BCMA Thinks: A New Age of Branded Content

By Steve Macallister, Independent media consultant 

You don’t need to have worked in the media industry to recognise the complete transformation of the business during the past 20-30 years. The emergence of cable and satellite TV platforms, the invention of the internet, the subsequent launches of Google, YouTube, iPhone, Facebook, Netflix – to name but a few obvious examples – have changed the face of the industry completely, resulting in a plethora of options for the consumer.

Of course, many other industry sectors have also gone through significant periods of evolutionary change during the past decade or two (news and print media, retail, music, travel, healthcare, book publishing), all further empowering the customer. And it’s this newly empowered, media savvy consumer that presents marketers across all industries with their biggest challenge: how to cut through the clutter of media, entertainment and advertising messages in order to engage with their core customers, at a time of extraordinary consumer and media choice?

Distribution strategy should be a key component of the overall content marketing plan to enable brands to cut through an increasingly crowded market.

Now the very fact that you are reading this piece means that you already recognise the challenge, but also the huge opportunity that this presents. We are at the dawn of a brand new chapter – an era where content marketing is set to become a mainstream marketing tool. Where understanding how to engage and entertain your end user is vital. A new age of branded content, where knowing your audience has never been more imperative.

As professional marketers, you will of course, already know your consumer inside out. The enormous amounts of data that you have gathered will have enabled you to build highly detailed customer profiles that include purchasing patterns, lifestyle preferences, and media consumption habits.

To that end, it has long been standard practice for practitioners to use data to identify the right advertising environment for their brands. Traditionally this has required a combination of choosing the appropriate media mix (TV, press, radio, cinema, outdoor, online) and then identifying specific content (i.e. TV show, magazine feature, theatrical movie) with the right creative/editorial environment within those media to sponsor or to place an ad.

Indeed, brand funded programming has been around as long as commercial television itself – soap operas being a prime early example of serials that were funded by the likes of P&G, Colgate and Lever Brothers.

But as we all know, television as a straightforward advertising medium is not what it once was, with many viewers now choosing to skip through traditional spot advertisements via ‘time-shift’ viewing – in addition of course to the impact that SVOD and other subscription services on commercial TV.

As a consequence, marketers are moving up the television value chain and commissioning TV content for their own requirements. They have to acquire new skills and expertise that will enable them to assess the best creative solutions. This evolutionary step will require more than just an increase in marketing budget: a change in mindset is required, leading to a shift in culture and the need for innovative organisational structures and processes to drive this new area of creativity.

It will also require an approach to content creation that will enable properties to be repurposed for utilisation during all stages of the customer’s lifecycle and different media channels (for instance more ‘snackable’ targeted content when emailing customers directly). With sufficient resource, building bespoke, modular content libraries will help maximise such utility across the various distribution channels and lifecycle stages.

So, to truly thrive in this new world, brand teams will need to identify, develop, commission and invest in creative projects at an early, pre-production stage.

So, to truly thrive in this new world, brand teams will need to identify, develop, commission and invest in creative projects at an early, pre-production stage. And if that’s not enough, they’ll also need to get their heads around the myriad of distribution options available to get their content in front of the people that matter – and at the right time during the purchasing cycle. There are of course a wide variety of options available – in addition to embedding the content on the relevant landing pages of a brand’s website.

Social media networks (Facebook, Instagram, Youtube) are probably the most targeted way of reaching core consumers. These platforms enable brands to create communities of die-hard customers and should form a key part of any branded distribution strategy. Platform agnostic Publishers such as BuzzFeed can also be a very effective distribution vehicle across multiple social networks.

However there will always be an element of ‘preaching to the converted’ with this approach and whilst the ‘viral factor’ will always be a key component of spreading the word further, other avenues should be embraced if trying to grow market share.

Partnering with a global advertising agency group (e.g. WPP, OMD, Publicis, Interpublic, Dentsu) will be a natural step for many, as these big agency networks will certainly have ‘global clout’ with broadcasters, cable networks and platforms due to the sheer volume of ads they buy annually, and perhaps more importantly are past masters at targeting tightly defined audiences.

At the other end of the agency spectrum, brands should consider partnering with one of the many independent digital marketing agencies that have emerged in recent years. By doing so you will be tapping into, what are by definition, highly entrepreneurial and creative cultures, and many will be able to provide a full range of services, particularly for more finely targeted solutions.

Aligning with a global cable network (Turner, NBC, Fox, BBC, Viacom, Discovery) – as part of an enhanced ‘ad-buy’ – is one of the most direct routes if the brand is producing its own content, but this approach will be naturally limited by the distribution, demographics and market penetration of the channel(s) in question.

Alternatively partnering on a co-production basis is a good way into the premium end of the content market (e.g. drama), but you’ll possibly be one in a syndicate of investors – one of which is likely to be an international distributor – and retaining brand attribution could become an issue depending on the composition of the syndicate.

And finally, working with a traditional TV content distributor could provide a viable route to market for some – although as the majority are in the business of maximising license fees (most typically work on a commission basis) this approach could result in broader and therefore, less defined audiences. In the event however, that broader audiences are precisely what you require, then the distributor will first need to be convinced that the content could stand on it’s ‘own feet’ creatively, and commercially, for it to thrive in the international marketplace.

This leads us to the crucial point: to deliver a strong ROI in today’s market, brands will need to take extreme care from the outset to craft content that has, above all else, creative integrity and authenticity.

This leads us to the crucial point: to deliver a strong ROI in today’s market, brands will need to take extreme care from the outset to craft content that has, above all else, creative integrity and authenticity. In today’s already overcrowded content environment, this is the only way your branded content will have a fighting chance to cut through.

Make no mistake, engaged consumers will be key in an increasingly competitive landscape. And in an environment where the backdrop is one of ever increasing ‘mega-consolidation’ of media and retail, distribution strategy will be vital for marketers to thrive in this exciting new chapter.