The most interesting thing about branded content is not that it’s suddenly resurgent, but what it’s poised to become.
Industry leaders predict branded content could account for up to 80% of TV content in a few years’ time. Most big brands will maintain an online channel with reams of video content. Custom publishing will dominate fashion retail, with other industries expected to follow suit.
Many organisations will install journalists in media units akin to those already maintained by Red Bull, the AFL, NRL and Commonwealth Bank.
Experiences will proliferate: custom events, curated concerts, musicals, plays, films… not even the idea of a brand-funded airline is unfathomable, according to the experts.
What is for certain is that the media model of old has been irrevocably changed, democratised by the internet and shattered by clutter. Advertisers can no longer simply pay their way; they now must pull an audience to their message rather than thrust it in front of them. In order to do so, ‘content’ is required to earn the attention of today’s empowered consumer.
For want of a better word
Branded content, branded entertainment, ad-funded programming, brand journalism… whatever the name, the concept of creating something audiences want to consume in order to deliver a message is nothing new. Soap operas got their name in the 1930s when Procter & Gamble began producing dramatic radio broadcasts as a way to connect with its audience. In 1985, Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner created the cartoon Gummi Bears, inspired by his son’s love for the soft, bear-shaped jellies. The knock-on effect was monumental, immortalising the candy as an icon.
The term ‘content’ is deliberately broad, but in all its forms it has one thing in common: value. In order to capture and engage an audience, it must have either an entertainment or utility value for its target. It is this inherent value that executive creative director at ad group McCann, John Mescall, uses to distinguish branded content from traditional advertising: “There’s almost no delineation between branded content and advertising,” he says. “Everything is broken down; we’re in this weird transitional period.”
To fit the moniker of branded content, the execution needs to have worth beyond the commercial message, Mescall believes. “If it’s just a cleverly puttogether marketing message, it’s not branded content. It’s still an ad – it’s just a good ad.”
Mescall is the man behind Melbourne Metro’s ‘Dumb Ways to Die’, the animated rail safety video that racked up over 30 million views in a matter of weeks last November, and was shared more than Rihanna’s new video on its launch weekend. Its likability and catchy tune made a safety message, one its disengaged audience had no interest in hearing, easy to absorb. “You need to create things that take on a life of their own, yet somehow still hold your brand message,” Mescall explains, crystallising the ethos behind the approach.
Create what was once bought
With real momentum starting to gather behind branded content, agencies and brands are shifting from a ‘buy’ to a ‘create’ mentality. Head of strategy and media at full-service agency CumminsRoss, Kirsty Muddle, sees no reason why brands should pay for media when they can create it. This reasoning saw the agency’s work for Jacob’s Creek, featuring interviews with tennis great Andre Agassi, picked up as part of Seven Network’s Australian Open broadcast. The work helped increase sales of the wine brand at a higher price point without spending a single media dollar locally.
“We no longer just create ads,” Muddle says. “We write formats that are for TV programs. Essentially we can do the same thing as a Shine or a Fremantle Media. We’re on our way to producing TV shows and writing theatre and cinema. And why can’t we create a feature movie if that’s what we needed to do for a tourism body, for instance?”
The key, Muddle believes, is thinking like a broadcaster – ‘What does my audience want to watch?’ – “We could just pay our way and make you watch this and make you watch that, and put a banner at the MCG.
You would have seen it [in the past], but now you might not notice it because there are so many other things to look at. You can pay your way to show anything on all of those different platforms, but the really compelling stuff is made with the viewer in mind.”
Thinking like a broadcaster is one of the challenges in Mescall’s mind. “It’s so much easier just to find a unique selling proposition and smash it in an ad, but that doesn’t fly in the online world,” he says. “That used to work, and for certain things and certain media it still works, but every month that passes we’re moving further and further away from the way it was.”
It’s a mentality that both Michael Byers, managing director of branded content measurement consultancy Showbrands, and Greg Logan, from branded content production house Hatch, say broadcasters are already welcoming as it gets harder for them to sustain content production. “Foxtel is getting more channels, free-to-air is getting more digital channels and they’ve got less money to pay for it… something’s got to give, and that something will be branded entertainment,” Logan believes.
Hatch, launched by Australian marcomms giant STW Group in February last year, had written two shows aired on ABC and one on SBS at time of writing.
Logan predicts that half of all television content will be branded in the not-too-distant future. Byers forecasts an even heavier reliance on branded content by broadcasters. He projects it will account for up to 80% of their content.
“You’ll see more and more of branded content simply because the networks are also now seeing them as a revenue raiser,” he predicts.
From creative excellence to content excellence
The Coca-Cola Company’s move towards the approach has been well-documented. The brand’s ‘Content 2020’ strategy is to “move from creative excellence to content excellence” – a strategy that will see it rely less on traditional ad agencies for creative ideas, in favour of a collaborative approach to storytelling and content creation.
Coca-Cola is not the only brand to have moved in this direction. Red Bull has been equally aggressive, establishing its own media business – Red Bull Media House – as a “multi-platform media company with a focus on sports, culture and lifestyle… offering a wide range of premium media products and compelling content across media channels as diverse as TV, mobile, digital, audio and print”.
Locally, the AFL and, more recently, the NRL have set up their own media units to capitalise on the natural advantage that lies in their sporting content. The Commonwealth Bank is another to have set up its own news and content division.
With more than a thousand journalists made redundant during last year’s publishing miseries, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has been tracking the transformation of displaced writers into ‘brand journalists’ occupying ‘non-traditional’ content creation roles.
