Marketing strategies have had to evolve as consumers demand less intrusive, more compelling advertising methods. Branded content is the latest fad, but is it just that? A fad which will soon go out of fashion?
Globally, 61% of Generation X, Y and Z claim they skip ads whenever they can, either by using ad-blockers or by turning their attention elsewhere, according to Kantar Millward Brown’s AdReaction Study 2017. It is little wonder then, that the same company, in its Media and Digital Predictions for 2018, made the prognostication that this would be the year that “branded entertainment takes centre stage”.
While marketers and advertisers internationally are entranced by the new possibilities created when brands and entertainment, or indeed any content, intersect, haziness and confusion also seem to shroud the discipline. When the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) commissioned a collaborative research project, conducted by Oxford Brookes University and Ipsos MORI, it became apparent that even experienced communication practitioners struggled to agree on a definition of branded content. They often found it easier to describe what it was not: Not an interruptive advertisement. (This was published, in 2016, under the imposing title ‘Defining branded content for the digital age. The industry experts’ views on branded content as a new marketing communications concept.’)
This has not deterred South African marketers and advertisers from plunging into branded content with so much enthusiasm, that Deborah Brady, commercial director for Africa of Discovery Networks CEEMEA, humorously proposed that it has become the “bees’ knees” locally. Slightly cynically, Duncan Irvine, co-founder and CEO of Rapid Blue, suggested there was something of a three-year trend lag in South Africa, and that the communications industry was currently sprinting to catch up on this trend.
The level of commitment from marketers is wide, as is the range of formats being employed. At one end of the spectrum, Standard Bank developed Your Next Million to “capture the attention of our mass market audience with a highly interactive long duration solution,” Julio Rodrigues, OMD SA unit director, explained. By utilising the tried and tested game show format, while focusing the contenders’ tasks and questions on financial wellbeing, Rodrigues said they have produced “a game show that delivers strong engagement levels and frequency through appointment viewing. To ensure we remained relatable we included a well known celebrity, Thembisa Mdoda, and secured airtime on South Africa’s largest TV station at 20:27 on SABC 1, between Generations and Uzalo”.
But branded content need not only be the domain of the deep-pocketed top 20 advertiser. As Fahmeeda Cassim-Surtee, CEO of DStv Media Sales (SA), points out, “That’s the beauty of branded content – it gives the opportunity for small advertisers who don’t have big budgets to also compete. In the world of branded content, brands don’t need to create commercials, so it excludes large production costs.”
This places local content producers in an excellent position. Peter Gird, executive producer, Cooked In Africa Films, cites the discrete involvement of Snowflake in Charley’s Cake Angels, and Suzuki in The Ultimate Braai Master.
An interesting variation on original content development, but requiring significant investment in production, was The Gentleman’s Wager – The Race. Irvine explained that this was a local take on Johnnie Walker’s internationally acclaimed short film The Wager, starring Jude Law. The local version involved Gugu Zulu, Vusi Thembekwayo and Mika Häkkinen in a motor racing challenge.
News is not a genre one would predict would offer scope for branded content, especially given that sponsorship of news and current affairs on television is prohibited. Jonathan Cooke, trade brand manager at eMedia Sales, explained that the CNN approach to branded content (think Rolex and yachting) had inspired the exploration of how it could work in a local context. He was adamant there was absolutely no compromise on editorial integrity, and gave assurance that editorial credibility is tantamount. It was a matter of finding opportunities for amplifying or complementing news stories, in a way that added value to the viewer, in a credible way. The annual Meetings Africa, South Africa’s business tourism lekgotla, was an event which would receive news coverage, but which warranted deeper exploration. Partnering with SA Tourism made that possible.
Understand the audience
Cooke also made the point that having a repertoire of online touchpoints is crucial to being able to build commercial value for clients. Restrictions around news and the hard line that the sales team be innovative in building commercial value for its advertisers. Online live streaming, the creation of pop-up channels, and the provision and curation of material for social media are useful tools.
The starting point for successful branded content is to “understand the audience”, as Rodrigues succinctly put it. In a similar vein, Clare Trafankowska, digital account director at MEC Global, agreed that “branded content should be created with the consumer at it’s heart and this requires in-depth understanding into consumer behaviour”.
