Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

How to keep the mojo in branded content

Published in Nov-Dec 2015

Novelty and engagement are what is required,

American Idol, once a mega-hit series, will end in 2016. At its peak in 2006, Idol drew more than 36 million viewers in the US for its season finale. Since then, ratings have fallen nearly every season with this year attracting only one-third of the viewers witnessed during its peak. What caused the decline of a programme that was a global phenomenon?

As someone said, change is the only constant. We are creatures who exhibit curiosity. We are distracted by shiny new objects. Once boredom sets in, we search for the next shiny object. In the book Boredom: A Lively History, scholar Peter Toohey examines boredom as an adaptive mechanism. “Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish.”

So by nature we seek and create the new ‘new’ which makes the old look pale. In the case of American Idol, the formula which made it engaging was the reason it lost its edge. The show’s meteoric rise was its novel way of engaging audiences – they could help discover the next pop star. The authenticity was further accentuated by judges like Simon Cowell who were forthright and blunt in their critique. However, with judges changing frequently and more importantly Idol’s promise of producing stars waning, the show began to lose its power to engage. It stopped delivering on its promise, and new competitive shows such as The Voice began to challenge the status quo with a new format.

Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

A recent phenomenon which continues to build a diehard fan following is the fantasy drama TV series Game of Thrones. It not only immerses viewers in a world of fantasy through elaborate sets, the plot keeps people guessing – especially those who have not read the books it is based on. Its brutal realism is also surprising where the expected good guy (Ned Stark) dies in the first episode. From then on, one’s subconscious expectation of a Lord of the Rings type happy ending is crushed leaving the mind curious for the unexpected twists. The series continues to deliver on its promise that, “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

So what can we learn from these two examples?

To gain an audience, content has to be constantly engaging. Creative disruption practiced with a deep understanding of cultural trends creates content that is novel. It can be entertaining or informative or both. The process and mindset drives the freshness that is at the essence of making content entertaining. Novelty lies in being format, duration and channel agnostic – as long as the content is aligned with what the brand stands for.

Branded content is not easy to define. It can interchangeably be called branded entertainment or more recently native advertising. In essence it is a variation of a brand’s way of telling stories. While advertising is a short format with a sales story, branded content relates to an audience’s interest first and subtly ties in the brand’s relevance.

Coke Studio is a musical platform that creates fusion between the old and the new. It inspires creativity and passion, which is what the Coca-Cola brand stands for. With the format well defined, the innovation is driven by the mix of talent that Coke Studio continues to bring together. Although the producers have changed, perhaps to refresh the content, the challenge for Coke Studio will be whether the format of a live-studio recording on TV will continue to be engaging. The need to change will be accelerated if a serious contender introduces a new music platform which becomes more entertaining.

Branded content can also present itself as an episodic opportunity. With the advent of Pakistani films, brands have taken the opportunity to go beyond product placement by developing branded songs. Rivo Mobile’s branding of the item song Selfiyan Re Selfiyan in Wrong Number and Fair & Lovely Ka Jalwa featured in Jawani Phir Nahi Aani are examples of shorter, episodic branded entertainment. It demonstrates the option of opportunistically integrating with someone else’s content.

There can also be standalone episodic content. As early as 2001 and 2002, BMW released a series of consecutive short films called The Hire. The series, which consisted of eight films, featured famous filmmakers and starred celebrities, including Madonna. Clive Owen starred as the ‘Driver’ and different BMWs were showcased throughout the films. The films were the first example of the complete fusion between advertising and entertainment. And it employed a unique approach to advertising because consumers had to seek out the content themselves on a dedicated website. The films were successful because they were prioritising the entertainment aspect of the story first and subtle branding second.

In a world overwhelmed by information and messages, brands need to constantly create content, whether through a dedicated owned platform or through a stream of episodic content. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be just entertainment either. Publishing informative content and driving advocacy are other forms of content which enforces brand value and demonstrates thought leadership.

The advent of digital technology in particular, is creating innovative ways for brands to publish content enabling information-rich platforms like the beauty portal

“The best way to establish and reinforce common values is to create content that’s so highly specific it defines not only the brand, but the customer,” writes Alexander Jutkowitz, managing partner for Group SJR in the Harvard Business Review. Group SJR, part of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, is among a growing segment of specialised agencies focusing on creating and disseminating content. Others such as Skyword position themselves as experts in sustainable content marketing.

Even traditional publishers are creating opportunities to collaborate with brands. Forbes with its initiative BrandVoice offers publishing access to, to content creators, search discovery and realtime analytics. Fox Sports recently announced a new initiative called Fox Sports Engage, a multiplatform branded-content distribution programme which aims to give advertisers a wider audience. The focus is on how to better distribute the branded content offered to clients.

Alternatively, a brand can leverage unique data to create an ongoing branded content platform. While at a healthcare technology company in the US, I worked on a project to use unique data to rank healthcare insurance companies. The rankings, which were the first of their kind, were extensively covered and quoted by leading publishers and eventually became an industry benchmark. Branded as proprietary content, the platform continues to publish rankings annually building the company’s position as a thought leader.

In conclusion, a brand can create and disseminate content in many different ways. It can avoid losing its mojo by continuous innovation which can be driven through the content format, story plot, information shared, personalities involved, advocacy and support for movements, among other such factors. The content can be based around an owned long term platform, a series of short episodic activities or native integration in third-party content. Editorial independence in creating content that is purposeful will always be critical, but the effectiveness in creating relevant ideas will rely on a clear articulation of the brand. It will always stem from what the brand stands for.

Amin Rammal is Director, APR, The Brand Crew and Firebolt63.