The art and science of branded entertainment strategy

- in ARTICLES, BOBCM Global 2015, FEATURES, Strategy & Planning
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The reduction in consumer attention towards traditional advertising makes it extremely difficult for advertising messages to cut through and be effective.

This is due to growing fragmentation in media consumption, a substantial paradigmatic change in the relationship between consumer and brand – made possible and accelerated by the increasing literacy of Web 2.0 (not only in young adult niches, but throughout the entire population) – and the introduction of new technologies and new media devices that allow the user to be reached by commercial communications all the time and everywhere.

The brand’s ability to be seen and heard is increasingly at risk. Within the same context, the absolute priority for every business is to spend its advertising budget efficiently.

All this means that brands wishing to communicate their values to consumers more effectively are looking for more efficient approaches – and this is where a branded entertainment strategy becomes interesting.

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Working out what branded entertainment is exactly 

Without mentioning all the literature that has been produced since 2009 – when the first book with an enthusiastic approach to the use of the branded entertainment appeared (Branded Entertainment: Product Placement & Brand Strategy in the Entertainment Business by Jean-Marc Lehu) – let’s focus our attention on two different basic approaches:

Branded entertainment as an evolution of product placement, a form of brand integration where the brand takes a growing or even essential part in content that already exists.

Branded entertainment as a form of viewer engagement through content specially created and funded by a company and conveyed to the end user via a media platform (for example, owned or paid media).

With an effort of extreme synthesis, we can identify three areas of branded content. Where they overlap there are different forms of branded entertainment:

When advertising (typically represented by commercials, infomercials, et cetera) contaminates ‘pure’ editorial content (newspaper articles, TV programmes, et cetera), we see a hybridisation leading to brand integration: the process by which the product or brand is added to existing content by building a continuity of values ​​between host and hosted. Examples of brand integration are TV shows ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Shark Tank’.

At the same time, we can have Type A (Figure 1) branded content when the content is curated or created in collaboration with the brand and aimed at communicating product features. The commercial intent is obvious and the target is the consumer who would use the product – not a wider potential audience. Consequently, the message focusses on the brand or product (with explicit shots or quotes) and the storytelling component is weaker. This type of branded content is closer to an advertisement.

When branded content is produced in editorial form, we’re in the area of ‘pure’ branded content (Type B in Figure 1).

The advertiser’s goal is to convey the brand’s values indirectly, addressing first the audience in general then the targeted consumer. The values ​​and identity of the brand are transferred within content that must be relevant – namely, interesting, fun, or engaging – for the person who benefits from connecting with the content. Therefore the message itself, regardless of its purpose, doesn’t focus on the product, nor does it artificially push sales.

Sometimes, while making its mark, the brand or product can be completely absent from the explicit narrative of the content and instead exist at a level of implicit narrative. In some of the most successful examples of branded entertainment, the brand, never upfront, comes across using its values, its typical and iconic style. In this way, the brand is instantly recognisable, giving viewers the feeling that the content has been designed and implemented by the brand precisely in order to enrich their experience, allowing them to participate in something wonderful together with the brand, thanks to the brand. An example of this is the GUINNESS ‘Sapeurs’ documentary.

The strong use of storytelling can tell the tale of not only the characters but also ​​the brand that then becomes part of the story. Other examples of Type B branded content include The LEGO Movie, Chipotle’s ‘Farmed and Dangerous’  and Marriott’s ‘Two Bellmen’.

Branded entertainment is therefore perceived by the consumer-viewer as a reward from which to benefit (even if only as entertainment), and not as an interruption of an activity. This is where the sense of ‘gift giving’ emerges: thanks to a clear and unambiguous identification of the sender (I know exactly who is talking), the content acquires a meaning (I know who is giving me a gift and why). A meeting point is created between the brand and consumer, with both parties benefiting.

