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This year, google ranked number one in a survey of brand professionals. These folks estimated that the Google brand had the most influence worldwide – more than Apple, Toyota, or any other.

Now Honda is demonstrating the potential impact of that lead position by headlining its own site with the Google brand. Go ahead, search for “Honda Used Cars” on Google. You will see a geographically targeted mash-up of a local map with pins on it representing available cars in your area, paired with a list of those cars. Give it a try.

What is actually happening here? It appears that Google is hosting a page for Honda (or its dealers) that has been built with Google components. It is not (though the text ad does say!). It is

I think this is a smart experiment. And it definitely points to one major change that is approaching in branding – smart branders will not be able to solely try to “own the word” worldwide. They will have to experiment with how their brand works in environments where consumers have different expectations and different loyalties.

Perhaps this is the first instance of product placement in search landing pages.

So what is interesting here?

The whole branding thing. It’s fascinating to me that the page is basically a mash-up of applications. It’s co-branded between Google and Honda. It’s not lovely. There was obviously not a lot of art direction here. Where are the branding elements, the elements that scream, “This is Honda”?

In fact, the Honda brand is barely represented visually. There’s the “H” logo, and a box that says, “Learn more about Honda certified used cars.” But nowhere is there the brand’s red HONDA, nowhere is there the current slogan, “The power of dreams.”

Was it a conscious decision to leave out these branding elements? Did they purposely make the Google brand more prominent than the Honda brand? Are they testing a more-branded page, versus this page with so few branding elements?

I’d give a lot to know what the thinking was, here.

Applications galore. I really love what they’re doing here. I love all the ways that I, as a user, can engage with the page.

There’s the list of Honda-certified vehicles search results targeted for my geographical area — Manhattan Beach, California.

There’s the Honda search application, which allows me to search for specific used Hondas. There is, of course, the general Google search function.

Then, there’s the Google map function, specific to my geographical area, which moves as I slide my cursor across it. There are the “push pins” which, when I click on them, give me the phone number of the dealer plus a short list of the Honda used car inventory that is available, along with prices. (How smart is that?)

I can also click, in the bottom corner, on the current leasing/financing offers from Honda.

Honda is (probably) testing. This page used to look different. The first time I came across it, it did not include the list of Honda-certified vehicle search results for my area. For that, I had to use the search function — only then did it return geography-specific results.

Instead, it contained an image of a Honda vehicle that took up maybe a quarter of the page. Essentially, that was the only real branding element. Now, even that element is gone. I can only assume that they are running, or have run, a test in which they tried out an image versus a pre-populated list of Honda vehicles. Perhaps the importance of branding elements fell to the usefulness of that application.

What they’re NOT doing. When the page originally included a rather large image of a Honda vehicle, that image was not targeted in any way. In other words, it was a picture of a red sedan.

Generic Boring

Seeing as how they were already targeting me in San Francisco with their map, how difficult would it have been to target the image, as well? We in the Bay Area like to zip around with the top down — it would have been nifty if the image was one of their convertibles.

Or, because so many people out here are conscious of smog, how about some information about their hybrids?

Speedy implementation. Maybe this is just my imagination, but the page doesn’t look as though it took long to create. I like to imagine that the idea was flown by some marketing associate who thought it would be a great thing to throw out there. I imagine that, rather than forcing the idea to undergo three months of meetings and several rounds of design until all the life was beaten out of it, some enterprising C-level executive said, “Let’s give it a try.”

In all, I think this is a fabulous experiment. And there’s more testing that could be done — geo-targeting the image as I mentioned, or adding more Honda branding elements. They could test to see whether it was possible to create something not just useful but highly branded, as well. They could add more applications to see whether more apps mean more engagement.

I just bet that nearly everyone reading this has had, at some point, someone suggest an experiment like this. And I bet that often, fear of losing control of brand keeps it from ever reaching the light of day.

I know that Honda is learning a lot about what gets and keeps consumers engaged, no matter whether the results from this page are outperforming their highest expectations or whether they suck. The more we experiment with keeping consumers engaged via applications such as these, the better and more relevant Web experiences will be overall. And that can only be great news for online marketers.

I applaud Honda for taking this step, and I hope to see more companies experimenting this way in the future.