Preview: The marketing & business evolution


In a preview of his new ebook, Justin Kirby explains how content marketing is moving beyond definitions to find a shared lexicon.

For the second year in a row since its inception in 2012, the Branded Content & Entertainment jury at Cannes Lions did not award a Grand Prix.

Debates in the jury room still revolve around what is and what isn’t branded content, and how it’s different from advertising. This is a reflection of the challenges faced by the industry generally as it responds to the disruption caused by the changing media landscape, and it explains why attempting to define this rapidly evolving approach is like nailing jelly to a table. I’m reminded of the parable where six blind men bump into an elephant and each think they’ve encountered something different: the one that touches the trunk thinks it’s a snake, the one that touches a tusk thinks it’s a spear, and so on. The difference being that, in the marketing world, there’s at least growing clarity that content will lie at the heart of every marketing strategy. That’s why BBDO Worldwide’s Chief Creative Officer David Lubars, who was president of this year’s Cannes BC&E jury, thinks that we’re looking at something that transcends category, which is also true of digital and even social – now they’re just part of what marketing is and how it’s done.

In short, we’re talking about the future of marketing and this means that there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to solving client problems with content.

It also means that clients are unlikely to find any one supplier that has the answers to all their challenges, which suggests that the days of generic content experts are likely to be numbered as the industry begins to fracture and divide into more specialist areas. This is likely to require a new language to describe the different areas, rather than the current confusing array of terms being used interchangeably by practitioners as they try to articulate which part of the elephant their offering represents – branded content, branded entertainment, brand publishing, content marketing, etc. 

Benchmarking who brings what to the table, when and where

It’s not just a shared lexicon that’s needed, but also a better understanding of who actually brings what to the table.

There’s a Wild West right now with new agency models and disciplines merging, such as publishers becoming agencies. There’s also an increasing number of new routes to market. This includes celebrities and rising social stars who are moving beyond simple product endorsements to become content publishers that bypass traditional media and even become joint venture partners. Then there’s the growing number of platform providers listed in reports by the likes of Altimeter and Forrester, which suggests that investors see another gold rush where fortunes can be made by selling algorithmic picks and shovels.

But trying to map the territory, let alone stake your claim, is a bit like trying to stick signposts in the shifting sands of a desert. For example, how do you compare editorial-style content delivered through a publishing platform with branded video entertainment that’s watched on a Multi-Channel Network (MCN) or through an over-the-top (OTT) service like Hulu, let alone with a full-length feature like the LEGO movie? As former Ad Age editor and Cannes BC&E jury president Scott Donaton (now Chief Content Officer at DigitasLBi) explains, they’re all part of the content spectrum and represent some of the many ways that people are using technology and innovation to tell stories and create experiences now. Nonetheless, there’s a growing demand from clients to benchmark results. Perhaps one solution would be to stop trying to compare what type of content is being produced by whom, and focus instead on what approaches work well and where in the different stages of the customer’s decision journey, especially in terms of influencing behavioural change. For example, how you drive direct response in the short term is different to bringing about changes in purchasing preferences, which might need longer-term investment in very different content strategies to win hearts rather than just price-comparing minds.

The rise of brand culture and purpose beyond profit

The explosion in data will transform measurement. But, as Chris McCarthy at The Zoo (Google’s dedicated team of creative technologists) thinks, brands also need to consider their communication strategy in terms of cultural strategy (brand culture), not only editorial strategy (brand content).

McCarthy was the president of the new Brand Culture award jury at the Cristal Ad Festival in 2014. He sees the introduction of this category as an important development, because “brands need to understand that connecting with people is a social exercise” that “is conducted through the messy, murky construct called culture: the stuff we consume, talk about, watch and interact with.”

The backdrop is a growing realisation among brands that they have to play a more positive role in society, and a role that’s relevant to people so that they actually care about the brand.

In his new book, From Survival to Significance, Jeremy Waite at Salesforce presents a progression through what he calls the “5 Levels of Brand Leadership,” which outlines the challenges faced by brands at each step and what it takes to get to the next level. At the highest level, it’s no longer enough to be simply customer-centric – to become a truly significant brand that inspires people requires having a social purpose beyond profit. This is how Jeremy thinks brands achieve the kind of “loyalty beyond reason” coined by Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts, which Jeremy believes provides businesses with the foundations for ongoing success and longer-term sustainability.

P&G’s #LikeAGirl campaign from their Always brand is one manifestation of a social purpose beyond profit. It also illustrates McCarthy’s point about using content to have a cultural-level conversation – in this case, about how we regard and treat women in the world. Another example is Chipotle’s award-winning work that helps communicate their anti-agribusiness point of view, which resonates emotionally with their customers, so they avoid having to compete with 99-cent burrito promotions.

Thick Data – the cure to the content clutter headache?

Despite the Big Data hype, there’s a growing acceptance about its limits, as highlighted by Barney Worfolk-Smith at Th@t Lot who observed that the disruptive spark that gave us cars rather than faster horses is not to be found in an algorithm.

Using historical data can help us understand more about the when and where of human behaviour, but provides no inherent insight about the why. That requires brands to become more customer obsessed – they need to go beyond the desk and dashboard to get a deeper understanding of their audience using the Thick Data derived from more ethnographic research. This helps bring about not only inspiring products and services – including those that customers didn’t know they needed – but also the insights to develop better and more creative content strategies, including the kind of platforms talked about by MarketingProfs’ Ann Handley that help customers tell their stories at scale.

With more content being produced now than ever before, how brands use the insights gained from Thick Data in order to refine their analysis of Big Data looks set to become the antidote for curing the content clutter headache. This will result in better targeting and refined storytelling. It will also help brands understand more about their worthy existence or social purpose, particularly businesses that buy into author Simon Sinek’s idea: