Interview with Avi Savar of Big Fuel

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As mentioned in my recent interviews with PJ Pereira and Scott Donaton, l’ve been speaking to industry experts as part of my WTF is branded content? It’s complicated article for Contagious. These transcripts were originally publishing as part of a series on LinkedIn, and the third is with Big Fuel‘s Founding Partner Avi Savar who was President of the Cannes Lions inaugural Branded Content & Entertainment Jury in 2012. It’s hoped that this series of interviews will prompt further discussion about what branded content is and isn’t, and how is it is different from branded entertainment, content marketing and all the other related terms being bandied about like native advertising.

Awarding a Grand Prix at Cannes
Avi explained that the jury in 2012 spent a lot of time discussing what branded content is, what it means and how it’s defined. It was the inaugural Cannes Lions Branded Content & Entertainment award, and a lot of the work they saw was considered to be glorified advertising rather than branded content. That’s why it doesn’t surprise him that there was no Grand Prix awarded this year, despite the 1,200 entries that were submitted. But he said that his 2012 jury did see some great work that was considered worthy of Gold, Silver, or Bronze Lions and even a Grand Prix:

We did award a Grand Prix and we awarded it to Creative Artists Agency who built the content platform for Chipotle, which included music, video, digital, and games. The reason why I certainly advocated that particular work was because it was a content platform not a particular campaign.

He says there was a lot of debate about awarding Chipotle the Grand Prix, but the reason he thinks it deserved to be put on a pedestal was because it delivered lots of different types of content rather than just one campaign or programme. For example, he explains that another contender that year was the Qantas work that won Gold. This included a number of episodes as part of a series with a well-thought-out distribution plan. He thought this was excellent too, but he thinks that what set the Chipotle work apart was the broader thinking that delivered a song, video and game from a content platform that was at the heart of the strategy.

The difference between advertising and branded content
Avi thinks the jury in 2012 was on the same page about how they distinguished brand content from advertising, and one of the distinctions he introduced was the difference between ‘people’ and ‘product’ stories:

Traditional advertising is about delivering features, benefits and a USP through a product story, and then finding creative ways to connect that to people. Branded content is sort of the reverse of this. It’s about starting with people stories first – so what are the things that can help brands connect with the hearts and minds of their audience – and then thinking about how you can creatively link that to your product.

It may only be a nuance but Avi says the product versus ‘People Story First’ is the formula he uses to define the difference between branded content and advertising. For him, it’s all about “what’s primary”, e.g. is selling the primary purpose or is it about entertaining and/or being helpful. Avi looks at this like a bridge with Show Me/Sell Me on one side and Help Me/Entertain Me on the other. Show Me/Sell Me is about showing and/or selling a product to an audience, whereas Help Me/Entertain Me is about teaching audiences something, or making them laugh, cry, etc:

Advertising starts with Show Me/Sell Me, and then tries to figure [that] out in a helpful and entertaining manner. Branded content starts with Help Me/Entertain Me and creatively figures out how to connect it to the product in order to sell.

The difference between branded content and content marketing
Avi thinks that branded content and content marketing are very similar, but he sees content marketing often being more B2B orientated, and helping with SEM and driving SEO. He sees it linked to business ROI goals, and where brands create content on a regular basis that establishes their tone of voice with output such as white papers, best practice guides, newsletters, blog posts, etc. He also thinks content marketing can be used to entertain clients and prospects, but he’d mostly put it in the ‘Help Me’ bucket – where businesses provide something that’s helpful and relevant to customers rather than just pitch their products and services.

Interestingly, Avi thinks that branded content is part of content marketing, rather than being two sides of the same content coin. This was something that I discussed in the second edition of the Best of Branded Content Marketing ebook with the BCMA’s Scandinavian Chapter head Jan Godsk, who was also on the same Cannes Jury as Avi.

From an agency perspective, Avi thinks that content marketing has come to describe the kind of content that gets published through social and other channels on a regular basis, and for what he describes as the ‘blocking and tackling’ that goes on day-to-day. When agencies are talking about branded content within the context of creative awards like Cannes Lions, then he thinks that’s about big, juicy, consumer-facing programmes that try and deliver messages at scale.

As with my previous interview with UM’s Chief Content Officer Scott Donaton, we discussed the Oreo’s ‘You Can Still Dunk In The Dark‘ Super Bowl tweet that Avi thinks is content marketing:

I think the idea of relevant and real time is definitely in that content marketing bucket. It’s about what am I putting on my social channels, what are people talking about today that I can respond and react to. How am I engaging with an audience and doing it in a relevant way. That’s part of content marketing.

He sees the Oreo Super Bowl example as more of a creative execution rather than a campaign. The campaign for him was the broader programme surrounding the Super Bowl, with a team being ready to respond and react in real-time:

Their campaign was having a bunch of people ready at the Super Bowl to talk about what was going on during it, and the result of that was really smart creative being deployed in real time.

