Has Branded Content Failed?

/ Feb 26, 2016

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This week, a very well written Harvard Business Review article from Douglas Holt called “Branding In An Age Of Social Media,” got a lot of traction on social media and in marketing circles. Holt examines the rise of digital subcultures as they disrupt traditional media (with the success of social stars like PewDiePie) and traditional marketing practices (with the rise of Chipotle in opposition to brands like Coke and McDonald’s). Holt argues that branded content has failed because marketing via high-budget filmed entertainment is outdated and the entertainment landscape itself is now too competitive for consumer brands to break through in the same way that community-centric “crowd culture” can. Brands can no longer “buy fame.”

Holt is tapping into people’s increasing dubiousness about this giant buzz phrase “branded content” and, like a number of commentators, looking to a post-branded content marketing landscape in which a new marketing paradigm materializes. In Holt’s belief, brands will become culturally relevant via their ideology and business practices, rather than by the more manipulative marketing of pre-social media era.

Where most commentary around branded content generally sticks to the same well-worn platitudes about being “authentic” or “empathetic,” Holt’s article is much more incisive. I had these sticking points with the following areas of his approach however:

Branded Content As Infotainment Not Just Entertainment

Holt’s argument depends somewhat on seeing branded content as a form of entertainment (“brands succeed when they break through in culture”), rather than as infotainment, where brands succeed by being useful. Much current branded content places viewer education above viewer entertainment. Whether its Obama and Grylls on climate change, exhibition-digital hybrid campaigns like The Gun Shop, GE’s many branded endeavors or entire content sub-categories like native advertising, infotainment provides a viewer, already familiar with a product or issue, with more useful information. In emerging categories like IOT, wearables or smart cars, educational branded content is necessary, not only to teach the consumer to use entirely new types of product, but to deepen the usefulness of that product’s functionality. For example, Speedo providing a swimmer with new training regimens spending on that swimmer’s time splits. For informative branded content to succeed it must be non-manipulative and, most importantly, useful. A consumer brand with superior research and data is in a position to be very useful to its users, so long as it does not abuse that position.

Low Web 2.0 Era Investment Levels In Branded Content

Holt argues that with the rise of Web 2.0 consumer brands waded into film production in a big way (“Hollywood level creative at internet speed”). In reality, this didn’t really happen. Branded entertainment remained a niche area of marketing and most brands remained weary of green lighting initiatives that strayed too far from traditional advertising. Branded YouTube channels largely contained re-treaded TV commercials, “digital content” strategies were mostly pictures, text and perhaps a GIF and were reminiscent of direct marketing. Most viral videos were really long-form commercials, and even highly-awarded campaigns like Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow,” were still really advertising campaigns and not entertainment experiences. Actual branded entertainment experiences like “The Lego Move,” Red Bull’s “Space Jump” and even failures like BudTV were rare, one-offs. Perhaps you could even argue that amateurs and non-traditional media players like Netflix succeeded because traditional media, brands and agencies didn’t seize the opportunity.

Subscribership as a Measurement Of Success

Holt contrasts the subscribership of YouTube stars like PewDiePie (41 million YouTube subscribers) with lower subscribership numbers of Red Bull and McDonald’s’ YouTube pages (4.9 million and 204,000 YouTube subscribers, respectively) and uses this as evidence for effectiveness of amateur-led content against professional brand financed content. This only proves that people don’t want to officially follow or friend consumer brands in the same way that they do their friends, celebrities or media outlets. But it doesn’t mean a branded film or experience isn’t worthwhile when it shows up somewhere along your daily digital routine. PewDiePie himself is generally riffing while playing products made by publicly-traded companies, which is itself a form of branded content. Equally, cultural relevance as Holt describes doesn’t necessarily translate into business results, as GoPro’s struggles demonstrate. True measurement of branded content’s effectiveness still remains a crucial, missing component in this discussion.

Amateur Versus Professional Isn’t Zero Sum

Holt labels the power of amateur or user-generated content as “crowd culture” and he is right about its power to shape businesses and change “the rules of branding.” Customer reviews and unbiased social commentary are some of the biggest factors in purchasing decisions and as the power of e-commerce sites such as Amazon grows, this trend becomes ever more important. This doesn’t mean there is not a place for brand-financed content however, as long as it is honest, helpful or conveys benefits and value in some way. It just can no longer be the hard sell or the manipulation. Ubisoft recently debuted a 30-minute film on Amazon ahead of the launch of their upcoming game The Division. That’s a film at the point of purchase, alongside customer reviews.

Sponsorships Are Still Powerful

Holt discusses the failure of traditional sponsorship of events and argues the cultural value of celebrity endorsements “is fading.” I would argue that celebrity endorsement of brands is changing, not fading. Fragmenting media means that brand sponsorship of large events like The Grammys, The Super Bowl Halftime Show, the next James Bond movie or a Hollywood blockbuster or Coachella is ever more powerful. But, just like celebrity endorsements, the way brands use these events has to change, become less interruptive and annoying and more believable. Similarly, with endorsements, a Google search usually reveals whether a celebrity actually uses the product they are endorsing or whether they endorsed a competitor last year. Endorsements need to become longer term and more believable as a result. Beats is an undeniable example of the power of expert celebrity endorsement.

Overall Holt, like a number of marketing commentators, is looking to find smart labeling alternatives to a paradigm shift we have come to label meaninglessly as branded content. “Cultural branding” feels more like a subcategory of branded content than it does an entirely new paradigm, however.  As a subcategory it feels more appropriate for businesses looking to disrupt established players, than as a solution for every brand. Part of the issue is that “branded content” now really just means marketing. It stands for everything outside of traditionally interruptive advertising like TV spots, popups and banners and, to be honest, even some TV commercials now fall into the branded content category (Rabbit Race or Geico’s Unskippable Spot). Branded content hasn’t failed, it’s just the epithet itself is meaningless, and there is a need for a more nuanced breakdown of all the various approaches, skill sets and forms in this new and exciting marketing landscape we find ourselves in.

This post was penned by VideoInk publishing partner Branded.tv, a one-stop shop for branded entertainment. Branded.tv features and catalogs the best branded entertainment campaigns from around the world.

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