Rethinking Creativity at Cristal – What exactly is branded content?


The BCMA’s CEO Andrew Canter and I helped put a BOBCM panel together as part of the Branded Entertainment & Content Summit (BEC) at Cristal Festival last month. Andrew chaired the proceedings and I participated in the panel along with Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s global lead James Morris, Time Out’s Commercial Creative Director Adam Harris and Ben Grabiner at Adjust Your Set who stood in for their CEO Chris Gorell Barnes.

The backdrop to the panel is that branded content is predicted to be at the heart of every marketing strategy within the next five years, and most, if not all, of the international creative awards now have a branded content and entertainment category. But this begs the question what exactly is branded content, and is it different from branded entertainment, content marketing and all the other related terms such as native advertising that are being bandied about? Just as importantly, are the problems branded content solves for clients different from those solved by advertising?

The video above and of this first part of a two-part write up of the panel session looks first at our discussion about what exactly is branded content with the aid of examples chosen by the participants. This was based on comments made by the BCMA’s Scandinavian head Jan Godsk in my recent interview with him about how it’s easier to define the category through consensus about the best examples, rather than debate about what is and isn’t branded content. Jan was also at Cristal on the Branded Entertainment & Content jury along with Patrícia Weiss who heads up the BCMA’s South American Chapter. The jury was chaired by Big Fuel’s creative head Avi Savar who I interviewed recently. Avi also sat on the Cristal Branded Entertainment Academy with Andrew Canter and other industry thought leaders that awarded the Grand Prix for the category.

Andrew kicked off the session by pointing out that there’s still much debate about what is and isn’t branded content, but thinks there are, however, lots of great examples with over 200 entries being submitted to the category at Cristal this year and over 1,200 at Cannes. He then put forward the following definition from Oxford Brookes University and Ipsos’ Defining Branded Content for the Digital Age research commissioned by the BCMA:

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

This was followed up with quotes from my recent interview series that form part of my latest research:

I think the premise for branded content is to assume that you can’t buy the consumers’ time, and that you want them to give you their time. For me, something that is worth the consumer’s time is the best definition of what branded content is. So if you think more radically and try and stretch that definition, then even a 30-second spot is branded content if it’s worth the consumers’ time. And I’m fine with that, as I like to play through those lines.

PJ Pereira, Chief Creative Officer Pereira & O’Dell

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.

Avi Savar, Founder, Chief Strategy Officer Big Fuel

Broadly speaking, it’s all about what does a brand have to say that’s of value to an audience and what are they ways that they tell those stories.

Scott Donaton, Chief Content Officer Universal McCann

Andrew then asked to showcase an example we liked, explain what we thought was great about it, and also give us our views on how it helps us define branded content.

I choose the Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables (Les Fruits et Légumes Moches) campaign from Intermarché above partly because it is French and we were in France. My point being that there are excellent examples from all round the world (particularly given that the 3 category winners at Cannes and Grand Prix winner from Cristal this year have all been from the US), and that highlighting great examples from round the globe is part of what we are trying to do here on BOBCM in partnership with the BCMA.

I also choose the example because it begs the question, is the Intermarché campaign branded content or just good marketing given the panel’s premise that branded content is predicted to be at the heart of every marketing strategy.

Another reason for choosing this example was based on the recent Brand Sacrifice report by, which suggests that “consumers don’t want to make the world a better place, they want brands to do that for them’.

Helping reduce food waste is a good example of brand leading this trend, and it’s interesting to see that Jamie Oliver and ASDA have subsequently teamed up in the UK to do something similar although their campaign is less focused on the fruit and veg being the hero of the ‘story’.

Lastly, the campaign is connected to what I have been writing about with regard to brands re-thinking their worthy existence or purpose beyond profit, and how this can help them win the hearts and minds of their consumers. You can read more about this in my Is social media making or breaking the food industry? article for The Drum earlier this year, which also highlights the Intermarché campaign.

Mediacom’s James chose the Brazilian Carequinhas – Bald Cartoons campaign that won a lot of awards at Cannes last year. It’s about the plight of young children that suffer with cancer and become bald, and how this alienates them from their friends and their inclusion in social experiences:

This is a great example of what branded content tries to achieve because it is about developing a big creative platform from which you can create lots of content from.

Interestingly, the idea of a big creative platform which helps brands create lots of content from was part of the criteria for awarding Chipotle the Grand Prix in the Branded Content category at Cannes in it’s inaugural year. Avi Savar was the president of the jury that also included Jan Godsk, and discusses the decision in my interview with him.

For James, Branded Content is about creating emotional engagement, and although advertising is still an important medium for many of the brands Mediacom work with he thinks it’s more difficult to emotionally engage consumers when you are working with the usual formats like 30 second spots and print ads:

The job of Branded Content is really to take consumers on a journey, and actually tell a deeper brand story that you can emotionally engage consumers with.

