IAA | Branded Content: The Currency of Connection
Branded content
Tom Doctoroff

Branded Content: The Currency of Connection

The rise of "content" is a fundamental 21st century marketing phenomenon. But is "advertising," deliberate messages broadcast at one time to swathes of people, dead?

Certainly not. Marketers do not spend $250 billion per year on television commercials for sentimental reasons. They do so because brands require carefully crafted positioning and USPs (unique selling propositions) delivered to specific target audiences. But, today, no communications mix is complete without "content" -- that is, creative executions consumers can actively choose to "engage" with.

Content exists in all shapes and sizes. Red Bull’s invitation to observe Felix Baumgartner’s jump from space is compelling while Oral B’s Twitter feeds extolling the benefits of “the world’s first electronic toothbrush with blue tooth connectivity” is irrelevant. Domino’s downloadable pizza ordering app is transactional. Procter & Gamble’s celebration of mothers of Olympic champions is transcendent. Mattel’s catalogue-cum-catwalk display of Barbie ensembles is “of the product.” But infant forumla Dumex’s “1,000 Days of Partnership with New Chinese Mothers” is “of the heart.”

Yes, we still watch TV and read magazines. But we spend more waking hours surfing the web across an expanding array of devices. Liberated from television network schedules, we decide when, what and how we see and do. We play games, shop online and look at porn whenever and wherever we want. And the digital landscape is raucously democratic -- of the people, by the people, for the people.

Our creative work, therefore, must work harder to grab attention. Advertising competes with advertising. Content competes with life.

Even the best advertising is overtly commercial. Brands are stars of the show. Content, however, must be authentic. It must be rooted in passion, and understated in its transactional agenda. But content must also drive sales. “Worthy” content must earn peoples’ time. Worthy content is:

  1. Born of a brand idea;
  2. A gift, not an offer;
  3. Purposefully constructed to change behavior;
  4. User-centric – not “we tell you” but “you tell us.”

The Brand Idea: Unity in Chaos

Again, content exists in all shapes and sizes.

Lightweight” content – for example, a Skittles Facebook posting that says “Zombies never say YOLO” – is produced in quickly in “batches.”

Middleweight content” is “episodic,” often journalistic, and more expensive to produce. Cole Haan’s multimedia “Grit and Grace” series that associates the arts with craftsmanship was developed in partnership with journalists and videographers.

"Heavyweight" content boasts high production values and evokes a brand’s soul. Volvo’s 2013 video “Epic Split” dramatizes steering stability. Jean-Claude Van Damme is balanced between two accelerating trucks, with his feet resting on the side mirrors of each vehicle. The trucks gradually move apart, allowing Van Damme to majestically do the splits between the two trucks. Filmed at sunrise and set against a rousing soundtrack by Enya, the work is sublime.

In a helter-skelter universe of buzzy stimulation, consistency is divine. A clear brand idea, the relationship that evolves dynamically over time, provides gravitational force. Content not inspired by brand ideas devolves into digital dark matter.

Dove soap's content adds dimension to "Real beauty," a call for women to define attractiveness independent of society’s mandates. From twitter feeds that say no to hateful tweets on Oscar night to journalistic investigations into cyber bullying, Dove's content speaks with one voice. The exquisite "Sketches" experiment, for example, reveals the tendency of women to view themselves as less beautiful than they really are.

Coca-Cola's content makes "Moments of happiness" – small gestures that unite humanity -- more vivid. User-generated lightweight postings show pictures of people from different countries sharing a Coke. The brand's corporate website, is actually a journalistic content "hub." The Coca-Cola "Journey" incorporates articles on everything from “52 Songs of Happiness” and “The Importance of Family Dinners” to “My Dog Gus” and a “Pictures of Happiness” photo gallery. This digital real estate is also the most trafficked corporate website in the world.

Gifts, Not Offers

Great content presentation offer as gifts, demonstrations the marketer "knows me."

And good gifts are solutions to life. Brands can tap into three types of solutions: helping individuals in their daily lives (“me”), creating communities of like-minded souls (“we”), and broadening the horizons of a new global generation (“the world”).

Me. Individuals are receptive to ideas that entertain, enrich, or empower them. Brands can provide something useful or create a platform to show off talent. Rolex, rooted in “achievement from precision,” understands successful men and women want to demonstrate mastery. That’s why the brand’s episodic content – for example “Rolex and the Arts” and “Rolex and Yachting" – dives deep into connoisseurship and craftsmanship.

