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Creative renaissance: Branded content is allowing advertisers to stand out in a competitive landscape

Red Bull has long been hailed as the godfather of branded content, having successfully shifted its brand image from canned-drinks seller to media owner in its own right. Yet it’s by no means the only game in town. Desperate to find new ways to compete for consumers’ attention in an online world already saturated with content and display ads, marketers are pushing into new territories at a lightening pace.

The Creators Project, Vice Media’s Intel-funded content vertical

Compelled by a desire to address the harsh reality of “banner blindness” in the display arena and a realisation that a branded content strategy which rests entirely on repurposed TV ads is destined for failure, marketers are becoming bolder and smarter in their approaches. In doing so they are gaining a more mature understanding of how to blend ad and content strategies.

The rise of YouTube has shifted the goal posts dramatically giving marketers an alternative, scalable and far cheaper route into their target audiences than traditional TV. Over the last two years YouTube has doubled its watch time in the UK alone, 40 per cent of which is via mobile devices.

The platform, which generates one billion monthly unique users in the UK, has also been evolving and diversifying its offering to help brands maximise their visibility. As a result excitement over what can be done on YouTube has reached fever pitch, and average spend on the platform has surged 60 per cent in the UK.

Yet there is still much to learn with it comes to harnessing YouTube’s full power. Many have fallen into the trap of inadvertently treating it as a content dumping ground, squandering hundreds of thousands of pounds on broadcast-quality videos that have never been seen.

Today 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, making standout even tougher, and to get their content seen marketers must understand YouTube’s algorithm and think more like search marketers when seeding content.

This urgent need to grasp the differences between running successful video content on TV and online platforms, has led to the birth of a new breed of company dedicated to helping brands bridge the gap between TV and platforms like YouTube.

Little Dot Studios is one such company and has built a network of 50 million monthly subscribers across 90 YouTube channels since its launch six months ago. The venture, which is backed by TV production powerhouse All3Media, specialises in helping brands build sustained audiences on YouTube.

Little Dot’s founder and former commercial director at All3Media Andy Taylor says there is a major need for education when it comes to branded content and how to use YouTube. “There are lots of people who claim they can create great video but that’s only half the job. They have to understand how to get views on YouTube. That’s what clients must look for – it’s the most important thing,” he says.

Little Dot has a mix of techniques including working with YouTube stars so brands can piggyback on their established subscriber bases and draw in more views. It works with 35 TV production houses running the YouTube channels for shows including Skins, Towie, The Great British Bake Off and Gordon Ramsay. This gives it a total 50 million-strong audience, which it can use as a network to cross-promote brands’ content.

“The fact we have a TV production background and work with TV-quality content makes brands feel comfortable, but given 100 hours of content are uploaded on YouTube every minute there is still no guarantee of being seen. It’s all about understanding how the YouTube algorithm works, understanding how to title a video and its thumbnail image, how you insert the metadata – there is a skill to doing that in a way that maximises chances of being seen,” adds Taylor.

Little Dot also has a range of original channels, including Daily Mix and Body Talk, which brands can partner with. Beauty and make-up channel Daily Mix, which launched last December, provides celebrity make-up tips and hair how-to videos for 14 to 18 year-old females. Since launch it has clocked up 340,000 subscribers and receives around 100,000 daily views.

Storytelling at scale

Ever-evolving social media platforms have also opened up a new form of branded content, or what some call ‘native advertising’. Facebook’s introduction of ads into its news feed and sponsored stories products, along with Twitter’s promoted tweets, have paved the way for more subtle, engaging brand messages.

FMCG giant Mondelez International, the confectionery arm of Kraft Foods, is at the more advanced end of the spectrum when it comes to exploring branded content. Its focus is to infuse it into the wider marketing mix rather than treating it as something separate. It has developed what it calls a “real-time storytelling at scale” strategy, which it plans to ramp up next year.

Its latest Cadbury’s Crème Egg branded content campaign, which had social media and mobile at its heart, produced results almost on a par with its TV activity. Mondelez’s digital marketing director Sonia Carter says: “This wasn’t a communications objective but a real business objective to address declining sales by targeting 16 to 24 year-olds. People in that age group are massive Facebook consumers – they tend to be on there more than watching TV – and so that was the platform we chose for this particular case.”

The brand worked with all its agencies, including Elvis Communications, to create a host of different content to run within the news feed on Facebook, an idea partly driven by a desire to move away from banner ads, according to Carter. It monitored what was driving organic engagement, binned what didn’t and then used paid media to boost the audience into the millions.

“You’re competing with someone’s sister or boyfriend in the news feed so the content must have the right tone. What we came up with hit a sweet spot and organically we were able to reach around 200,000 people. But that figure is not going to reverse declining sales – you need it to be reaching millions. So we boosted it with paid media and that meant we reached 15 million seven times throughout the 12-month campaign, six million of which was via mobile,” she says.

