Making branded content for humans: best-practice marketing in the age of the consumer

- in ARTICLES, BOBCM Global 2015, Strategy & Planning
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We’re now in the era that Forrester Research is calling ‘The Age of the Customer’, where companies cannot survive on the dusty ways of working that guided them in the past. In just a few lifetimes, we’ve seen the culturally transformative modern agricultural, mechanical, industrial and technological revolutions pierce the fabric of humanity to change the way we behave fundamentally as humans. Today, we’re in the beginning of the next great revolution, and it’s rapidly impacting who we will become as a people as we move into the future.

People today are vastly more informed, educating themselves on their precise needs while simultaneously seeking better value for their money by price matching any given brand to its competitors, and self-defining their desires by leveraging the seemingly unlimited digital tools at their disposal. In just the past few years, the marketing landscape has changed faster than in all the generations before it, with the real power in the relationship moving to the customer.

The evolution of customer desire at the dawn of the Internet 

Just 25 years ago, almost no one had a computer in the home. Those who did bought it at a store, or through a printed catalogue. Even Fortune 50 companies did all their purchasing of tens of thousands of computers a year in a seemingly archaic way, through sales representatives and over the fax machine.

And then along came Dell. Simply by providing people with what they actually wanted, options and convenience, Dell became the first million-dollars-a-day e-commerce provider within seven months of opening their virtual doors.

I was lucky enough to be one of the shepherds of that early movement and I would like to say that our finger was squarely on the grasp of the technology-fuelled human evolution that was happening around us. I would love to think that, based upon more evolved research, we were able to pinpoint and understand the direction we were all taking as humans. But that would all be a lie. In reality, all we knew about the early days was that people like us wanted more choices, options and price points to pick from. We wanted to be able to decide for ourselves.

As product providers, we knew that technology was outpacing the manufacturing cycle in dramatic ways and that, with the advent of Internet technology, we were almost capable of delivering upon the dream of on-demand delivery. We also knew that there was a price people would pay for that service and for that luxury. The largest PC vendor at the time by far, IBM, was evolving its product line only a couple times a year. In contrast, Dell built its business to be capable of evolving its product line on a weekly basis for as long as the chip manufacturers and consumers would allow. As marketers, this forced us to keep nimble and think constantly about how to push the evolution of customer desire in a very early Internet culture. Around the same time, and out of that same culture of desire, came several of the online-only shopping businesses that have secured their place in most of our lives, like Amazon and eBay.


The marketing shift from ‘push’ messages to ‘pull’ content

Just as commerce was irrevocably changed in those early days of the digital enablement of shopping, marketing too has shifted in the past generation from the calculated brand message delivered several times by an optimised media plan to the conceptually simplistic ideas of influence and content engagement.

For the first time in over 100 years, or at least a handful of generations, humanity is observably changing directly in front of us. Interestingly, this change goes beyond the expected demographic and psychographic shifts in behaviours or the adoption of casual trends that we expect; it represents a deeper cultural change in the way people communicate and who they choose to establish their relationships with. Today, in many ways, people you haven’t seen in a generation can be as close to understanding your life as your best friends. And they’re achieving this closeness without putting any effort into the friendship. You’re freely giving it to them and you likely feel as much a part of their distant lives as they do of yours.

For marketers, consumers are openly telling you what they want, need and expect of you more than ever before. As people move faster, create content in real-time and communicate daily with hundreds of people on just about everything from their pet’s personality flaws to the births of their children, the meaningful, personal, professional, casual and observational are shared with both best friends and people they don’t even know, oftentimes in equal weight. Despite our great distances, or the nonexistent nature of our relationships outside the communication vehicle, we frequently share our most intimate daily thoughts and experiences with the world – a world of difference from even just 20 years ago.

This rapid change has caused many brands to muddle their KPIs with platonic likes and self-appreciative shares in a misguided measure of marketing efficacy across their communication channels. What were some of the most memorable and shared cultural moments of the past few years? Did it involve kittens, puppies, or Oreos? Did we see them as posts, videos, gifs, or jpgs? Yes. All of that. However, while we all remember the Oreo Blackout, most of us probably more fondly remember the impact of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or the insane cuteness of the Sneezing Baby Panda. Few people actually bought more Oreos because of that ill-fated Super Bowl moment, despite millions of us ‘liking’ and perhaps even ‘loving’ that Oreo had the circles to go there.

So, what does that teach us?  

Through research executed in conjunction with Facebook and Datalogix, Tenthwave discovered that the act of engagement doesn’t usually directly translate to sales. For the engager, it’s really more an appreciation of the content rather than a sign of their intent to rush out and buy your snack brand. Liking your posts on Facebook, watching your video on YouTube, or sharing your funny memes is no more accurate an indication of purchase intent, and is no more earnest an expression of brand affinity or loyalty, than when you wish a high school acquaintance “Happy Birthday”, tell a friend’s friend that their newborn is adorable, or like that your Uncle Ron had a birthday.

While the act of engagement is unlikely to drive direct sales, social recommendation certainly does.

However, while we found that the act of engagement is unlikely to drive direct sales, what happens after the engagement in the form of social recommendation certainly does. As good content is frequently shared from and consumed by trusted sources and friends, we learn that our friend Mark is a fan of GoPro through the video he shared, and we become inspired to record our weekend hiking trips and buy a GoPro a few weeks later.


