A number of common themes resonated across the various industry panel discussions of Advertising Week 2011; namely, the creation of branded content, project sustainability, innovation, risk and failure, collaborative branding, and segmentation and targeting.
The Coca-Cola Company recently unveiled their new over-arching advertising strategy Liquid & Linked, in which they aim to create advertisements “so contagious they cannot be controlled” whilst relevant to business objectives and consumer interests. Part of this strategy focuses on a transition from the production of advertising “creative” to “content.” At Day 3’s Brands as Content/Content as Brands, Guy Duncan, Coca-Cola’s Global Creative Director, defined his organisation’s interpretation of content as “powerful stories that command a disproportionate share of popular culture that add value to our customer’s lives.” But outside of well-crafted definitions, what really is branded content and why should we be encouraging our clients to invest in its development and maintenance?
Consumers, under the influence of an abundance of new technology, now live their lives immersed in an interactive media environment in which they can freely communicate and engage with both each other and brands. With the world becoming increasingly connected, almost everything is becoming a platform for marketing, requiring brands to communicate with their consumers in fundamentally different ways. Whilst the days of one-directional TVC and print ad communication are far from over, brands must now also make a move to the various other arenas in which their consumers now reside – which means embracing the many dynamic and creative opportunities provided by the digital world.
Consumers however, due to the nature of these digital platforms, are not looking for the equivalent of a 30-second spot – that’s what TV is still for – they want something useful or entertaining (preferably both), interactive and engaging, simple, authentic and that they can share with their friends. One major benefit of content that meets these criteria, complemented by a strong idea or story, is that it will not necessarily be distinguished, or negatively met, by audiences as ‘advertising’. Such material can come in an ever-widening variety of forms, limited only by the developer’s creativity and the technology available. Examples range from blogs such as the American Express Open Forum, a collaborative platform providing essential news and information to inform and inspire small businesses, to organic series such as Denny’s Always Open, a series of 3-minute webisodes featuring a some of TVs funnymen conversing over a Denny’s meal, to smartphone applications such as Volkswagen’s Golf GTI iPhone app, a Golf GTI-based racing game with a prize-incentivised social network-linked live leader board.
Development of such content should not be viewed as a cheap alternative to traditional productions due to the relatively inexpensive nature of digital broadcast or distribution, for high quality and effective content will require still require production budgets on a par to those of traditional media. The costs for digital, however, need not skyrocket unnecessarily, especially when multiple projects may be in development simultaneously. Many stories can be told effectively via collaborations with already existing digital platforms, and similarly high quality content can be produced cost-effectively via collaborations with pre-existing media producers and publishers.
Finally, branded content requires agencies to redefine their concept of a ‘campaign’. Where advertisers may previously have released a TVC as the central focus of a campaign, and added several supporting elements in other media, today’s media fragmentation calls for the development of a greater quantity of smaller projects that all work together under a single strategic umbrella. This is not a single concept translated for different media, but significantly different creative executions that may individually or collaboratively tell the campaign story. It is also important to understand now that content produced is no longer a finished product; instead the start of an evolving conversation with the consumer. Well-executed content and platforms have potential to run for years to come, and so span far greater than the traditional concept of a ‘campaign’. As a result advertisers may be able to change their output to less-frequent but larger projects that must be budgeted appropriately to be both ‘always on’ and in a constant state of evolution for the foreseeable future. Producing articles daily for a newspaper is not considered ‘maintenance’, in a similar fashion such sustainable projects call for agencies to redefine ‘maintenance’ as ‘core business’ and either dedicate employees to being content creators or identify means and ways to outsource such roles to external organisations or back to the client.
Innovation, Risk & Failure
Branded digital content, much like the technology it is built upon, will require constant evolution and innovation to stay current and engaging. According to Jeff Benjamin, Chief Creative Officer at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, “if you are not inventing, you’re not going to be around for long” – something true for both brands and the agencies behind them. Agencies need to encourage innovation and ‘different’ thinking to spur on the conceptualization and development of the ‘next big thing’ in advertising. They should not be following in the footsteps of other agency projects, reworking a tried and tested story for our clients, but be on the forefront creating their own ideas. In order to achieve such goals agencies will have to be more ‘scrappy’, making the most of the creative opportunities that may arise from the current climate of smaller budgets, increased media fragmentation and greater competition for both consumer attention and client accounts. Additionally, agencies would need to engage in more mitigated risk-taking, taking chances on innovative projects with less research backing, taking chances their our own staff’s insights and capabilities and looking for new talent in more unconventional places (e.g. software engineering).
Innovation and risk-taking do ultimately result in failure, yet advertisers should strive to embrace failure as a healthy sign that they are taking creative brand and agency propelling risks. However, failure on all accounts is clearly not an option, for agencies are not in a position to gamble their clients money, therefore only an agreed percentage of campaign budget should be invested in such innovative ‘high risk/high reward’ projects.
According to Adam Connor, Facebook’s Associate for Privacy and Global Public Policy, “people are the new marketing channel,” and so the time has come for all relevant brands to become an authentic, engaging and useful part of the conversation on social media platforms. Whether this driven be organically, through earned or owned media, or forcibly, through bought media, all platform adoption must be centered around the brand’s consumer base, owning the brand name on the platforms consumers engage with most frequently.
Advertisers must ensure that brands not use their social media positions as a platform for sales pitches, but instead to engage consumers for more than just basic sales transactions. Social media enables consumer collaboration, expression and collaborative branding, whereby the brand can make use of its dedicated customers skills and intelligence to expand the brand and develop stronger and more personal relationships. One essential element of this is consumer feedback, whereby the social media platforms can act as a CRM and consumer listening tool that require both verbal and, most importantly, actionable responses. Many brands worry about social media and collaboration resulting in a loss of control, however the contrary is true as if people want to play with what you have created it reflects the strength, power and contagiousness of your ideas.
Segmentation & Targeting
The much loved targeting tactic of reaching out to the influencers in society has become a far simpler process in recent years with the various social media platforms (e.g. blogs, vlogs, social networks) enabling a public self-identification of their societal positions. An influencer, once perceived to be a “mythical beast” by advertisers, is now defined as an individual with an authentic voice, obsessed with a particular behavior/thing that resonates with the target audience, and who will never compromise their position. These individuals are the leaders of passionate micro-segment online ‘tribes’ who hold a crucial role in the organic, word-of-mouth, promotion of brands and products. It is important that advertisers develop and maintain a brand relationship with the individuals within these tribes, not only to sell the brand but also to ensure they remain passionate about their areas of brand-relevant interest.
Additionally, in developing campaigns with ‘segments’, ‘consumer demographics’ and ‘data mining’ advertisers can easily loose sight of the ads true purpose – to talk to people. When segmenting advertisers must think of the actual people in those groups as more than numbers and classification, being sure to understand their culture and viewpoints. For example we may classify individuals simply as ‘bald’, ignoring the delicate semiotic differences between ‘bald’, ‘balding’ and ‘shaved’ that are important to that particular community. Finally, I is important for advertisers to step back from their work every now and then to consider whether they would be interested in the ad as people themselves, and whether they would wish to share this ad with friends or family – if the answer is no, something has gone wrong.