With media inflation running high, concerns about clutter denting ad effectiveness, and brands seeking to engage with consumers rather than talk at them, branded content is growing in both appeal and sophistication. Now a category of its own at Cannes Lions, branded content has moved on immeasurably from the often-clumsy TV product placements of a decade or so ago. Advertisers, agencies and the creators of content are seeing that, especially in the digital world of hyper-distracted consumers, the challenges to success are many —but so are the potential rewards for work that pushes all the right buttons.
“There’s a real appetite for this kind of work,” says Malcolm Hanlon, chief operating officer at
ZenithOptimedia Asia-Pacific, which launched its first branded content-focused Newcast offices in Asia about three years ago. “We’ve gone from zero people in Asia to probably 25 focused on branded content — that’s a big explosion in staff and four major offices.”
Much of the reason for advertisers warming to the idea of branded content comes down to cost; in a market like China, it takes a massive budget to fund a traditional campaign of TV commercials, and rates have been climbing rapidly around the region, putting TV beyond the reach of smaller advertisers. But branded content is not just being used as a cheap alternative to traditional advertising, and in some markets, it can actually carry a price premium. The other big draw is that it reaches consumers in a different and — advertisers would hope — deeper way, as part of what consumers want to watch, read or chat about, rather than interrupting what they’re doing.
According to the World Advertising Research Council (WARC), the rise of branded content is inextricably linked to the boom in digital consumption of media and the share-ability of content. Online video platforms are hugely popular in Asia, and the cost of entry for advertisers is minimal compared to traditional media. In markets where digital and mobile are especially strong, the economic argument makes even more sense. In Singapore, Hanlon points out, nearly two-thirds of the population has a smartphone, and it costs a tiny fraction of the cost of TV advertising to reach a significant proportion of the population with branded online video, games, apps and other shareable content.
Mike Rich, CEO of GroupM ESP for Asia-Pacific, says the rise of digital consumption makes branded content more attractive on several levels. “Firstly, the desire amongst digital media owners, and their audiences, for quality content is insatiable and grow-ing, ensuring great value for advertisers willing to get their feet wet in this space. If you then layer all the other benefits of accurate targeting, creative flexibility, limited IP restrictions and the influence of social media in ‘pre-selling’ your content and driving conversations during and post airing, you have a very powerful platform indeed,” Rich says.
However, he believes that the single biggest benefit for clients is scalability. “We can produce small runs of short form video content, whether our clients are new in this space or uncertain of the likely engagement levels it will drive, at relatively low cost and low risk. We can then determine very rapidly the level of effectiveness, and choose whether to ramp up production, refine or simply think again.”
The number of advertisers willing to dip their toes in branded content is growing quickly in Asia. Ben Flint, head of Asia-Pacific at Omnicom’s Fuse, says investment in branded content in Asia grew 13 per cent in 2011 compared to the previous year, and has grown 122 per cent over three years. “It’s gone berserk, from US$175 million in 2009 to $386 million in 2011. We’re seeing more true branded content, whe re the brand is being developed into a piece of content at script stage.”
The growing allure of branded content is a global phenomenon. The Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) reports that, according to a recent survey by the Custom Content Council, 39 per cent of US companies expected to spend more on branded content in 2012 than last year. In the UK alone, the branded content market is worth over £1 billion, including the custom publishing part of the branded content industry, which is far more developed in the West than in Asia.
Digital is, again, a huge driver behind this growth, with the BCMA reporting that more than 500 tweets a minute are posted containing YouTube links — a 300 per cent jump in just one year. Research by eMarketer shows that 39 per cent of companies had budgeted for higher branded content spending in 2012 compared to 2011, with branded content accounting for just over half of total marketing budgets.
In Asia, the rules around what can and can’t be done by brands vary significantly around the region, but in many markets there’s a lack of regulation that means brands’ presence can be far more blatant and unsophisticated than in other regions. It is the more carefully constructed branded content, however, that captures consumers’ and contest judges’ attention.
The shortlist for the WARC Prize for Asian Strategy this year included a reality TV talent series developed by Polident in Malaysia designed to promote the benefits of denture adhesive, and a smart travel guide called ‘50 must-do things in Asia’ by Tiger Beer, designed to attract tourist drinkers — a hard group to reach effectively any other way.
Other recent stand-out work includes the “Unbeatable” drama about an ambitious PR executive for Unilever in China, Johnnie Walker’s film project in China featuring blogger Han Hao’s thoughts on the country’s ‘progressive’ generation, and the branded video content created by Kotex: ‘Stuff girls don’t say’. In Australia, FremantleMedia Enterprises, the commercial arm of FremantleMedia, has just announced a major new digital content initiative with Australia Zoo at the 2012 YouTube Next summit. The partnership will include an Australia Zoo YouTube channel featuring repurposed and original content.
Flint says the best work engages people rather than telling them something. “It’s about storytelling, not logo-slapping.”
ActiveTV is behind the hugely successful Amazing Race Asia series, which showed the region how true integration of brand with content could work. Chief executive Michael McKay says there is a huge consumer appetite in Asia for brands and information about them. “There’s an interest and curiosity about brands and their story, told correctly. A show on how Chanel bags are made, for example, would not be out of place,” he says.
But getting the right level of prominence for brands is a process that takes time, and trust between everyone involved. “We got caught a couple of times with brands who didn’t understand that and devalued their own brand and probably hurt ours a bit too. I liken it to somebody who walks into a five-star restaurant wearing fancy dress. Yes, you’ll be noticed, but will it go down well? Probably not. Sometimes you do get brands trying to be noticed, and they are, but for all the wrong reasons.”
Hanlon says success in branded content comes down to providing value for the consumer, whether that’s entertainment, education or an experience. “Branded content is about consumers pulling a bra
nd towards them, a chance to have a two-way relationship,” he says. “It’s moving away from the traditional, one-way marketing approach to a two-way dialogue, and the whole world is moving towards building relationships for brands, rather than pushing out ads.”
Advertisers do understand that it’s compelling stories that people are drawn to, and that content is a tool to help deliver a brand story, says Haris Ismail, vice-president of media sales at Astro. “The best forms of branded contents we have experienced and produced were those which allow the audience to enter the story world and influence the outcome of the story, with the brand merely helping the story unfold rather than being the story.”
Kevin Dickie, senior vice-president of content group at Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, says there’s an increasing understanding of what branded content is and what it can achieve. “We have moved a long way from branded content being seen as only product placement,” he says. The issue of balancing the presence of a brand with the integrity of content means that Discovery only produces a show that would have stood as valid programming with or without the client backer.
“Our clients have a high regard for our content creativity and integrity and it is this level of consumer credibility and trust that they are buying into,” says Dickie. “Maintaining creative and editorial integrity whilst collaborating with clients to integrate their communications objectives in a natural and organic way helps us create branded content campaigns and programming that work well for all parties — the network, the client and the audience.”