What James particularly liked about the Carequinhas – Bald Cartoons campaign is that they took this idea and embedded it in popular culture. That’s the challenge for Branded Content as he see it, because he thinks it’s about trying to create content for brands that cut through culture, such as music and film. James thinks the Carequinhas – Bald Cartoons does this brilliantly by having worked with all the Brazilian TV stations to make characters from TV shows like Hello Kitty bald. He explained how the campaign was run for about 3 months with the idea being taken up with by both TV stations and the press – helping it become part of the culture in order to remove the stigma of being bald for those children suffering from the condition through cancer.

Adam Harris started by discussing how Time Out define Branded Content from a publisher perspective to help explain why he chose the Oreo Fanatic Snack Hacks example above. He sees there being two ways of defining it. The first is that there is spectrum of content, and the second is the execution. The spectrum of content ranges from advertorial on one hand, which tends to have a business and product need. At the other end, there’s editorial that predominantly has a consumer focus, and is all about something of interest to the consumer that can be emotional, provide them with value, be informative, etc.

For Time Out, Branded Content sits in the middle of that spectrum, and they think it should form part of each function both in terms of advertorial and having a consumer need as its focus. Adam thinks that Branded Content in this context should be informative, interesting, and also echoes PJ Perrieria’s point above about it being that something the consumer should be inspired by and actively seek out.

From this perspective Adam thinks the Oreo is a great example because they have managed to hit the sweet spot in the middle of that spectrum. He points out that Oreo are traditionally focused on housewives and kids, but now want to also reach Millennials through executions that they are interested in. Branded Content is key to this because it forms part of how Millennials consume their media, but for Adam it’s also about Oreo’s clever use of the zeitgeist and trending topics that are of interest to this group, such as Life Hacks. He thinks this examples gets it right by having the consumer relevance of involving hipster chef Michael Voltaggio balanced with the brand need to be product focused in the way he creates a Snack Hack using Oreo cookies.

When it comes to great branded content, Adam explained that Time Out ask whether the execution will still stand up editorially if the brand is removed. He thinks that the Oreo example meets this criteria and that’s why he chose it.

After briefly touching upon the Oreo Lick Race that ran into trouble with Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK (also discussed in more detail later in the session), Adam went on to say that he thinks Oreo are using Branded Content to reach the right audience in the right way. But he added that Branded Content executions don’t have to be just video, mentioning how there was an experiential extension to the campaign involving events where the Food Hacks were served from food trucks and how this created additional content and amplification through User Generated Content on social channels. This more integrated approach reinforces what James at Mediacom was saying earlier about developing a big creative platform that allows brands to create lots of content from. It also more eloquently expresses why I chose the Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables (Les Fruits et Légumes Moches) campaign from Intermarché, which interestingly won the Integrated category award at Cristal.

Ben Grabiner is the head of commercial at Adjust Your Set’s Audience division. He chose Patagonia anti-consumerism 30 minute film as he thinks it is a really good example of brand story telling. It likes the way it weaves in brand narrative around a really engaging story with some real meaning behind it. He explains how it tells the story of a number of individuals and how they value the things they have, which makes you appreciate what you have more while at the same time highlighting that Patagonia gear last for years and years. His only criticism is that it’s a tad long at 30 minutes, and it might have worked better as a more snackable series.

Moving onto the branded content question, Ben thinks it is actually quite simple:

I think branded content has to do two things to be branded content. The first thing is that it’s got to be interesting, engaging, and people have to want to engage with it rather than be interrupted by it. And it’s got to add value, so it’s got to be about entertainment, information and add function. The Second thing it needs to do is further the brand goals by driving conversions or brand value.

Ben thinks that if an execution doesn’t have either the engaging or interesting part then it’s just advertising, and if there’s no brand benefit it’s just content, but if it has both then it’s Branded Content.

The BCMA’s Andrew Canter then wrapped up this section of the session by playing devil’s advocate and pointing out that some advertising can be engaging. He went on to reinforce the point he made earlier about how the debate about what is branded content and how it is different from advertising is still very current, highlighting that it’s one that was intensely discussed in the Cristal Branded Entertainment Academy he participated in earlier that day. That’s why Andrew thinks there is a need for some guidance, hence the putting together of this panel, the BCMA’s support for both the BOBCM initiative here and the ‘Defining Branded Content for the Digital Age’ research they commissioned.

In part 2, I’ll be looking at how the issues of transparency and consumer trust was raised by the audience, and how the panel also discussed distribution and measurement. In the meantime, check out my interview with Mediacom’s James Morris, other interviews I’ve been conducting with the industry experts mentioned above that explore the question what is branded content:

You can find out more about this latest research and the contributions to date here, and if you like to participate then please complete the questionnaire on Survey Monkey.