Branded content: Creating successful campaigns with ads that don’t look like ads
Source: WARC Exclusive, June 2019
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Examining winning entries into the 2019 World Media Awards for the dos and don’ts of developing a successful content campaign.
- According World Media Group’s ‘Future of Global Content-led Marketing’ research, for 45% of marketers, more than half of campaigns are now content driven.
- Audi’s World Media Award-winning e-tron campaign delivered complex technological information in a clear and concise way through podcast media.
- The growth in editorial-style branded content raises questions around the delineation between editorial and commercial, which publishers must be sensitive to.
- Branded content ought to appear in the right context, and should serves a clear purpose, whether that is to inform or entertain.The late, great David Ogilvy once said: “The less an advertisement looks like an advertisement, and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look and read.”While it is two decades since his death, his words are more resonant today than ever before. It’s a point driven home by James Davies, Account Manager at Thomson Reuters responsible for selling global content marketing. “Give them something that informs them and engages them, something that they truly want,” Davies said.Jeremy Elias, Executive Creative Director of The Atlantic and head of content arm Atlantic Re:think, points out that while advertisers have been investing more into the medium in recent years, the concept of viable, pithy and powerful branded content is nothing new.
He cites the creation of Michelin Guides back in the 1900s, books containing an array of information for motorists, including maps, tyre repair instructions and hotel and restaurant listings and reviews. To this day, it’s a brand that is still synonymous with good eating, arguably to the point of a disassociation with tyres.
For the most part, the roots of branded content are embedded in the advertorial – often clunky attempts to slot in editorial-style content in the pages of a publication. Annie Granatstein, Head of WP BrandStudio at The Washington Post, notes that the term advertorial began to morph into content around five-to-ten years ago.
“The key ingredient of the evolution is putting the audience (rather than the brand’s offerings) first, which advertisers increasingly realise they have to do to engage people,” she said.
The eruption of digital channels, a growing sophistication among brands and publishers exploiting them, and the realisation that a crude attempt at dressing up an ad as an article just doesn’t cut it, has led to something of a renaissance.
“I think people are beginning to understand what the value exchange needs to be between brands and consumers,” Elias said. “In the advertorial age, the value exchange was that you got to hear this news about a product – a cleaning product talking about its detergent making your clothes extra white. Today that is no longer a meaningful exchange.
“What’s a greater exchange is a brand using their perspective on the world, giving consumer access to talent, using their money and resources to bring something of value.” According to World Media Group’s own ‘Future of Global Content-led Marketing’ research, brands are finding increasing value in content marketing. The study found that for 45% of marketers, more than half of campaigns are now content-driven, while 77.8% said that content led campaigns are set to grow.
For Joel Koch, Managing Partner at PHD Germany, there has been a “paradigm shift”. “Marketers used to advertise from a product perspective but that can easily lead to branded messages that no one is really interested in and that don’t resonate with customers,” he said.
“But a new perspective is winning over: We can see how customer-centricity drives the impact of campaigns. And to do so, advertisers need stories and genuine content as that is what customers want instead of superficial brand messages that often enough don’t really matter to them.”
Award-winning content marketing
Accordingly, the World Media Awards 2019 featured a number of winners that excelled in attempting to bridge the gap between compelling, nuanced and balanced content and marketing communications. Among the winners was Audi’s and PHD’s e-tron campaign, which scooped the Automotive Grand Prix. It delivered complex technological information in a clear and concise way. At its heart was a podcast, promoted by advertising activity, featuring experts and promoted via podcast streaming services. It attained the number one spot in Apple’s Tech Podcasts.
“The e-tron podcast marked a milestone in German automotive advertising,” explained Koch, whose agency was behind the work. “It was one of the first marketing instruments that did not include the famous four rings, the claim ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ or any other brand insignia. It was driven by the genuine desire to create content on e-mobility that is compelling to technology enthusiasts.”
Elsewhere, Incredible India (Ministry of Tourism) teamed up with CNBC and won the Travel & Tourism Grand Prix. Its campaign aimed to promote India to affluent travellers, using storytelling, sending photojournalists to source stories from across the country, producing cinematic films about Kerala, and running ad testing to formulate headlines for specific audience types. The video gained more than three million views within three weeks of launch.
Meanwhile, Financial Services category runner-up Barclays Corporate Banking produced a podcast to connect with a time-poor C-suite audience, which gained four million impressions. The campaign was overseen by Davies at Reuters, who said that the client was happy to give the publisher a high degree of autonomy. “They gave us the creative freedom to create six themes around which to build the campaign,” he commented.
“It used to be that it was very clear that a brand was leading a piece and paying for it, but now brands realise that in order to inform, engage and entertain the reader they have to allow the expert publisher to lead and advise on what the narrative should be,” he says. “If the brand is involved too much, then the audience sees through it.”
Integrity vs message
But won’t content always be associated with what is ultimately a sales pitch, however thinly veiled? Elias believes not. Atlantic Re:fresh recently worked on a campaign for Land Rover’s Range Rover that saw film score composer Hans Zimmer employed to create a piece of bespoke music.
