That’s not altogether surprising given the array of competing terms being bandied about, such as “branded content,” “branded entertainment,” “content marketing,” “brand publishing,” and “native advertising.”
“Branded content is any content associated with a brand in the eye of the beholder.”
This may be true from a consumer perspective, but what it doesn’t do is clarify the business problems that branded content seeks to solve for brands, or how this is different from advertising. It also doesn’t provide guidance for the strategic considerations that need thinking through, including:
- What kind of branded content is created (or co-created) by “Who” and for “Whom”?
- How is engagement managed?
- How is content distributed? (i.e. “Where” in the converged landscape of earned, owned and paid media, and “When” in the customer decision journey?)
- How is the success of each different part and their sum measured?
Three circles of branded content marketing
One of the reasons for showcasing case studies as part of the BOBCM book series I curate is that it helps show how brands and their agency partners are addressing these considerations. It also avoids getting bogged down in protracted debate about definitions, which may be difficult to pin down given branded content is still an evolving approach that’s responding to the rapidly changing media landscape.
At the same time, the highlighting of excellent examples helps provide inspiration, so here’s a selection of award-winning examples recommended by an international panel of industry experts:
Toshiba & Intel – The Beauty Inside: This social film project is the most cited example amongst industry folks. Uros Gorican at Publicis Slovenia explains why:
“It’s a great piece of storytelling about the human condition that is brilliantly written. It uses a fairytale structure about a spellbound protagonist who needs to find true love in order to undo the spell. This kind of universal storytelling is more than you’d find in traditional advertising, and that’s what makes it branded content. The product is also brilliantly integrated, and the social film project allows the audience to engage in the creation of the campaign without seeming forced or unnatural.”
The Lego Movie: This full-length feature is most popular with those from the entertainment industry. Not only does it generate revenue for the brand through licensing, but as Jesse Coulter from CAA Marketing points out, it also plays a part in the wider customer experience:
“The Lego Movie is entertainment produced by a brand. And it’s great entertainment that’s loved by critics and audiences alike. Lots of people went to the theater to see it. Now they rent it or buy it at home. Or watch it on a plane. And now they’re more emotionally connected to the brand. Now the Legos are a bit more magical. So they buy more Legos. And go to Legoland. Wait, isn’t this Disney’s model? Maybe Frozen is the gold standard…”
TBWA/Freemantle – Brändärit (Buy This): Some see the media landscape being redefined through the merger of the entertainment and ad industries. How this changes the business model of those two industries remains to be seen, but the Brändärit collaboration between TBWA Helsinki and FremantleMedia that aired on MTV3 in Finland is a great example of these two worlds colliding. Izabela Kurczewska at Havas Sports & Entertainment Poland explains why it won a Grand Prix at Eurobest last year:
“Pure definition of branded content: it’s content, it’s likeable, it’s creative, it meets brands’ objectives and it’s good enough to get PRIME TIME on a major commercial channel! At the Eurobest judging panel, we were all asking each other how it was possible that nobody had come up with the idea before. This only means that concept is really great and that probably we will see local versions of Brändärit really soon.”
But where does traditional media fit in now?
Despite the successful use of TV by the likes of Brändärit, digital and social represent the bulk of investment by brands in branded content. So here are three pointers about what traditional media and their digital offerings could bring to the branded content table at a time when the lines between media owners, agencies and consumers continue to blur:
1. Collaboration with content creators is less risky for brands:
Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland presents a strong argument for why brands should collaborate with content creators unless they are going to radically re-think risk:
“Brands need to be realistic about competing with content creators, unless they’re prepared to risk allocating budget that could result in failure. The Hollywood system is an example of a few successes bankrolling a large number of duds and also-rans.”
He also raises the alternative of deviation, “whereby the type of content you create is not necessarily of interest to conventional content creators, but is of huge interest to a client or group of clients.” It will be interesting to see whether agencies will facilitate these kinds of alliances among brands, and what part publishers will have to play given the rising demand for more visual content, particularly video.
2. Demand for more continuous content:
One area that media owners are well placed to service is the growing demand for those who understand editorial and programming in order to produce more continuous content, as Somethin’ Else’s Steve Ackerman highlights:
“The big change that brands have to understand is the need to have an ongoing conversation with their audience, rather than just short bursts of campaign activity. The production of continuous content requires more of a (broadcast) programming and editorial mentality.”
3. Collect customer stories at scale:
Given that customer stories are increasingly becoming more important than brand ones, content marketing guru Ann Handley at MarketingProfs offers useful advice to traditional media owners about how they can leverage their platforms to help brands:
“Find a mechanism to allow you to collect customer stories at scale. For example, Airbnb recently launched a platform where people can submit their own stories at Create AirBnB.”
This is about using insight to better understand people’s lives, and what part traditional media has to play in these, in order to help brands deliver branded communication programmes that people want to become part of.
A small snapshot of latest thinking and best examples
This post provides only a small snapshot of the latest thinking and best examples we cover as part of the BOBCM series. Part of what we’re trying to do is highlight the importance of looking beyond direct competitors for inspiration, such as the way that new digital entrants are helping brands leverage their properties to engage customers in more interesting ways.
For example, JWT worked with TripAdvisor on behalf of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company to embed short films with celebrity voiceovers based on user 5-star reviews. This clever and unforced integration of native advertising helped make the destination one of the most talked about and searched for that year.
One of the common characteristics of the examples that are winning awards and driving the adoption of branded content is that they play through the traditional lines of advertising and media. The other is that they tell a good story, and the need to do so is about the only thing that practitioners don’t think will change in future. But, as former Ad Age editor turned Chief Content Officer at DigitasLBi Scott Donaton points out, storytelling is a disciplined and strategic approach to marketing that changes everything about how brands go to market:
“Brands are going to have to change their processes and do something marketers don’t like to do and don’t do easily. They have to change the skill sets of the people they hire. They have to change the time frames they work on. They have to change the way they allocate and think about budgets. They have to change their definition of creativity.”
In conclusion, I recommend that traditional media owners think more creatively and radically about how they now help brands go to market, and this goes well beyond the repositioning of contract publishing as content marketing. I hope this post provides some food for thought about where to start and why.
Justin Kirby is VP Strategic Content Marketing at the U.S. digital agency Tenthwave. He’s been speaking to industry experts around the globe about what branded content is, where it’s at and heading as part of his curation of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) ebook and event series. In addition to writing this post, he recently shared some of his findings at our Digital Media Europe 2015 conference in London.