong indication of interest in the product category and instead are demonstrating a general fit within the buying audience.  

When plotting a Venn diagram between competitors in a brand-based journey, you’ll typically find low overlap, and a lack of equiangular shapes (e.g. equilateral triangles and squares). Much of this is driven by brand keyword and trademark keyword rankings.  

Finding Clues in Your Ads

It’s normal to test a traditional channel like Meta Ads or Google Shopping Ads and find that one or the other works better for your business. You may have seen the power of a specific channel while testing it on one brand, but were unable to recreate that same impact on a different brand. It all comes down to the fact that channels are largely predicated on one journey type over the other.  

Search-Based Journey: Typically, high-performing channels include SEO, Google Ads, and Amazon Ads. Historic advertising in Google vs. Meta Ads often results in a distaste for Meta due to low returns.  

Brand-Based Journey: Typically, high-performing channels are Meta and YouTube. Here, Google Ads results for non-branded keywords are typically unpalatable.  

Here’s a secret: Meta wasn’t built to perform well in a search-based journey. It will, nearly out the gate, do great for brand-based companies. It takes finesse and experience to calibrate Meta to work for search-based journeys, focusing mostly on in-market audiences (consideration), past visitors (conversion), and past customers (loyalty).  

Similarly, Google Ads wasn’t built for brand-based journeys. If you don’t embrace Google Ad types like YouTube Video Reach and Demand Gen, your brand-based business will be out of luck on Google Ads.  

Demand Curves 

Another easy test to verify if you’re in the search- or brand-based journey is to closely look at the Google Trends data across five years.  

Search-Based Journey: Here, all brands follow the same demand curve of the market. No new demand is being generated by any single competitor. The leaders are those who have the most search visibility.   

What 5 years of Google Trends (you vs. competitors) might look like in a search-based journey

Brand-Based Journey: Searches for a brand name come from increases and decreases in awareness advertising, which can be from Meta advertising, new points of sale (e.g. added to shelves in Kohls), or influencer moments. Therefore, brand search trends are not tethered to one another, but are rather agnostic of other brand’s marketing efforts. Brands are generating their own demand. 

What 5 years of Google Trends (you vs. competitors) might look like in a brand-based journey:  

How Journey Type Impacts Messaging Strategy

In holistic marketing, you want to organize all your marketing efforts by the segment they impact. That’s part of our Agital framework, brought to life by our messaging methodology. Journey type can often have an impact on how you segment your messaging.  

Simple starting point:  

  • Search-Based Journey: Focus on category-based segmentation. 
  • Brand-Based Journey: Focus on audience-based segmentation. 

This form of segmentation works best. In search-based, since you are focusing mostly on non-branded search, you should organize your search campaigns around category. But for awareness-heavy efforts in brand-based journeys, you have the opportunity to coordinate many channels around available targeting options.  

Closing Thoughts:

Is it possible to get every channel to perform regardless of journey type? Yes.  

Make no mistake—Meta was originally built for awareness and brand-based journeys. Google for search-based journeys. But changes continue to drive selective activation of channels. For example, if you have a brand-based journey, you’ll still benefit from using awareness, conversion, and loyalty-oriented ad types available in Google Ads. If you use brand-based journey features in Google Ads, it can perform at similar levels to Meta. And vice versa when considering search-based journeys. 

Here are some big movements to watch for:  

  • Conventional channels becoming broad-impact: Google Ads was once just for search ads. Today, it boasts targeting capabilities and ad types meant to drive awareness (display, demand gen), conversion, and loyalty.  
  • Stagnant channels becoming vital: Channels that were once overlooked are now powerful tools across the customer journey and are vital to drive growth activities. As of 2024, Meta commands over 1.5 billion daily active users as a marketing powerhouse. YouTube users clock 1 billion hours of video per day, viewing over 2 billion ads each day! 
  • New channels taking center stage: Channels that didn’t exist in 2015 are now staples. TikTok has become a powerful marketing tool, born in 2016 and quickly amassing over 1.5 billion daily users by 2024.  
  • Marketplaces and websites working together: During the pandemic, brick and mortars closed and customers had to shop online. Amazon stopped advertising and prioritized key categories for fulfillment. Customer demand turned to brand websites and social media, and now marketplaces and websites operate fluidly in a customer purchasing ecosystem.  
  • You cannot easily compare data from one channel to another: Regulations like GDPR and CCPA, along with privacy-centric changes in iOS and internet browsers, have left channels with varying degrees of reporting capabilities. For some businesses, Meta will under-report. For others, the opposite. The sum of components is often greater than the whole.  

New and old marketing channels alike have redefined themselves to embrace their role in holistic marketing. They are built to align with other channels in coordinated efforts to drive any one of the five desired outcomes of marketing: awareness, consideration, conversion, loyalty, or advocacy.  

Identifying whether your brand fits a search-based or brand-based journey should be extremely helpful for selecting your best, most promising channel mix to invest in, while hedging most of the risk associated with testing new channels.  

If it fits your business journey type, then it matters.  

If you’d like us to reach out to discuss your company’s marketing journey type, your current marketing mix, or how to improve your performance, please click “Let’s Talk” below.  Our expert team is here and eager to help you. 


Subscribe to the marketing revolution.