Brady issued a caveat here: Consumers do not necessarily inherently care about what a brand has to say to them. They are certainly not going to be beguiled by branded content that is too closely shaped by traditional advertising perceptions. “It is necessary for marketers to prove to consumers… that what we truly do have is something of value to communicate,” said Trafankowska. Given “the blending of our diverse population, and colourful political and economic culture”, she postulated that “South Africans are incredibly advanced, analytical and untrusting consumers”.
One area that the BCMA experts agreed on was that it was crucial that branded content should be engaging. If consumers have choice about whether or not to watch branded content, then clearly brands need to deliver what people are going to want to watch, read or engage with. ‘Engagement’ sounds simple, but can be daunting to define. Trafankowska suggests that it can be found across various types of material: While entertaining springs first to mind, it is also worth considering informative and educational factors. Branded content must provide consumers with some sort of value.
Transparency and authenticity are also key. The warning that “one cannot try to fool consumers” was reiterated by advertisers, producers and broadcasters alike. Neither should one try to shoe-horn a brand into an existing advertiser-funded programme (AFP), or resort to the unsubtle flogging of one’s brand (a variant on the hoary exhortation to make the logo bigger, in advertising terms).
Referring to a 2016 Nielsen’s Insight piece, Trafankowska ticked off the qualities that good branded content should have: A central personality, a unique concept, and a connection with the audience. It is also important for the style of content to be a good fit for the brand.
Taking another point of view, Brady pointed out that if marketers are looking for airtime to disseminate their branded content, then it also needed to work for the broadcasters, and be wholly aligned to the station’s programming requirements, and deliver ratings. She warned that there is a third side to the relationship, that of the programme creator/producer, either developing original content or working with a licensed format. Often, she believes there are diverging needs, rather than common objectives: one of the keys to delivering successful branded content is for all parties to be very clear of their objectives upfront, and to reach agreement upfront.
This desired relationship between the parties was often referred to as a “partnership”, stressing the need for close cooperation and the balancing of interests. Brady even suggested the value of having a neutral production manager to “keep all parties” honest.
Behind the scenes
Another practical point of advice Brady made was that going the licensed format route ensured the gremlins had all been ironed out. Alternatively, she warned that marketers choosing to develop original content should ensure they worked with meticulous production companies, and that they also be prepared to understand that a lot of what makes TV content look good, actually happens behind the scenes. These points imply that time is a critical ingredient in creating successful branded content.
Rodrigues concurred with the need for brands to “collaborate with their agencies and media partners, while providing enough time to create the magic”. Cooke shared the fact that he worked well in advance, developing an annual event calendar, to highlight potential opportunities, and stressed the necessity of having adequate time to work with brand partners. Related to the issue of time was a point that was repeatedly made: Branded content is “not a quick fix” as Gird put it.
Even if the holy grail of engaging branded content is produced, there is no guarantee that consumers will find it. The BCMA conceded that it was “important to acknowledge that branded content needs a content marketing framework, which often combines a pull and push logic. It also needs to be acknowledged that push-oriented approaches can similarly still deliver value for audiences”. Rodrigues illustrated this by explaining that Your Next Million has been “supported by owned channels, radio and OOH. We leveraged the property through activated radio and digital channels as well as an internal launch to staff at Standard Bank”.
It is also necessary to engage consumers – especially Gen X, Y and Z – across multiple platforms and devices. Maximising the effectiveness of branded content requires an understanding of the unique format/opportunities available to each.
The final challenge is how to measure the effectiveness of this non-traditional form of communication. Rodrigues indicated that Standard Bank would use multiple measures, spanning metrics such as the reach achieved (ratings delivered), new customer acquisitions/leads, engagement levels across other channels (including activated radio and digital ones) and communication tracker results. Any ongoing commitment to branded content also requires repeated assessments of learnings and content refinement.
South African marketers have clearly embraced new branded content opportunities. This discipline is certain to grow, as will the understanding of the opportunities and pitfalls.
This story was first published in the April 2018 issue of The Media magazine.
Having spent some decades working in the media agencies, Britta Reid now relishes the opportunity to take an independent perspective on the South African media world, especially during this time of radical research transformation