Branded Content great way to build brand narrative, but choose partners wisely

Yesterday (29th Nov 2018) was Branded Content Day. As far as I know it wasn’t a global event, but for a group of pioneering creators and marketers, it was an annual chance to celebrate the achievements of individuals and agencies working in the sector. It was also an opportunity to debate the impact branded content is having on popular culture and business.

Given branded content now represents a notable part of DriveTribe’s business model, I headed along to Shoreditch, London, to hear a panel discussion moderated by Andrew Canter, CEO of the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA). On the panel were Graham Hayday, from content and video agency Nemorin, Claire Bartolomeo, VP Content from Vice+, Rebecca Allen, Global Head of Branded Content at the Drum and George Webster EMEA Content Marketing Lead at HP.

So what is branded content? I used to think arguing the nuances of native advertising versus advertorial was excitement enough, but branded content seems to represent an altogether bigger league. While the former tends to occur in managed, conventional media channels like TV, newspapers, magazines and media owner web sites - places where “sponsored by / in association with” references can be plainly seen – branded content occurs on a far wider scale: the internet at large. As such, it wraps up all the aforementioned channels, together with amateur producers and influencers on social platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, DriveTribe and a universe of other digital channels. It is quite simply a wild west. A place where, on the plus side, brands can be positioned in a user-to-user context, imparting a personal and authentic peer to peer authenticity. While on a more eyebrow raising basis, it’s a potentially unregulated environment that could make GDPR a mere sideshow.

Back to the debate. What makes branded content so powerful? The overwhelming perspective -at least on the panel discussion- was the opportunity that video provides. Apparently 88% of people watch video online every day, 64% of people make a purchase after watching branded content video. Specifically, it’s the emotive capability of video; as one panel member said, he’d read a newspaper obituary for someone famous the day before, it moved him. He watched a video obituary on the same person and it reduced him to tears.

While video is undeniably powerful, there was a widespread view that the world doesn’t need more video, it needs better video. Video that stands out. One example was HP printers use of Hollywood actor Christian Slater, playing the role of a hacker to demonstrate HP’s leadership in printer security. It’s a campaign that has “moved the dial”, driving positive measurable associations towards HP’s position on corporate security. The campaign took an arguably dull subject and created a storyline that threaded into their corporate strategy in a way that audiences could find relevant and engaging.

Another key aspect was the suggestion that brands should communicate regularly, building a narrative with the “Tribes” they’re trying to reach. In fact, the often-quoted reference to "Tribes" – their words not mine – was a pleasing metaphor that chimed with our proposition at DriveTribe, conveying the importance of distribution and connecting with communities as part of a content strategy. As Claire Bartolomeo from Vice said, choosing the right channels for distribution is key – the focus should be engagement as a target metric; it’s better to have 10k completed views through a genuinely engaged distribution channel, than 1m partially watched videos.

On the subject of distribution, there was much chat about the need to produce multiple versions of a single video, tailoring for each respective channel – delivering via Instagram is very different from YouTube, in turn very different from a Media Owner’s platform. Speaking from DriveTribe’s perspective, we can produce over a dozen versions of a single video to ensure it effectively amplifies a message beyond our own platform. Such an approach gives Clients a genuine opportunity to “own” a set of assets that they can re-use to fit multiple destinations. Bartolomeo from Vice expanded on the theme by suggesting brands should work with creative partners and publishers that they can trust, those that know what audiences want to see and how they should adapt the message for each extended channel.

Building narratives and amplifying via multiple channels is all very well, but all effort is wasted if the creative falls short and the video underwhelms. There are plenty of examples that the panel seemed reluctant to expose, but there was common agreement that the remedy lies in brands taking creative risks. Aiming for standout. One panel member suggested a potential tactic is to work with Freaks – casting people in your video that stop you in your tracks, sit up and take note. People and creative treatments that convey an exaggerated view on life, get away from the bland and present a distinctive point of view.

What’s next in the world of branded content? The panel variously mentioned Facebook Live, ad-blocking and more consistency / regulation on how to label sponsored content. On the latter, the emphasis should be on brands producing genuinely powerful pieces of content that they are proud to put their “sponsored by” name against, rather than feeling their creative licence is impeded by the need to carry an accompanying disclaimer.

Rebecca Allen from the Drum also referenced personalisation as a potential next step in content delivery, an approach that puts trusted media owners and publishers in a stronger position to leverage data in the delivery process. Perhaps on a contrary level, there was also a suggestion that the use of influencers may shift towards use of trusted celebrity-oriented personalities and influencers, alongside a broader extended mix of micro-influencers. Such an approach would perhaps reduce exposure to a murky middle tier of Influencer profiles stoked up with purchased -as opposed to genuine – follower networks.

All in all, there was a feeling that the wild west of branded content delivery presents significant opportunities for brave brands. A genuine way to turn brand objectives into meaningful narratives that resonate with audiences. That said, there are pitfalls to avoid that legislation fails to guard against – notably, how to choose influencers able to support genuine reach and engagement, and how to choose the right personalities to fit with your brand.

Navigating these challenges will require flexibility and cooperation between brands, agencies, video production houses and publishers. The key is to understand who the trusted partners are and, importantly, who can produce content that genuinely stands out and gets noticed.

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