Under Armor challenges the incompatibility of beauty and strength. A gritty long-form film featuring supermodel Gisele Bundchen exhorts strong-willed women to visit iWillWhatiWant.com, a site with tips on how to reconcile athleticism and femininity.

We. Content can target individuals with common interests and join them into communities of like-minded enthusiasts.

Starting in 2010, Canon Australia’s “EOS Photochains” transformed photography from a solitary endeavor into a group passion. Offline advertising invited photographers to contribute to a continually growing chain of photos in which each shot inspired the next. The idea was an interpretation of Canon’s kyosei philosophy, of “living and working together for the common good.” Artistic inspiration spread from person to person, resulting in collective creation. More recently, the ALS association revolutionized non-profit fund raising through a shared experience. “The Ice Bucket Challenge” raised more than $100 million by rallying friends and families to actually experience how the disease feels.

The World. People want to plug into the world, to connect with humanity. Of course, idealism alone rarely turns a profit. "Cause” marketing not rooted in concrete product benefits is invariably ineffective. Unilever's germ-kill Lifebuoy soap, however, gets it. Its journalistic content "helps [underprivileged] kids reach five" by "saving lives through hand washing."

Chipotle Mexican Grill offers "food with integrity," aligning natural freshness with sustainability. Appetite and emotion are stirred with a film depicting a scarecrow’s search for virgin farmland accompanied by Fiona Apple’s “Pure Imagination.” In a separate app-based game, players earn points for free burritos by rescuing animals from life in cages.

Purpose, not Popularity

Gifts are not ends in themselves. Content should change behavior in a way that leads to sales. There are four behaviors marketers need to change: noticing more, learning more, buying more and advocating more-- that is, stimulating active recommendations.

Noticing. To capture attention, set pulses racing with surprise. TNT, a movie channel, staged a larger-than-life street drama. In the middle of a Belgian market square, pandemonium erupts when a passer-by hits an “add drama” button. The film became the second most shared viral video of all time.

"What-if" scenarios are unexpected. Almost a decade ago, Burger King’s “Whopper Freakout,” asked, “What if we took away America’s number one burger for a day?” The answer: both regret and anger. The fast-food chain also conducted an experiment by offering a free Whopper as an incentive to “unfriend” someone on Facebook. Coca-Cola’s viral “Vending Machine” video also falls into the what-if category. Viewers became voyeurs by observing the disorientation of students who expected a Coke but received free goodies instead.

Brands also use topicality to attract eyeballs. Notable examples include:

  • Kit Kat's sending Felix Baumgartner a "space break" chocolate bar as he experienced a weather delay before his skydive from the upper atmosphere.
  • Media management system Hootsuite's homage to Game of Thrones’ opening title sequence in which war between the show’s mythical kingdoms is contrasted to harmonization of social media platforms.
  • Oreo’s tweeting “Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark” immediately after a blackout at the 2013 Super Bowl.
  • Deutsche Telekom’s release of the “T-Mobile Royal Wedding” dance video to celebrate the 2013 marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. With the help of several royal look-alikes, the brand dramatized its tagline, “Life is for sharing,” in a larger-than-life way.

Content that is playfully naughty also attracts eyeballs. Wren, a casual clothing brand, produced a series of titillating videos showing different pairs of strangers -- young and old, tattooed and clean, gay and straight -- sharing a first kiss. Smart Automobiles, the manufacturer of easy-to-park small cars, startles audiences with cherubic children swearing a blue streak. Tongue-in-cheek narration explains, "When you drive the wrong car, you teach the wrong words."

Finally, content gets noticed by addressing "pain points." Johnson & Johnson produced Band Aid "Magic Vision," an augmented reality app in which Muppets laugh away the “ouch.” Procter & Gamble’s Pampers asks tired parents to tune into ZZZ FM, a radio station that broadcasts white noise so babies can sleep soundly.

Learning. Great content makes people experts in passions, not brands.

Johnson & Johnson’s The Baby Center attracts insecure mothers with advice about infant care. Its hub site "tracks baby's development week by week." General Mills launched Tablespoon.com to inspire culinary ingenuity with "food that's fun. " Recipes include pink velvet hot chocolate, piña colada jelly shots and French toast casserole. Adobe, the software company, beckons marketers to visit CMO.com where digital newbies gain insight written by and for experts.

Some content goes a step beyond "expertise" by allowing “VIP access” to privileged information. Microsoft Stories opens doors to behind-the-scenes discoveries at Microsoft Labs. Target's Bullseye turns ordinary shoppers into fashionistas with tutorial content covering fashion marketing, fashion design and collection design.

