Justin Kirby at Golden Drum on the future of branded content

- in ARTICLES, FEATURES, Future and beyond


Over the last year, I have been asking a diverse group of marketing experts from around the world what they think will be different about branded content in five years’ time and what they think will remain the same.

The responses have ranged from 140-character slogans to novel-length epics, which I collated in a report published earlier this year in the Best of Branded Content Marketing: 10th Anniversary Edition e-book, part of a series he conceived and curate in partnership with the BCMA.

Last week, I shared the key themes from the report as well as some of the insights and opinions from my latest research at the 21st Golden Drum ad festival in Slovenia, including:

  • how branded content will be at the heart of every marketing strategy
  • the new (open and collaborative) agency models emerging
  • the need for strategy to go beyond the desk and dashboard to find real insight and opportunities
  • measurement, personalisation, optimisation trends and beyond.

This was an update on an article I’d written for Contagious earlier this year, and I have included my presentation below together with my notes:

I start by asking WTF is #brandedcontent? As people like to say on Facebook ‘it’s complicated’, and that’s because there’s a whole host of competing terms being bandied about like branded entertainment, content marketing, brand publishing and more.

I’ve discussed the nuances of these terms in the Yin & Yang of Branded Content Marketing section in the latest edition of the Best of Branded Content Marketingebook. This was based on a discussion with serial award jurist and head honcho of the BCMA’s Scandinavian Chapter Jan Godsk. But perhaps a good place to start is the definition that was developed by Oxford Brookes University in conjunction withIpsos MORI:

Branded content is any content that can be associated with a brand in the eye of the beholder

The definition was developed on behalf of the BCMA as part of the Defining Branded Content for the Digital Age study they commissioned. Now it maybe correct from a customer perspective, but it’s not true from an industry one, particularly if you want to win some tin at one of the growing number of awards that have a branded content and entertainment category.

Branded Content is a Genre?
More recently, I’ve been speaking with the likes of serial award winner PJ Pereira of Periera & O’Dell, and Cannes Lions Branded Content and Entertainment Jury Presidents Scott Donaton at UM and Avi Savar at Big Fuel. These interviews form part of an article I’m writing for Contagious that looks at how the category is judged, because if you look at those examples that are winning awards for branded content (e.g. Metro Trains Dumb Ways to Die, Intel & Toshiba The Beauty Inside, Dove Real Beauty Sketches, Chipotle The Scarecrow, etc), then they appear to be part of a genre that has some of the following characteristics:

  • More about people rather than product stories
  • Used more upstream to win of hearts & minds rather than for direct response and immediate sales
  • The content is more emotionally engaging and entertaining, video based and longer form
  • It’s mostly used in B2C

The Rest is Content Marketing?
The point being that the branded content award winners above appear to be in a very different category to the usual suspects that get described as being examples of content marketing. The latter tend to have the following characteristics:

  • More product USP focused
  • More editorially informative and useful, hence also being known as brand publishing
  • Used more downstream closer to Google’s Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT), hence often being more sales focused, linked to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and used in B2B

There are some that see ‘branded content’ as being a sub-set of the broader ‘content marketing’ category. Others see ‘branded content’ and ‘content marketing’ being the two sides of the ‘branded content marketing’ coin, with ‘branded content’ being more about brand and ‘content marketing’ being more about marketing.

But do consumers care?
The discussion about what is and isn’t branded content is unlikely to be of interest to consumers, which is why I asked the audience at the Golden Drum festival whether intermarché’s ‘Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables’ initiative was branded content and whether consumers cared:

I also mentioned this example because it’s part of the trend identified by Trendwatching.com of consumers wanting brands to make sacrifices in order to make the world a better place rather than do it themselves, which linked into the next section of my presentation about what else is on the horizon:

Branded content will be at the heart of every marketing strategy
As Periera & O’Dell‘s Chief Creative Officer PJ Pereira points out:

The ability of content to draw people in naturally through entertaining and emotionally engaging messaging to develop deeper relationships with audiences is why is more clients will adopt more branded content as part of their marketing strategies.

But adoption is also being driven by digital and social, more standardized processes, and high-profile examples – making the approach less isolated and more integrated, rather than an afterthought whereby engagement is simply bolted onto an above-the-line campaign.

Some even see content-based approaches moving beyond marketing to become the communication norm across the organisation. But there is a general consensus that brands need to take more risks:

Whether they’ll be taking the kind of risks Danny Macaskill takes in his new film The Ridge remains to be seen, but perhaps it will prompt brands to think about longer form content, and maybe even full length features, e.g. The LEGO® Movie.

New agency models will emerge
New agency models are predicted, but Ogilvy Group UK’s Rory Sutherland heeds caution in my recent interview with him about What’s the use of long-form branded content:

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.

I’d recommend collaboration, or 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.

More agency-facilitated brand alliances
There’s an increasing demand for those that understand editorial and programming, e.g. publishers and broadcasters, in order to produce continuous content rather than campaigns based simply on ideas with legs.