Redefining the brand and its relationship with consumers

Today, brands are defined in a multi-experiential way. The individual person often experiences the brand in unpredictable places or unconventional communicative contexts. Brands are also defined in a multi-channel way – there are many and fragmented forms of contact with the brand, with a wide range of media that integrate and overlap organically rather than linearly. Places of direct contact with the consumer, such as shops, are still highly relevant, however a ‘mediated’ brand experience becomes part of the direct experience and enriches it.

This plurality of worlds forces us to rethink the brand as a territory of synthesis between different needs that unfold mainly in the field of relationships, intended as the moment of contact between two identities: the consumer and the brand.

In this new relationship paradigm, rather than talk about brand image (as a synthesis of symbolic and abstract values), we need to talk about brand identity. Brand identity is a field of exchange that implies a hard relationship – the substance that becomes concrete, materialises and is experienced through the product – and a soft relationship – the bond that a brand tries to create with its consumer.

The value traits of soft relationships (familiarity, engagement, dialogue, fun), though not as highly regarded as hard relationship traits (quality, honesty, trust), are still very important, making participation, proximity and dialogue strong discriminating factors in the choice of brand.

OBE conducted a research study in partnership with Demoskopea to capture consumer perceptions about branded entertainment.* The study looked at whether consumers identify new trends in the way brands communicate, and compiled and investigated a taxonomy of branded content.

Using the research results, we can describe the phenomenology of a brand in the making, of which the individual already feels part. It plays on the axes of:

Participation: the need for appropriation and mutual empathy with the brand. Expressions like ‘feel part of the brand’ or ‘feel it inside’ recur in a phase that goes beyond possession, with the brand incorporating the consumers within it.

Proximity: an emotional attitude emerges from the brand (described as like a hug), capable of nurturing a pleasant feeling of wellbeing.

Dialogue: with the brand that underlines the reciprocity of the relationship: on one hand, a brand able to communicate with the consumer, that does not speak for itself but allows consumers to communicate with it; on the other hand, the brand as active and proactive, able to engage and spark interest without being remote any longer.

Branded entertainment fits perfectly into this new relational field, basing its communicative pact on:

Engagement: the depth of the relationship and the intellectual commitment required by the content.

Storytelling: the ability to narrate the brand within the content.

Innovation: the new, unconventional way to talk about brands.

Branded entertainment: does it work?

Another research study supported by OBE**, this time with Omnicom Media Group, assessed the impact of Italian TV-based branded entertainment to find out if it works. The project was conducted in two waves during 2014 and 2015, with online interviews of a large representative sample of the adult Italian population aged between 18 and 60.

Results show that the potential of both brand integration into an existing TV format and the use of original branded TV content is remarkable – they help enable brands to achieve ambitious and difficult KPIs, such as increased brand familiarity, brand trust and intention to buy.

In respect of original content funded or co-produced by a brand, brand familiarity increased by 10% for those exposed to the content and 8% for those exposed to the channel airing the content. Even brand trust increased significantly: +10% for those exposed to the content and +7% for those exposed to the channel. The results, if projected onto the total population, show an overall average increase of +2.1% in brand familiarity and +1.7% in brand trust.

Similarly, for brand integration into existing Italian TV formats: if 22% of the average population declares a high familiarity of the brands analysed, 32% of those exposed to a TV programme involving brand integration claim to have high knowledge of the integrated brand. The average percentage almost doubles for fans: 41% of viewers who claim they never miss an episode declare high brand knowledge. If we look at trust, compared with 15% brand confidence from the average population, 23% of people exposed to a TV programme involving brand integration and 34% of fans say they highly recommend the integrated brand to friends and/or family.

Finally, brand integration even has a positive effect on one of the most sensitive indicators for brands: purchase intent. If 16% of the average population is prepared to purchase products or services offered by these companies in the future, 24% of those exposed to a TV programme involving brand integration, and 33% of fans, are ready to purchase products from that brand.

These data are also positive when projecting the results onto the total population: brand familiarity increases by 3.6 percentage points, trust by 2.5 and purchase intent by 2.6.

The research also explored consumers’ general opinions about the co-creation of branded entertainment.

Analysing respondents’ opinions on branded entertainment activities, we were able to identify four clusters of consumers, characterised by different attitudes towards a branded entertainment strategy:

1. THE NEGATIVE

They are annoyed and closed. Show little curiosity, little interest and lack confidence in general. They don’t evaluate the originality or the content of the message. Often, they point out the lack of consistency and the purpose of manipulating the consumer. Careless, unreceptive.

2. THE SKEPTICS

They seem the most critical, although open to new ways of communication. Convincing them is more difficult, because they are very careful and can’t be fooled. Although certain of the reduced transparency of branded content, they appreciate its originality – but in moderation.

3. THE ENTHUSIASTIC 

They are definitely the most addicted, well disposed towards content and its ability to tell stories and to involve. They are also very critical, so able to evaluate effectiveness and value. They can become ambassadors, but must be convinced.

4. THE AWARE 

This is a positive cluster, not too critical of branded content. Seem easier to move, but are more difficult to really involve, probably because they are more rational. Advertising doesn’t bother them, because they know how to decipher it.

Branded entertainment, for some clusters, is therefore able to create a strong synergy between brand and content. It puts aside the old one-directional and product-centric narration, and proposes a new model in which concepts such as sharing (the ability to listen to and interest consumers simultaneously without remaining distant) and involvement (the consumer becomes part of the brand through the dynamics of appropriation and mutual empathy with the brand) are fundamental.

Brand identity and the power of branded entertainment 

Branded entertainment primarily contributes to building brand identity, within the relationship that the brand tries to create with its consumers through its values and the use of storytelling to convey these values. Branded entertainment appears to act at these levels:

● Involvement 

Branded entertainment forms a specific communicative pact with its spectator, a condition that has a value in itself beyond the brand value.

● Relationship

One of the areas where the brand meets its consumers, almost like a new ‘product’ that becomes a field of engagement beyond a physical product.

● Branding

Branded entertainment may shatter and strengthen some sections of brand identity, especially when its values become the values of the story and/or the symbolic and evocative dimension of the content acts as a sounding board for the brand’s values.

● Behaviour

Content users are encouraged, after experiencing branded entertainment content, to try the product and to find out more about the brand.

Once we understand the consistency of purpose involved in giving people an experience, a branded entertainment strategy can be developed in line with the brand strategy, using branded entertainment as an essential tool in the construction and communication of the brand identity and relationships.

OBE’s 7 Golden Rules to Make a Branded Entertainment Strategy Work

1. LONG TERM 

Branded entertainment is a strategy for building brand identity, so it should be pursued in the medium to long term.

2. CLEAR GOALS

The strategy can be adjusted in line with the needs of the company. You need to set clear goals from the beginning of an initiative.

3. TURN AUDIENCES INTO CONSUMERS 

Branded entertainment is a useful marketing tool for building the relationship between consumer and brand. Its active function in this respect is to strengthen or change consumer behaviour.

4. TRANSPARENCY 

It’s crucial to have a clear target audience with which to create a relationship. The consumer is willing to accept the presence of the brand in new spaces (TV programme, newspaper article, et cetera), if the role the brand plays in the content is clear (producer, creator, sponsor, et cetera).

5. STORYTELLING

It’s equally important to define the traits of the brand identity that will set the stage for the relationship through narration. For this to work, the brand must have a narrative function. Whether the objective of the content is to inform or entertain, it must interest and engross the viewer.

6. MEASUREMENT

Use a campaign metrics model that’s able to analyse the effectiveness of branded entertainment by standard KPIs, such as brand trust, familiarity, consideration and loyalty.

7, EXPERTISE

Branded entertainment expertise can be both grown internally through special training courses and found among professionals who can provide the talent and creativity for a content-driven strategy.

* The full results of the OBE/Demoskopea research are available in Italian. For an English summary, please contact OBE.

** To find out more about the results of the OBE/OMG research, please contact OBE.