People Stories First and the 6AM Test
Avi doesn’t think there’s a difference between the way storytelling is used in branded content and content marketing. He thinks they are both People Story-led. For instance, the Oreo example mentioned above is one that he thinks is People Story-led because the creative execution connected the product to the lights going out at the Super Bowl, which is what people were talking about:

I think that’s actually a very good example of why it resonated so well, because it was relevant and people stories are relevant. Product stories are not relevant unless you are Apple and it’s about your new phone release, which is a people story because so many people care about it. If I’m a cookie nobody is talking about me on a regular basis unless you’re a 12 year old dunking it in your milk while talking to your mom, and then it’s only relevant because you are eating it.

Avi explains that one way of thinking about this is the 6AM test that he used to talk about when he first started out. The idea being to think about what people are talking about when they get up in the morning, because they will have different things on their mind:

People don’t care about your value propositions. You have to earn the right to talk about whether your features and benefits are of interest by first connecting with people about what they care about the most.

For example, with mothers he says it all about figuring out a way to help them start their day off in a more meaningful way than ‘today is the day you get to use toothpaste with 20% more fluoride’. Some examples like the Oreo tweet are more product heavy, but he thinks it worked because it was very relevant given that everyone was talking about the lights going out during the Super Bowl. That’s why he thinks it cut through in a way that hadn’t really been achieved socially before, and why the People Story First formula is the same whether you’re doing branded content or content marketing. So for Avi, even a white paper or conference put together by a tech company for Chief Information Officers can be People Story-based, particularly if it helps with career or professional development:

If I’m a CIO waking up in the morning, I have a job I go to every day and I want my career to advance. If someone like Microsoft or Oracle puts out a piece of content that helps me do my job better, then that’s a People Story and one that’s highly relevant to me.

We discussed the Volvo Trucks Epic Split campaign featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme, which he thinks is an ad rather than branded content. Interestingly, the work forms part of the wider Volvo Trucks Live Test Series, which was awarded the Grand Prix for the Branded Content & Entertainment award at Eurobest last year by the jury chaired by PJ Pereira who I interviewed recently. The work was also included in the second edition of the Best of Branded Content Marketing ebook I curate. Avi thinks it’s a very good ad and that the best ads are inherently great content, and he says that’s why the Super Bowl is the Holy Grail of advertising:

If you watch Super Bowl commercials they have more people stories than any other part of the year, and that’s why so many Super Bowl ads win awards. And if you look at a Super Bowl ad you see they are a blend of content and advertising because they’re funny, or they’re entertaining, or they’re helpful and not just about “Choosy Moms Choose Jif”. So those are the ads that people talk about because they are relevant and so people care, and the Jean-Claude Van Damme Epic Split is a good example of that.

He’s not sure how relevant the ad was to Volvo Trucks because he wonders whether people walked away talking about Jean-Claude Van Damme rather than the brand behind it. However, he thinks it was certainly “water cooler” because it sparked conversations. Avi thinks that water cooler advertising is content to some degree, because it is relevant and about people-driven stories that people talk about. The problem he sees with these types of campaigns is that they may become more memorable than the brand behind them, as did the hugely successful Subservient Chicken viral. He still thinks they’re great content, but the art of branded content for Avi is actually making the work be both memorable and relevant to the brand:

Relevancy is the intersection of what is important to people and what they want to talk about, but it’s also got to be relevant and important to the brand, otherwise it’s useless.

Three factors for creating great content
We also discussed the three factors that Avi and his team have distilled for making great content:

  1. Personal
  2. Relevant
  3. Value

Personal Factor: This is about how the thing you create, or the message you want to communicate, needs to be personal in nature. Put simply, it’s about who are you talking to, and the more specific you are the better. For example, if you are a toothpaste manufacturer then in general anyone with teeth is your audience, but as Avi explains you have to drill down further in order to make content relevant. So if your audience is mothers, then is it single mothers in urban areas, or another specific group? He thinks this is important because the more specific you can get with content, the more relevant it becomes and as a result you can tell more meaningful stories:

Being personal is first and foremost about who I am talking to, and understanding what they care about. That’s everything because I’m leading with People Stories, and until I know who the people are I have no idea what’s relevant to them.

So for Avi, the Personal Factor is the number one consideration because the more he can make his content like a rifle shot rather than a shotgun the better it will be. What he really wants to do is take aim and say he’s speaking to a group that’s as specific as CIOs in Fortune 100 companies. Once he knows the specifics of the people he’s speaking to, he can start figuring out what they care about. This is about finding out what’s on their mind when they get up at 6AM, or whatever time they get up, because he thinks there will be some continuity across the group. Once he’s extrapolated that insight he can start to ideate, and the more personal the better.

Relevance Factor: The second factor is relevance. Once Avi knows who he’s speaking to and understands what it is they care about, he can start to figure out how a brand connects to them. That core piece of relevance for Avi is the intersection of what people care about, what that personal thing is, and what is relevant to the brand. If it’s not connected back to the brand he says there’s no point in doing it – it’s got to be about being relevant to both what people care about and what brands care about.