“One of the many good things that The Atlantic brings to the table, especially working with high-level talent, is that it’s a bit different from when an ad agency might approach talent,” Elias said. “By our nature we’re a journalistic institution. The story has to have a certain level of integrity and quality to it.”
Koch agrees. “More and more brands are realising that contemporary advertising needs content that has a value in and of itself,” he said. “If content cannot stand for itself, then why should consumers bother to spend their time on it?”
The World Media Group’s research found that 71.5% of media agencies, media owners and advertisers reckoned that clients are looking for a credible editorial environment when selecting a media partner, with 65% opting for quality of audience engagement and 63.3% for audience profile.
Ergo: engaging audiences in a credible environment is a no-brainer. Yet outmoded attitudes can still prevail. “Some brands certainly take content as just another form of messaging,” Koch said. “But those are the brands that won’t succeed with their content.”
The issue of credibility and authenticity is not just a consideration for advertisers, but for publishers too. The growth in editorial-style branded content inevitably raises questions around the delineation between editorial and commercial.
“There needs to be division between the two,” Elias insisted. “You can look at The Atlantic as an example, there’s a true separation between the editorial and business side. We’ll talk to people on both sides and understand what editorial wants to write about. Ultimately we want advertisers to underwrite that, but we’ll never get close to blurring the lines of what editorial is writing about.”
For Granatstein, content needs to be clearly labelled. “The Washington Post takes labelling very seriously and provided clear labelling before FCC [the Federal Communications Commission in the US] guidelines were issued a few years ago,” she said.
“Media companies can create engaging, native content and safeguard their newsroom’s impartiality if they ensure that it’s different journalistic talent creating the branded content versus the newsroom content, which is the case at The Washington Post.”
Koch is equally adamant that true editorial “needs impartiality and balance”. But he added: “Since the days of medieval patronage, the arts and content have never been entirely impartial or balanced. I strongly believe that brands need to allow content to flow in order to be most compelling. If they do so, it doesn’t matter if content is sponsored or not.”
The future of branded content
For Reuters’ Davies, the outlook for branded content is rosy. “It’ll become an even richer experience and the boundaries will become blurred even more,” he said. “To the point that – apart from the fact it is clearly signposted – the audience won’t realise that it’s from a brand.”
But for The Atlantic’s Elias, the future holds a “reckoning of sorts”.
“There’s a lot of branded content being produced, a lot of it great, some of it bad and not valuable to the brand funding it,” he commented. “As more and more [publishers] compete to get the dollar, advertisers will get more critical around the sort of work being produced and there will be more rigour around brands trying to prove ROI and understanding the value it brings to the bottom line.”
Elias also highlight the types of organisation creating branded content. While five years ago it was publishers “who set up teams had a monopoly on the space”, the status quo is shifting. “Now that creative agencies are no longer relying retainers of two-to-five years, they are starting to get into branded content space on a project basis,” he said. Expect a future where content is increasingly the domain of agencies, production companies, studios and the consultancies such as Accenture, PwC and Deloitte.
But while a growing encroachment from editorial-led organisations is a given, publishers have a clear advantage. And that boils down to long-term collaboration. Granatstein says WP BrandStudio is experiencing a “deepening of relationships with advertisers, as they renew with us again”.
“This means that we gain a more nuanced understanding of their mission, initiatives and positioning. At the same time we are increasing our ability to understand our audience,” she said, adding that the use of data to inform the creative process is key.
For Elias, a heritage built on trust lies at the heart of continuing, fruitful publisher-client relations. “I think that more and more advertisers realise the value of partners with established credibility, especially as trust becomes more important. In terms of The Atlantic’s position, we can bring a level of credibility that traditional ad agencies can’t.”
Content marketing dos and don’ts
Produce something tangible
Branded content should result in tangible content that serves some purpose, whether that’s to inform or entertain. “It’s not just plastering media across 250 ad units,” says Elias. “You walk away having learned something and have not just been sold to.” Content is king, context is queen If a piece of content marketing is not in the right context then it can be detrimental to the campaign. “Clients should look at what they are trying to achieve with content, rather than just making videos that go viral,” Davies says. Koch concurs. “It’s all about finding a natural fit between a brand’s true identity and a field of content to explore,” he says. “Best-in-class advertisers will create a natural symbiosis of advertising and content resulting in genuinely intriguing pieces for well-chosen target groups.”
Brands are understandably obsessive over the minutiae of their messaging, but if they are to use branded content successfully then they must relinquish a degree of control. “The risks are the marketer and brand having too much control or say in how the flow of content goes,” Davies says. “They should trust the expert and publishers to provide insight and angle given that they know what works for their audience. “By all means they should feed in, but too much and they’ll lose their audience because it will sound too much like a puff piece.”
And lastly, don’t overcomplicate
According to Davies, simplicity is key. “If you can’t sum up an idea in a tweet then you’ve already lost the battle. Know what you’re doing and be clear on that.”
About the author
Belinda Barker Director, World Media Group
The World Media Group is a strategic alliance of the world’s leading publications which incorporates The Atlantic, Bloomberg Media Group, The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, National Geographic, Reuters, The New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and associate members: Moat, Smartology and The Smithsonian. Its aim is to promote award-winning journalism and the role of international media.