Buying. Programmatic buying yields the ability to target the "right people" at the "right time" at the "right place" – just when propensity to purchase is heightened.

As mobile phones become ubiquitous, e-commerce platforms are no longer optional.

But blind faith in algorithmic salvation is dangerous. “Big data” can inform when, where and how we buy, but not why.

A human truth: online shoppers want immediate gratification. One out of ten people check his or phone every five minutes. The Internet has usher in an era of see-it-need-it impatience. "Hook up" sites such as Tinder, not to mention Chinese and gay equivalents Momo and Grindr, are testaments to click-to-satisfy urgency.

Brand content should facilitate transactions as soon as desire is aroused. Through streaming video, L'Oreal Paris invites people to enjoy front rows seat at the Cannes film festival red carpet shows. QR codes enable spectators to "recreate any look, quickly." Mr. Porter, an online men fashion retailer, publishes an e-magazine with articles, photography and videos glamorizing Northeast American lifestyle. Swiping models’ clothes reveal product details, pricing and the “buy” button.

Purchase can also be encouraged with high-tech content that simulates product ownership. Hyundai Elantra's "Driveway Decision Maker" uses Google Street View so buyers can see how different models and colors of the car appear in “your very own driveway.” L'Oreal's Make-Up Magic Mirror, a downloadable app available at cosmetic counters, lets users experiment with different make-up combinations without the hassle of actual application.

Advocating. Active recommendations become more likely within avid brand communities. Apple has enjoyed extraordinary success because it has accrued a fan base like no other. The website Mac|Life recently ran a list, the “50 Reasons We Love Apple.” The iPod ranked eighth, the iPhone fourth; even Steve Jobs, an icon of the twenty-first century, came in at only number three. The number one reason why Mac|Life loves Apple is its community of loyal devotees. “Apple may be a company, but it’s the community that’s gathered around that company that makes it special,” the website noted.

One way to enhance advocacy is to align product with purpose. Procter & Gamble's Whisper, a feminine hygiene product, conducted a social experiment to shatter traditional perceptions of what it means be "like a girl." Lane Bryant created a movement to redefine conventional beauty. The retailer's #ImNoAngel content showcased its plus-size lingerie using large models with obvious pride in their Rubenesque curves.

Some brands actually build new community platforms. Mobile technologies took Nike from an aspirational to a shared brand experience. Their suite of services helps consumers live their “Just do it” ambition by joining the Nike+ community. In the words of Stefan Olander, Nike’s vice president of digital sport, “It’s an emotional connection to myself, and my achievement, and my friends. We’ve now created an entire ecosystem of services that complement the product.”

“You Tell Us,” Not “We Tell You”

Finally, content should be user-centric. To enhance authenticity, brands most move from an era of “we tell you” to “you tell us.” They must release voices of real folks with “user generated content.” But, in doing so, marketers must avoid forfeiting their power to frame the debate. By providing people with a creative platform to facilitate “earned” content, brands enjoy “freedom in a framework” – that is, liberating self-expression while supporting clear brand and creative messages.

In the Philippines, the Ministry of Tourism used invited Filipinos to tell the world why “it’s more fun in the Philippines.” They were given an artistic “template” with pre-designed font, headline placement and visual treatment. Within four months, 55,000 individual executions and 45.9 million Google image results were generated, all consistent with the spirit of the campaign but without the starchiness of typical travel advertising.

Puerto Rico’s Banco Popular also harnessed people power to maximize authenticity. The bank orchestrated a social campaign featuring dozens of ordinary people that also spurred the island to “move forward.” Small business owners were invited to promote their products and services. To ensure consistent executional standards, the bank built a full-fledged production studio. From a dread-locked cycler who “sells the best bike brands” to woman in clown garb who “puts on the best kiddie shows,” people got their message out. More than 140 short films and a series of fifty print ads, each adopting the same visual style and storytelling format, were produced within a week. They were then placed on the bank’s social media platforms and eventually on broadcast media.

In Conclusion

In an era of consumer empowerment and technological liberation, content competes with life. Unlike advertising – which is still fundamental in building brands – content must be authentic and intimate, yet still drive sales. Marketers should abide by four principles. “Worthy” content is: a) born of a long-term brand idea, b) a gift, or solution to life, not an offer, c) designed to change specific behaviors as people progress through a shopper journey and d) user-centric -- that is, “you tell us” not we tell you.”


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