Value Factor: This is about needing to elicit a response from the people you’re talking to, so it has to be of value to them:

Content is valuable to people and advertising is not. Advertising is about the brand, its features and benefits, and it’s about selling. Content is about providing value to your audience. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them think, tell them something they don’t know, show them something they didn’t know, teach them how to do something, make their life better in some way, shape, or form.

He says that even giving a coupon or a freebie is valuable, and so that’s one form of content if you can frame it properly. But he thinks the true of art content is figuring out what’s valuable to the audience you’ve defined in a way that’s relevant to them but also connects back to you.

The Mad Libs™ version of content strategy
Personal, Relevant and Value are the important factors in creating great content. The next step is to articulate this in a brief or strategic statement. What Avi suggests is a version of the Mad Libs™ fill in the blanks game using GET.. TO… BY… For example:

Name the brand…

GET: actions sports and outdoors activity enthusiasts

TO: capture & share their adventures using the worlds only “action camera”

BY: providing free tools, templates, and software to turn their adventures into sharable, high quality, films

Where things are heading
Avi thinks we are getting to a place where the blending of advertising and content is inevitable:

As channels get more fragmented and as programmatic delivery of advertising takes over the world and we get to that Holy Grail state where we are delivering the right piece of content to the right people at the right time, then advertising and content become effectively indistinguishable and there is no difference.

He doesn’t think we are there yet, but sees the vision as getting to the space where people want to get the messages they get from brands because they are getting them at the right time. For example, if someone is in the market for a TV and a brand can put the right offer in front of them at the very time they need it, then Avi thinks you can argue that offer is content because it is relevant and valuable to you at that moment in time because you are in buying mode. He thinks it doesn’t get more personal, relevant and valuable. But until we get to the point where we can take that kind of sniper precision shot then we have to think differently.

What type of content and when
Branded content is something that Avi sees brands using for the middle of the funnel to drive consideration and change sentiment by making you feel something or think about something differently.

He sees content marketing as being more lower funnel behaviour where someone is ‘acquired’ in some way, e.g. obtaining an email address, or a Twitter follower, through issuing a white paper. This may not lead to anything being bought immediately, or at all, but at the very least a relationship has been captured.

He thinks Chipotle is a good example of a brand that’s creating compelling branded content for the middle of the funnel. That’s because they are talking about their anti agri-business point of view, not 99 cent burritos, and that’s relevant to people who connect with who they are and what they stand for, which also informs Chipotle’s offers, what they do in store, what people pay, etc.

Avi thinks branded content can be used higher up the funnel to drive mass awareness, but that’s something that takes a big budget. He cites Red Bull and Go Pro as brands that have taken that approach to reach millions and millions of people, even those who are not necessarily users of their products. He thinks there are very few brands that can do this, because you have to stand for something that gives you the credibility to do something differently. As he explains, that’s not easy if you are in a Consumer Packaged Goods category like toothpaste, unless you are a brand like Tom’s of Maine that are committed to natural products and sustainability. This gives them the opportunity to talk about more than just toothcare. So for Avi brand positioning is a big consideration for branded content:

One of the brands that has been most successful with branded content makes soap. Dove has created some incredible work, but it’s not about their soap. They’re not talking about cleanliness or the ingredients of their product. They are talking about body image. They are talking about things a mom cares about when she wakes up at 6AM in the morning and looks in the mirror, and as a result Dove has managed to make a connection through content and sell a lot of soap.

He thinks that work like Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches that was featured in the second edition of the Best of Branded Content Marketing ebook epitomises people stories versus product ones:

It’s about standing for something that isn’t about your features and benefits, and connecting it back to your brand in a meaningful way. Self esteem and body image is what Dove stands for and as a brand they have made that their platform. It is a people-orientated, content-based platform and as a result of that they have connected with millions and millions of women through some incredible pieces of content.

He points out that Dove also makes commercials, not just documentaries of the social experiments they conduct and make available online, but there’s still continuity across what they do which helps them build their brand. At the same time, he says they have a connection point which gives them the credibility to make some outstanding content that provides value back to their audience in a meaningful way by leading with powerful, people-first stories. Avi thinks that’s pretty impressive given that Dove is a Consumer Packaged Goods brand that at the end of the day sells soap.

Check out the other interviews in this series with PJ PereiraScott DonatonJan GodskJames Morris and more.

About the author

Justin Kirby is a strategist, writer, and speaker, and is a Lecturer on both the BA (Hons) and MA Advertising courses at London College of Communication. Justin has a 20+ year career in industry as a digital strategist, producer and entrepreneur. He’s been writing about the impact of interactive technologies on business and marketing since the early 90s, and his books include ‘Connected Marketing: the viral, buzz and word of mouth revolution (2005) and the Best of Branded Content Marketing’ (BOBCM) series he conceived and has been curating since 2013. Justin also chairs and speaks at conferences around the globe, judges awards, and consults brands and agencies.