The fireworks have come and gone, and summer is finally upon us. Naturally conducive to gathering, this season beckons people of all ages to actively participate in moments that matter. While many of the same tried and true activities perennially prevail, it has long been the norm that each ice cream cone is Instagrammed and every swimming hole Snapchatted.
Given the reality that many will at least temporarily abandon their screen-lit caves in search of clambakes, beach parties and rose-colored glasses, there are still ample opportunities for marketers to reach consumers by connecting to and reinforcing these moments that matter. One medium particularly ripe for summer picking — with its blockbusters, music festivals, sporting events and other key cultural moments — is branded storytelling.
For each article questioning branded content, two more hail it as the future of marketing. A quick “branded content” search yields 6,420,000 results, with countless bylines promising highly sought clarity.
The industry’s confusion stems from inconsistencies in accurately measuring ROI; difficulties building in a compelling call to action; concerns over splicing success between publishers and brands; the proliferation of anxious in-house or inexperienced branded content studios; creative expression and freedom tugs of war.
In some cases, the definition of branded content itself is a moving target, with the ever-changing category all too often getting muddled into a veritable Pimm’s Cup of native advertising, branded entertainment, content marketing, sponsored content, content brands and more.
Heck, the Branded Content & Entertainment jury at Cannes did not feel inspired to award a Grand Prix in 2014 and 2015. This underwhelming response and overarching ambiguity prompted the festival to overhaul the category and relaunch as the two-day, standalone Lions Entertainment in 2016. The Entertainment Lions and adjunct Entertainment Lions for Music now offer entrants a combined 11 categories and 81 subcategory options for jurors to evaluate how creatively and effectively advertisers turned consumers into fans, and content into culture.
While a Cannes entry may compel “unskippable, captivating, cut-through ideas that communicate a brand message or connect with consumers in a new way,” clients and marketers often still struggle to pressure-test ideas that fit the bill.
My employer, Ipsos, uses this definition of branded content: “content fully or partly funded by a brand which promotes the brand’s values and provides something of value to audiences — often by entertaining, informing and/or educating.”
Simple enough, right? But defining value is a nuanced proposition. So the reality of building or identifying successful branded content then requires hitting additional qualifiers, with the intent then expanded to ensure that it is a dynamic experience, the audience is in control, it compels rather than interrupts, it feels like a natural extension of the brand, and it organically supports brand growth.
Mining for success
As we know, context matters, and authenticity matters. Effective, authentic, made-for-the-moment branded content enables the audience to actively participate in a storyline and want to share it. Done well, this becomes branded storytelling.
Branded storytelling is not a new notion. Despite the rampant jargonization of storytelling, it has always been civilization’s most powerful tool to transmit information and win hearts and minds. Now there are countless ways to tell stories effectively, and branded content exploits many a unique channel — with even more to unearth — to reach and convert an audience.
While the landscape may be constantly evolving, branded entertainment itself is not a novel approach, nor are the challenges it faces. Vying for real-world, sustained attention in the age of infinite choice without disrupting the fastidious cultivation of a consumer’s media microcosm can feel like walking a tightrope.
Delivering cut-through at scale is rapidly becoming more onerous with each industry and technological evolution, further complicated by waning attention spans, rigorous filters for authenticity and utter disgust and dismissal for anything that feels personally off-brand in an otherwise meticulously curated universe.
It’s no longer enough for a brand to simply plan to be in the right place at the right time. Meaningful branded storytelling builds its foundation on carefully orchestrated resonance between people, content, brands and platforms. Whether constructing an opportunity to be reaffirmed or reappraised, brands need to craft and tell their stories with arguably more precision than any other medium.
Crafting effective branded stories
1. Understand and engage the audience. You have about five seconds to captivate and command further attention, while telling your story in the right place (where the target audience goes and reveres most), right time (while they are already interacting with their day-to-day platforms) and right context (understanding their needs, values, aspirations, and mapping their feelings, associations and memories with your brand or category). Once you have attained this trifecta, you can better develop and seed content which affirms or incites loyalty.
This year’s Entertainment Lion Grand Prix winner, “Beyond Money” from Santander Bank and MRM/McCann Spain, highlights audience homework done well. The strategy acknowledged millennials’ distrust of banks and distaste for advertising, and through exploring the many layers of their audience, the bank’s agency created a nuanced, compelling story which built trust and affinity with a key target, became part of cultural conversation and has most certainly cemented itself as a change agent in the future of the broader financial services category.
2. Define the brand’s role and value. The value of branded storytelling hinges on the link between the “hook” of the content and how much you can make it ladder up to your brand or product value, so you need to be clear from the start what that value is. Everything centers around it.
3. Make it meaningful. Branded storytelling is not a brand message that is positioned as content — that inevitably leads to content that feels like advertising, which few people are receptive to in this era of authenticity and choice. Content needs to provide value for people beyond whatever it is your brand or product does.
Is it exposing a truth? Is it breaking news? The story is often difficult to get right because it needs to have the integrity of a theatrical film or piece of journalism or artistic experience, while aligning with the values of your brand.
In 2014, The New York Times parlayed their legacy of storytelling into T Brand Studio, an increasingly separate division wholly dedicated to crafting and illuminating brand stories. The studio has created more than 150 programs for almost 100 brands to date, discussing a broad range of tenets and topics and delicately balancing these stories with key brand attributes in a way that feels meaningful. One of the first campaigns they made headlines with was in partnership with Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” which intelligently juxtaposed a well-researched piece pondering the ineffective prison model for women with a promotion for the show.
4. Make it actionable. What is the desired outcome of the content? It should include giving people an action to take. This will not only extend the interaction with your brand, but it will also make the piece of content that much more impactful by making the interaction two-way.
The action doesn’t need to be complex, or even directly impact the brand. Wieden + Kennedy’s “Time Is Precious” campaign for Nike Running simply encourages people to leave their screens for a while to get out and go for a run.
5. Leverage the power of amplification. Resonance — measured through targets actively choosing to spend time with your brand’s insertion into their day-to-day lives and then feeling compelled to share and discuss content online and off — is the holy grail for branded storytelling and a rich opportunity for ROI in earned media. The means to effectively seed shareability should be inherently built into any branded storyline.
Once resonance, interest and loyalty are established, branded content is fertile ground for continual storytelling by creating additional opportunities such as new installments of a story line or series or increased events to entertain and share for further amplification.
Navigating the future of entertainment
While it’s important to understand a working definition and peripheral punch list, it is equally integral in this rich arena not to be hamstrung by preconceived notions of what branded storytelling should be, but also press forth for what it could be and constantly seek out or invent new entertainment models.
Technology alone will continually push the limits of what brands can do, but it’s up to both marketers and creators to find common ground and operate partnerships with trust and imagination to weave interesting tales that people want to live in and share.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.
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