Yet the most startling results came from the brand adopting a more unified approach to measuring the success of the campaign, alongside its other marketing activity. She describes this as a “watershed moment”, adding: “But the way to make the biggest impact internally was to measure it in the same way we measure other media. Just because there is more data we can use doesn’t mean that is what’s meaningful to stakeholders.

“This is the first time we have measured Facebook content using the same brand metrics we would use for TV. There seems to have been some confusion over how we measured it this way but if you want to understand how TV is working, you measure against brand metrics. So we put Facebook into that mix and we saw that it contributed almost on a par to TV for a third of the investment.”

However, Carter stresses that the Facebook activity didn’t cannibalise the TV campaign, with further research revealing that consumers reacted most favourability to the brand as a result of both. “The people exposed to both TV and Facebook had a 66 per cent higher propensity to purchase. So both higher than either TV or Facebook on its own,” she adds.

Now the brand is planning to replicate its branded content approach for Crème Egg across other brands internationally, according to Carter. “This marks a step change for how we approach content going forward. The key points to remember are to take a systematic approach, iterative creative, have a pot of money for the campaigns, look to your data to inform media spend, and measure the results as you would any other channel,” she says.

Breaking through the huge volume of quality content available online with branded messages is a fine art. DigitasLBi’s head of branded content Graham Hodge believes brands are facing tough competition when it comes to capturing consumer interest.

“A lot of brands assume people want to hear from them on particular subjects, which is presumptuous. People have so much stuff with which they can fill their time, and there are some very clever content creators out there. If a brand wants me to stop watching Breaking Bad or reading Dazed and Confused it had better offer me something good, and that doesn’t mean product features, it means something I really care about,” he says.

One of DigitasLBi’s most recent branded content projects is a bespoke, mobile-optimised YouTube video series called The Take Out, developed for Sony Mobile. This weekly show, hosted by TV presenter Eoghan McDermot and comedian Kathryn Ryan, is aimed at helping Sony increase its share in the smartphone market. Each week they round up a quick selection of cool new entertainment that is particularly good on mobile phones.

Hodge says: “Most people have some kind of feeling towards Sony as an entertainment brand, perhaps through Walkman, Playstation, or Guardia TV, so it’s about pulling those positive feelings into world of mobile phone handsets where Sony is still a minor player. The idea is by leveraging the sincerity in entertainment we can make Sony feel like a bigger brand in smartphones than it currently is by market share.”

It has also created mini versions of The Take Out to run as pre-roll formats introducing content that viewers have searched for and are hoping to watch and trailing the full-length versions.

Whether it is via YouTube or other video platforms, social media, or creative partnerships with publishers, branded content is evolving fast. Marketers are waking up to the fact that to meet the expectations of tomorrow’s consumers, they must explore new ways to tell their stories, while fully understanding the nuances of each distribution platform to harness their full power. The momentum will only continue to build and those leading the charge will reap the rewards.

Branded content: Offsetting "tanking" CPMs?

Some believe the sudden burst in enthusiasm for branded content stems from the desire of many brands to distance themselves from the “banner blindness” now rife in the display market, and instead create more engaging content experiences for consumers.

Meanwhile publishers are equally keen on the model as a way to offset the plummeting CPMs in display advertising, exacerbated by the rise of programmatic trading.

Vice Media has made branded content partnerships a major part of its commercial and editorial strategy. It has gone a step further and created specific content verticals, funded entirely by specific brands. Its most successful to date has been its Creators Project, funded by blue chip company Intel. The project, which began as a pilot in France, has since rolled out internationally and is now in its fourth year.

Vice Media’s UK commercial director Matt O’Mara says the Creators Project has played a key role in creating a persona for its brand that resonates strongly with younger demographics it wanted to appeal to.

“We’re very open about what content is brand funded. But if it’s good it shouldn’t matter if it’s brand funded or not, it must always be as good as the editorially independent content for it to work for the audience,” he says.

This is particularly important for Vice Media’s youth-geared readership, given young people are “harder to bullshit”, and can immediately tell what is authentic and what’s contrived, according to O’Mara.

“Intel was known as a blue chip business but it wanted to cultivate more brand relevance in the younger demographics. The Creators Project is not just about branded content but creating an actual vertical and giving the audience something that is culturally beneficial to their lives – brought to them by Intel,” he adds.

Content featured includes contemporary art exhibition Monumenta's annual installation for the Grand Palais in Paris. Each year a globally renowned artist is invited to conceive an idea and this year French artist Daniel Buren filled the space with multi-coloured glass discs.

This feature was first published in The Drum's Digital Media supplement (sponsored by TubeMogul) on 25 October.

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