Ads as content are nothing new, but the intensity of the relationship between branded content and consumers is about to change.
If 2013 is going to be the year content marketing explodes (and there are a good many experts out there who believe that it will), we're off to a promising start. This week Coca-Cola released a short film starring the animated polar bears that have become synonymous with the soft drink brand.
Simply referred to as "Bears Film: 2013," the effort boasts some big talent that's sure to generate interest online; it was directed by John Stevenson of "Kung Fu Panda" fame and produced by Ridley Scott. It's the agency responsible for developing it, however, that says the most about Coke's intentions. The film was created by CAA Marketing, a division of Creative Artists Agency, a tenpercentery that specializes in sports and entertainment talent.
This is the same agency that Variety profiled back in October in a piece on the connection between brands and content. CAA Marketing's pursuit of brands eager to "use entertainment to make their products more appealing to consumers" has produced a client list that includes Best Buy, Chipotle, Cirque du Soleil, and GM - along with a progressive attitude. "The notion that you create a single campaign and send it out in the world and that's it, those days are over," said co-head of CAA Marketing. Next up are branded shorts, web and TV series, even full-length theatrical films sharing the behind-the-scenes stories of the world's favorite brands.
There's some dissonance with regard to this trend. For one thing, where does it leave media buyers? If clients are shifting away from traditional campaigns comprised of banners and email ads, investing instead in copywriting and design, what will happen to digital agencies? The ones worth their salt saw this coming long ago and started highlighting their content development skills, getting clients accustomed to this aspect of their business and demonstrating its value to brands. The media buyers at these agencies aren't just media buyers but marketing strategists, equipped to identify opportunities on multiple platforms and apply their research and analysis skills to rich media, social media, and mobile.
Then there's the issue of classifying branded content - something old-school marketers are wont to do. In response to seeing Coke's polar bears, one social strategist mistook the film for a commercial and wrote on Twitter that although she found it "cute and entertaining," it missed the mark. "What are you selling me here?" she asked with sincerity.
She has a point. Consumers don't buy Coke online. There was no link to a coupon or special product offer. The film didn't take a product placement approach - there was nothing to link it to the advertiser but a logo at the start (and, of course, those well-known bears). But branded content isn't a commercial spot. Instead of forcibly promoting the brand, this kind of promotional material is designed to build affinity, in this case through a well-known extension of Coke's persona. It's intended to reward customers with a little fun.
That's a hard concept to grasp if you're used to measuring campaign success through clicks and sales.
CAA Marketing isn't the only company acknowledging the value of this kind of digital promotion. About nine months ago an international publisher from Stockholm called Mediaplanet Group launched Conversionplanet, a customized content development agency that aims to generate "clicks with a purpose." Conversionplanet builds branded microsites that are, in essence, advertorials on steroids: rich in information that consumers need and want, and that brands are in a unique position to give. The company uses existing brand content when it's available, but also enlists the help of web editors and professional journalists to produce articles that run as supplements and special features on hundreds of major news sites. A recent campaign for the AARP Foundation that included information on how baby boomers can find jobs saw the average reader spend more than three minutes engaging with the content.
Accepting that content marketing is becoming a major part of digital advertising is a matter of understanding a simple fact: brands have knowledge, style, and clout that other more neutral content developers don't. They are experts: who better to offer advice on establishing a career than the folks who run a job-search site? Who is more equipped to dole out tips on dressing for the holidays than the people behind a trendy apparel brand like H&M? And if their insight is tempered with logos and product links, why should consumers mind?
As is the case with virtually every website, consumers come for the content, and increasingly some of the best content out there is that which is created by and for brands. If you don't believe it, take a look at Metro Trains Melbourne's "Dumb Ways to Die," Bodyform's corporate comeback, and TNT Belgium's "Push to Add Drama." All three were among the world's most watched viral videos of 2012, garnering millions upon millions of views.
Ads as content are nothing new, but the intensity of the relationship between branded content and consumers is about to change. When it does, customers will be even more devoted to the brands they love. And your brand could be among them.
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Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.
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