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Unbranded: The advent of submissive advertising

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‘If you hide it, they will come.’

This seems to be the overriding sentiment behind the latest trend in content marketing; the lesser-spotted unbranded ad. Long gone are the days when brands unabashedly touted their names. They’ve been relegated to the bottom of the commercial chain, the very last rung of the self-promotional ladder. And there they skulk like hunters in the forest, hoping to lure in unsuspecting consumers with just the right grade of meaty ‘content’.

OK, I’m exaggerating. Unbranded advertising, as the latest spawn of the digital marketing age, is promising. It is rich, shareable content that’s been cleverly designed to engage, inform and entertain, all without making any overt references to the brand or product it represents. Some standout examples are L’Oreal’s content beauty hub, aimed at ardent beauty enthusiasts, Eurostar’s Somers Town film, which finely spliced art with the travel-bug, and Johnson & Johnson’s, providing information and resources for parents.

All successful unbranded content is centred around an idea, rather than a product, and all strive to add value to the consumer. They aim to build engagement, gain traction, and in the long-run, promote brand recognition and/or reinforce brand loyalty. But the ‘long run’ is the operative term there, as unbranded content is a slow burner; not ideal if you are seeking a serious and sudden spike in brand equity.

The purpose of unbranded advertising appears to be less about reaching customers, and more about understanding them. L'Oreal’s Fab-Beauty has identified valuable insights through analysing the behaviour of its website visitors, including how they self-describe and what content they care about. This is where the potential of unbranded content really shines. It provides prime fodder for long-term brand strategy, and if leveraged correctly, can help marketers really hit their mark.

And the raw appeal of the unbranded campaign is undeniable; it relies on quality, not quantity, or reputation. Crucially, it builds trust, the holy grail of brand loyalty. And possibly best of all, the brand needn’t suffer the fallout of a conventional campaign that fails to deliver, as the unbranded ad comes with little risk, and less accountability. But therein, perhaps, lies the problem.

In their efforts to placate a mass market and appear authentic, are brands undermining their integrity and losing touch with their true proposition?

You must remember this

Advertising guru David Trott claimed that only 4 per cent of adverts are positively remembered, while 7 per cent are negatively remembered and a staggering 89 per cent are entirely forgotten. He argues that it is more important to be a part of the 11 per cent, whether positive or negative, than to fall into the vast abyss of the forgotten ads. He, like many of the more ‘seasoned’ creative types, believe it is better to be be daring and bold than to play it safe and sink into obscurity.

In this respect, unbranded advertising is the very definition of playing it safe. It is unaccountable, awkwardly apologetic and essentially grasps at straws for recognition. Like so many digital epidemics, it relies on the power of influencers, and the hope of a namedrop. It lacks balls.

We all know where this need to placate the consumer has come from: the sinister malevolent force of cynicism and shrewdness that is the dreaded generation X/Y/Z delta 1 – the digital youth. They’re widely considered all too savvy for the likes of traditional marketing shenanigans. So utterly infallible to the charms of a well-placed tagline or shiny bit of art direction, that advertising, in its purest form has become original sin.

But can we know this for sure? Do digital natives truly prefer the advertising wolf in the content sheep’s clothing to the more traditional method of simply trying to solve a simple need with a simple proposition? And is it possible that in pandering to the fickle whims of the social media age, advertising is losing its edge?

Of course unbranded and branded content needn’t be mutually exclusive. One way to utilise the power of authentic, engaging content is to simply keep the branding to a minimum, as deftly demonstrated by Australia’s audacious Metro ad. Here the content performs first, before the brand steps up and takes a bow. Another example of the light branding technique hailed from boutique clothing store Wren, whose First Kiss video incited mass curiosity that resulted in both traffic and sales increases. Both examples effectively create intrigue and tap into the zeitgeist, while preserving brand integrity.

Ultimately, there is a lot to be said for the benefits of tapping into the unbranded medium of influence, and with a well executed strategy and some longsighted vision it can definitely pay off. And yet something about it still strikes me as a little obsequious. Being unabashedly branded will always ring true, it’s more authentic and certainly braver. Sure some people will hate it, but as Trott would say, at least they’ll take notice.

Suzy Kostadinov is a senior copy writer at Hugo & Cat.