The industry body’s strategist for the future of journalism, Marcus Strom, says journalists used to move from one media company to another. “It’s different now: these journos can’t just move into what I would refer to as ‘traditional’ journalistic roles,” he says. He sees them moving into brand roles as “savvy companies are acting in news ways, creating content that will bring people to the brand.”
Craig Hodges, managing director of content creation firm King Content, believes brands should be hiring journalists to create this content. “Get a journalist in-house, and get them to map out a content strategy,” Hodges advises brands. “In a couple of years’ time, our clients will have journalists that work with us, much like they have marketing managers that work with the ad agencies.”
The power of love
The industry has long grappled with a way to forge deeper emotional connections with its audience.
Branded content is a path to achieving this. The true power in the approach is not just in being able to command an audience or cut through the clutter, but in being able to create an emotional connection between audience and brand.
A recent study on emotional branding by Murdoch University’s Audience Labs and the University of Wollongong found that emotionally-attached customers purchase up to 40 to 60% more than a regular customer.
The same study found that advertisers have struggled to create emotional connections, with attachment or ‘brand love’ residing in only about 25% of its 1000 participants.
Emotion has a stronger influence on purchase behaviour than more traditional measurements of ‘brand attitude’, such as favourability or trust, according to deputy director of Audience Labs, Dr Steve Bellman. “Our study shows that when companies tap into consumers’ deeper feelings, the pay-offs can be substantial,” Dr Bellman writes in the Journal of Advertising Research. “Those consumers who become bonded to the brand, those who regard it as a companion or those who admit that they feel something akin to love for the brand reward the marketer with substantially greater purchase and usage of the brand than if they merely develop a favourable attitude.”
Muddle believes good branded content puts a brand in the heart of a passion, while lending the scope to tell a story and connect. “If you take time to tell the consumer a story they want to hear, then they will understand who you are… I couldn’t tell you in 30 seconds who I was. But if I told you some good stories around a campfire, you would want to hear the whole three minutes. The more time you spend with me deep in conversation, the more you’re going to want to hang out.”
Some criticised the three-minute long ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ for taking so long to get such a short message across. “The rail deaths are 40 seconds of three minutes,” Mescall explains. “People said, ‘You buried it at the end’, but that’s 40 whole seconds of preaching about rail deaths. If you just bought a 45-second ad, there is no way that would have worked with 40 seconds of rail deaths.”
The animated video, which became the fastest spreading Australian viral video ever, uses subtle messaging. “We never actually say don’t do it. We allow people to know that’s a dumb thing to do, and no one wants to be dumb. If we told people don’t do it, it wouldn’t have worked as well. Advertising is control.
“Do this, buy this, don’t do that, own this, do this now, call us now; whereas the content model is all around an experience and the message, but not telling you. It’s involving you and showing you and making you feel something; it’s not telling.”
This is what branded content allows a brand to do, and is perhaps its biggest strength. Conveying a message in a laconic, implicit manner, with a likeability that taps into emotion, is far more powerful than telling someone how they should feel.
What the future holds
“Branded content is going to be the currency that rules our digital ecosystem over the next 12 to 18 months,” says senior brand manager at Schweppes, Ben Goss. The beverage manufacturer embarked on a major content play last year with cocktailrevolution.com.au, a site aimed at encouraging Australians to mix drinks at home, instead of defaulting to wine or beer.
Already Goss credits the initiative with boosting sales significantly. This year he plans to do more of it, with 29% of the brand’s spend to go to content and 24% to experiences, while traditional media spend has dropped from 60 to 47% in the past two years.
The future of content is looking increasingly longform online, and at the same time increasingly offline while becoming more integrated. Experiences will fuel consumer-generated content on digital and social channels, and become the basis of online videos, which in turn will get picked up by traditional media.
Mescall believes the model will move from pure entertainment to storytelling. “The art of storytelling is the most important thing in our business right now.
You can be just pure entertainment, and that’s the last refuge when your subject matter is of no interest to people. If you have something that’s of interest, you can have very immersive longer-format branded content – you can give them a deeper experience into it.”
CEO of agency Host, Anthony Freedman, sees growing success in the ‘webisode’, or short film, format. “We can now find audiences that are prepared to watch six and seven minutes’ worth of content that we’re distributing through digital channels, as long as the content stacks up,” Freedman says. His agency’s ‘Kiwi Sceptics’ campaign for Air New Zealand, a series of five six-minute episodes that followed personalities as their eyes were opened to what New Zealand had to offer, captured an audience willing to invest its time. As more long-form content moves online, and consumers get used to watching online channels, Freedman predicts lengthy content plays will become more widespread.
Muddle takes the idea one step further, going as far as to suggest branded content will move from the liability column to the asset column of the balance sheet. “Essentially you’re creating assets that don’t sit in a liability column – they become an asset that you can trade from. That’s the reason for being for people like Shine and Fremantle Media; why aren’t brands thinking the same way? Nothing is stopping us from writing the next Big Brother and selling that to different markets if we wanted to do that.”
Coca-Cola defines content as “the creation of stories that are to be expressed through every possible connection”. Each story must add value and significance to people’s lives. Brands that can create content that achieves this, while finding the intersection between the story and their message stand to forge deeper connections with their audiences.
Their message will take on a life of its own. With consumers addicted to entertaining themselves at every spare moment, and no longer in tune with traditional advertising, the marketing world looks set to move from paying its way, to earning it.