The purpose and significance of branded content

Why is this important to making effective branded content? Because, at its essence, I believe that branded content – like any artistic endeavour – is meant to serve a greater purpose. As opposed to many art forms, which could be said to serve the soul of humankind, branded content’s purpose could be said to serve the mind of the customer.  By educating, enlightening and entertaining consumers, often at the same time, branded content provides brands with the opportunity to tell stories and paint pictures that provide insight into who the brand is, what it stands for and why it exists.

So, what makes branded content different from any other form of content? Any good content will be steeped in the expression of something that motivates, intrigues and/or inspires people. That is what makes it good. If you buy into the old advertising premise that any brand mentions are good marketing, then certainly any good content that interjects your brand into an experience is a positive thing. If the estimates are true, about US$25 billion are being spent each year inserting brands into entertainment content.

Sometimes, the placement reinforces the brand persona, as with the exhilarating automotive placements that have become as much a part of the mystique of the James Bond films as the gadgets and villains. Albert R. Broccoli, co-creator of the James Bond franchise, is often credited with the popularisation of product placement for his pioneering use of the desirable cars, luxurious beverages and cool gadgets used for over 50 years by the coolest super spy to grace the silver screen. For automotive brands that wanted to portray an ultra-cool, high-performance lifestyle that people everywhere love, it’s hard to beat that sort of brand integration.

However, much of that US$25 billion is spent on less meaningful, impression-measured product integrations that aren’t really intended to further brand development as much as they’re meant to reinforce general awareness. When a character on screen takes a sip of a particular brand of beverage, it’s not meant to create love, desire, or even a mild re-evaluation of that drink’s role in our lives. That, to me, is one primary difference between branded content and brand integration – purpose.

In 1974, for the film ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, American Motors Corporation paid US$5 million dollars for the rights to showcase their cars. Since that time, the price to play has steadily increased with BMW spending about US$25 million per movie in recent years.

Going beyond Big Data to understand why customers make decisions

Why are we, as businesses, doing this? Does our role in the content expand an idea or further a cause that’s important to us? Is our relationship with the customer better for having put this content into the world? Does it meet the criteria of educating, enlightening and/or entertaining people?

This is where being ‘customer obsessed’ comes in. If good content motivates, intrigues or inspires, then surely the key to making good content is understanding what creates those emotions in people, our customers.

In the September 2015 article ‘The Lowdown: ‘Joy’ Marketing Is Hot Thanks to Psychologists’, Ad Age wrote about brands applying psychology to strategic and creative planning: “Soon after Diageo’s Johnnie Walker used a psychologist’s insights on joy to inform a new whiskey campaign, here comes ConAgra’s Reddi-wip, which has enlisted its own psychologist to help sell the whipped topping. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, pitched in on a research survey to, as the marketer puts it, qualify the current state of joy in the U.S.”

The idea of integrating psychology into marketing is nothing new, at least not to the accomplished brand strategist. We live and breathe strategies that bring to life psychological concepts proffered by the classics like Maslow and the contemporary ‘Psychology Today’ bestsellers like Cialdini.

But the future of good marketing is destined go beyond applying basic psychological tenets and superficial research to find opportunities to inject brands into identified behavioural patterns. Copenhagen-based business consultancy ReD Associates defines its mission as “putting a deep understanding of real people back at the center of business decision-making”, and that feels more appropriate for 2016 and beyond.

Here at Tenthwave, we’ve defined ourselves as ‘The Customer Obsessed Digital Agency®’ and our mission is to find insights, moments and actionable strategies that matter to a brand’s customers and its bottom line. The customer obsessed explore data, economics, psychology and sociology to get to an understanding of why we do things.

To put it simply, in 2016 and into the next generation, you can’t be a leading brand marketer and not be customer obsessed. More importantly, you will never be customer obsessed without a dedication to all the social sciences that serve to better understand people as people. This includes economics, anthropology, environmental sciences, geography, history, politics, sociology and of course psychology. While that is a huge mouthful to swallow, much less digest, we know that what makes us human is defined every day by many factors impacting our decisions to buy, not to buy, to advocate, buy more and try new things.

Understanding what your customers want, need and care about – and why it’s important to them – will separate the customer obsessed from the lagging rest.

People are infinitely more complex and consumers are wildly smarter than they are often given credit for in the pitch room and planning session. At the same time, they can be wildly predictable if you take the time to test the options and understand the social confluences that help people make decisions.

Today, the data we’re capable of obtaining and mining about our customers is staggering. And that Big Data is an electric spark that can quickly illuminate a room of marketers wanting an easy answer. Yet – even with the advances in analytics platforms and customer listening tools – most marketers are still not going beyond the dashboard and topline demographic profiles to understand their customers’ behaviour. Big Data might tell you the ‘what’ ‘where’ ‘when’ and ‘how’ of your customers’ decisions, but it usually doesn’t tell you the answer to the most important question: ‘why’.


What are the most important questions your company is looking to answer? For the majority of businesses, they will revolve around a better understanding of your most important relationships (customer), business decisions (product /service offering) and strategic business options (paths to success). A dedication to collecting and understanding the customer data available to you, and observing it through a social sciences lens, is a strong start to unlocking answers to those tough questions.

Through that discovery of the ‘why’, we will better understand what motivates, intrigues and inspires people so that we can educate, enlighten and entertain them with good branded content.

You can find out more about being customer obsessed in Tenthwave’s guide ‘The Essential Resource of the Customer Obsessed’, and see our customer-obsessed methodology in action in the Duncan Hines case study. M