It takes guts to let a brand take the backseat to storytelling, but that’s exactly what branded content should be doing
What is branded content? Is it content marketing, native advertising or product placement? Is it entertainment in which the brand has taken a supporting role? It is this confusion that goes some way towards explaining why there is a current dearth of quality branded content in the region.
“Agencies and specialised content creators are still wrapping their heads around this incredibly dynamic format,” admits Zahir Mirza, group creative director at DDB Dubai. “In the region I feel branded content is still in its nascent stages of being understood, created and crafted. The task is how do you create something that’s compelling, engaging and meaningful without a brand making too many cameo appearances. I feel that’s where the struggle is right now. But nonetheless it’s a good place to be because it means creative minds are thinking what their brands could say and stand for beyond the functional and pedantic.”
“Most agencies treat branded content as long format advertising commercials with clichéd narrative arcs and soppy, drab plot lines.”--Zahir Mirza, group creative director at DDB Dubai
Branded content – vaguely described by the Branded Content Marketing Association as “any manifestation associated with a particular brand in the eye of the beholder” – is an easy thing to get wrong, and part of the problem lies in the format itself. It can encompass a vast spectrum of media and methods, meaning there are innumerable ways to fail, the most common of which are overt messaging, lack of relevance, poor production values and a failure to deliver entertainment.
“Less and less we find ourselves in scenarios where branded content doesn’t come up as a solution to a client brief, but as a whole, agencies still struggle to provide a clear content proposition,” says Alejandro Fischer, head of strategy and insights at Havas Media Dubai, which won the branded content and entertainment grand prix at the Dubai Lynx in March for ‘Imagine Dubai’. “I believe this is mainly due to the nature of branded content itself and how thin the lines are from one execution to the next. Is it influencers? Product placement? Multi-channel series or editorial integration? It’s all those things and more, which makes it an exciting marketing tool, although difficult to narrow down into a consistent client-facing product. Like everything else, great content needs to stem from a great insight and achieve specific objectives.”
“Less and less we find ourselves in scenarios where branded content doesn’t come up as a solution to a client brief, but as a whole, agencies still struggle to provide a clear content proposition.”--Alejandro Fischer, head of strategy and insights at Havas Media Dubai
In theory branded content, or branded entertainment, should answer many of the questions posed by advertisers who wish to deliver great content. After all, the poet Muriel Rukeyser said “the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms”, and branded content is essentially stories and scenarios told in an entertaining way. In a multi-platform digital world, the creation of such content has become the holy grail of marketing.
And yet, as Mirza states, “most agencies treat branded content as long format advertising commercials with clichéd narrative arcs and soppy, drab plot lines”.
“Authenticity is missing,” says Fouad Abdel Malak, executive creative director at TBWA\Raad Dubai. “There seems to be a resistance to genuine stories. Branded content is, unfortunately, still based on a ‘channel’ concept, not a ‘content’ concept; always placing the product at the centre, even if it’s not done in a compelling way. The result is invasive and contrived content that falls by the wayside in this digital age.
“There needs to be more focus on entertainment value and cultural relevance versus blatant branding, and more attention to quality storytelling versus the ‘fast and cheap’ formula.’”--Fouad Abdel Malak, executive creative director at TBWA\Raad Dubai
“There needs to be more focus on entertainment value and cultural relevance versus blatant branding, and more attention to quality storytelling versus the ‘fast and cheap’ formula. [Because] when branded content is done well it should bring that particular brand closer to people’s lives and make it matter more than other brands.”
The challenge for agencies and clients alike is finding that balance between entertainment and promotion. Something that is far from easy to do in a world populated by rabid marketers who fail to appreciate subtlety.
So what is the key to great branded content? Immersion and engagement, says Malak. Depth and resonance, says Mirza. “Never structure the narrative like you would a commercial,” insists Mirza. “Approach it like a piece of communication and not advertising. Keep the narrative moving forward. Don’t dwell on things too long. Keep the brand out as far as possible. Bring it in subtly at the end if possible, like pixie dust sign off. Make sure the content is topical. It makes it that much more sticky and sharable.”
There have been successes, of course. ‘Imagine Dubai’, which used the city as the backdrop for the new Imagine Dragons’ music video Thunder, is one example. Blasts from the past such as Eurostar’s Somers Town and BMW’s The Hire also resonate well as client-funded films.
“Creating content people want to consume is hard work for most marketers in the region because somewhere along the line some ‘clever’ person dropped the two words clients love to hear most: ‘savings’ (most people can’t produce great content that connects with audiences using just their phone, despite the myths) and ‘social media’ (it’s where everybody’s at, and it will give you so many more opportunities to sell),” says Malak. “But what they forget to mention – a crucial, often forgotten fact – is that very few people care about your story, and fewer still appreciate it being forced on them while they’re already trying to balance their busy, complicated lives, made even more complicated due to information overload.”
Media, too, is key. Fischer believes that the notion of tactical branded ‘content hubs’, whereby consumers are expected to continue their journeys on client-owned platforms, needs to be rethought.
“With onsite engagements and time spent going down drastically, it is wishful thinking to assume consumers will spend time consuming content on anything other than their trusted sources,” says Fischer. “Instead, we need to embrace the natural flow of the digital consumer behaviour and ensure that our content can be digested where consumers are already spending their time, making it social, video and mobile first, ensuring that we can tell the full story within these channels.
“Today, we have all the tools to deliver great experiences without disrupting organic user journeys such as cross-channel re-targeting or sequential messaging. We are also able to closely monitor what worked and what didn’t, and what are the characteristics of the users who engage. The more emphasis we put in creating content tailored to these platforms the better the results will be. I believe this is a much better way to build meaningful ongoing relationships with our audiences, and because these channels are already designed for sharing and consuming content, we can deliver a greater ROI.”
So what should the future look like for a format that is struggling to distance itself from an overtly corporate and commercial present?
“It’s going to look and feel more authentic,” says Mirza. “The themes will be braver and bolder. The craft, from an execution standpoint, will look less advertising and more filmic. That’s a long story short.”
“The challenge of telling stories that consumers care about will remain,” adds Fischer. “The evolution will come from distribution and how we will be able to personalise content at scale. The fact that when I open my Netflix app I get to see a different trailer than my neighbour for the same TV show (based on my behaviour), and that this content even varies depending on the device I am using, is the perfect example of this shift. As automation of media becomes the norm, we will have more opportunities to tailor content to our audiences, but we will also have to work harder to add value.”