Contract publishing is also evolving, so that the content creators are become agencies themselves, e.g. Unilever’s £1 million sponsorship of The Guardian’s newly formed branded content Labs.

In fact, there’s more game-changing disruption predicted ahead that will continue to blur the lines between brands, media owners, agencies and consumers until there are no lines any more.

That’s why the Andrew Canter of Global Living Brands and CEO of the BCMA thinks that the most influential brands are no longer products or services, but people – living brands:

They have become influential through digital word of mouth. The influence a living brand has over their fans is part of their overall equity. It is their social equity that can be monetised by making the brand stronger, by increasing loyalty and using advocacy to create long-term value.

But there’s a growing problem, messages are not only getting lost in the over supply of content and lack of continuity. For Doug Kessler at Velocity Partners the problem is only going to get worse:

As every B2B brand turns to content marketing, we’re about to be hit by a deluge of… crap

That’s why the solution is seen as putting distribution at the heart of any strategy. There is, however, a growing skills gap as explained by Th@t Lot’s MD Barney Worfolk Smith in my recent interview with him about it being the time for the redefining of creative and media:

On one hand there are the ideas, content and messaging. Then there’s the actual frameworks and mechanisms for delivering those, which have swiftly become more algorithmic, programmatic and predictive in order to help personalise and optimise content across multiple platforms. But the modern landscape is more fractured and very complex, and doesn’t necessarily favour the thinking that comes out of more traditional media and creative organisations.

And as Barney also pointed out the creative catalyst that gives us cars rather than faster horses is not found in the algorithm of more predictive and programmatic technologies that help to personalise and optimise content across multiple platforms.

The answer instead maybe to take a leaf out of the philosophies of Heidegger and Wittgenstein, so “don’t think, but look” and frame your problems as phenomena using ethnographic-style research to find insights in the Thick Description of people’s experiences, e.g. needs, fears, hopes, etc.

That’s the advice of Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen from the Danish Management Consultants ReD Associates:

Because if you assume that your customers are fully aware of their needs and intentions, you will continue launching products that lack interest or excitement.

They are the co-authors of The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems book published by HBR Press. I recently interviewed Christian and hope to be writing an articles that will look at how ‘Thick Description and Big Data’ will become more integrated. In the meantime, you might want to check out their recent Google Talk:

Their book forms part of the reemergence of Philosophy as an applied method, but as my colleague Drew Rayman at Tenthwave points out it’s also about moving beyond customer-centric to being customer obsessed:

Being customer obsessed by digging deeper and going beyond the desk and dashboard enables brands to out-innovate their competitors by offering more authentic, relevant and personal customer experiences.

Big data might help you to understand the ‘where’ and ‘when’, but it’s unlikely to show you the ‘why’.

Here’s a little case study from the US baking brand Duncan Hines® my Tenthwave colleagues worked on to give some context. There’s lots of (analytics) data that shows that bakers look at recipes online, but when we dug deeper we found that what they really really want is to show they care, express their love and lots of inspiration.

Understanding that it was inspiration that bakers were looking for rather than recipes was the catalyst for building a Pinterest-style responsive website solution with predictive search provides. This platform as solution allows bakers to to share their ideas, resulting in 80% of all content now being user-generated. Average visit length have now jumped 50% with the digital community tripling in just 20 months to 1.75 million – helping bakers bake more, as well as resulting in a namecheck for Duncan Hines® in NASDAQ’s Bull of the Day for investors, and a number of awards for Tenthwave (see more here).

The rising new technology stars, and how market research is about to get turned on its head:
As highlighted in my future of branded content marketing report, people won’t stop shifting to new media properties and platforms, so we’ll continue to see new tactics and technologies in branded content marketing, such as wearable tech, hyper geo-location, mnemonic gestures, the ‘Internet of Things’ and the growth in 3D Publishing.

But there are other challenges posed by the fragmented media landscape, even before brands start looking at shiny new things and beyond as Ian Wright at Tapestry Research explains:

Brands are now faced with a dual challenge of not only trying to understand how individual channels or touchpoints work on a micro level, but also how they all fit together on a holistic level to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Tim Foley at Pointlogic looks further ahead and predicts that market research is about to get turned on its head by the explosion of more data:

The upshot is that we won’t be aggregating audiences around their demographics, but will instead be ‘valuing individuals based on purchase probabilities’. This would radically change how media works, as well as who should be on the team to deliver and evaluate it.

Some see the only thing that will remain constant is the desire for good stories, but others like Scott Donaton at UM argue that if you believe in story-led marketing, that changes everything about how you 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 skillsets of the people they hire. They have to change the timeframes they work on. They have to change the way they allocate and think about budgets. They have to change their definition of creativity.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
It will, however, still all be about relationships as as Charlene Li at Altimeter Group explains:

Marketing fundamentals will remain the same, namely that the relationship with customers and clients will be built one person at a time. We can’t be blinded by the light of bright shiny objects to ever, ever forget that relationships are paramount.

Update: I was also interviewed by the Golden Drum team and you can see this here.