The digital and data revolutions have empowered us to consume the content we want on our terms. We can dictate when we want it, where we want it, and the devices we choose to consume it on. Yet despite the always-on digital media ecosystem, and the vast amount of content available, consumers are not suffering from a crisis of attention or information overload. Far from it. Instead, we’re finding great-quality movies, mini-series, and music, and binging on the content that engages us.
The consumers are in control, and these new rules of attention apply equally to commercial communication. Consumers are prepared to reward brands with their attention, interest, and loyalty - provided that their branded content lives up to expectations. If it doesn’t, particularly when the content is poorly repurposed from traditional media to digital, then we skip, mute, or minimise ads. We might even seek out ad-free environments, and pay a premium to filter out the clutter.
These trends have major consequences for brands. Marketers now need to think and act more like journalists and producers, applying editorial approaches and standards if they’re going to create commercial communication with impact. There are also important implications for the types of creative people brands now seek to recruit, as well as how they are motivated and retained. As brands become publishers and take on some of the creative and production burden, agencies need to evolve their offerings to serve clients in this new environment.
The automotive industry has long been a pioneer of creative content curation. As early as 2001, BMW hired eight, A-list, Hollywood directors to create and distribute Bond/Bourne-style mini-films, all featuring an eponymous hero named ‘The Driver’ in different models of BMW cars. In 2005, Audi and BBH created a stand-alone TV channel for the marque. Again, the cars were the star, but they were woven into the narrative of Audi TV’s programming. The content didn’t feel like an ad. It felt like high-quality, editorial that happened to feature mostly Audi products.
More recently, Mercedes has become a major force in publishing by reinventing their customer magazines to become an integral part of a series of touchpoints, many of them digital, right across the customer journey. Working in partnership with Looping Studios, Mercedes talks to current and prospective customers about what they’re interested in first, such as issues like performance, motorsport, and vintage. It then has permission to talk about Mercedes’ role and point of view on these issues. Tellingly, Mercedes’ partner Looping Studios is run by the former editor of leading German magazines Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Stern, who brings editorial savvy to modern commercial communication.
Today, Mercedes publishes and distributes 11 million copies of four different customer magazines. You read me right. 11 million. Classic is for vintage enthusiasts, Me for future thinkers, She’s Mercedes is specifically for women, and Circle for high net worth individuals. Each title makes no secret of the fact that the editorial-quality content comes directly from Mercedes. Furthermore, each title is not limited to print. The magazines may be the hub and cornerstone of activity, but these complement live events, YouTube channels, Facebook communities, and Instagram feeds – all clearly coming from the same source.
All Mercedes channels deliver content that consumers want, like and share, because the ecosystems are built around their customers’ interests. Now the magazines are able to attract advertisers from other sectors – high end timepiece companies such as Rolex and Patek Philippe in Classic, for instance – because they gain right kind of attention from the right kind of customers.
What’s new about brands becoming successful publishers is that great, advertiser-funded content is not just an end in itself, but a means to an end. In a world where the customer journey has become so disrupted, brands must ensure that they don’t lose customers on that journey. By being where their customers are, and by providing content that’s relevant to their broad interests (not just what they want to buy), brands have permission to talk about themselves.
Another good example is Net-a-Porter, the digital-first fashion retailer, which invests heavily in print with its Porter and Mr Porter magazines. With the tagline “Powered by Net-a-Porter” in the “O” on the masthead, the bi-monthly print titles bring Vogue-quality editorial to its customers. But they’re not an old-school indulgence in print, they’re a platform that makes the brand’s digital assets work harder. Hover your phone over any spread, and you’re redirected to the online store. The customer experience is seamless across touchpoints, and perfectly demonstrates that high-quality content is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of increased sales via immersive involvement with the brand.
We are currently in a period of transition towards a new paradigm of communication. Brands like Mercedes and Net-a-Porter have fully embraced the content-first approach, and have the teams and partners in place to deliver content that consumers want. Others, like FMCG giants Unilever and P&G, are making major investments in this area. Investments are either being made directly, such as Unilever’s in-house agency U-Studios, or with editorial partners, in the case of P&G and Guardian Labs.
Whether brands choose to in-house or to out-source, partially or completely depends on culture and their attitude to innovation. However, both approaches respond to the power that consumers must curate their own media, editorial and commercial communication – and filter out anything that doesn’t satisfy their desire for great content. Quality will out.
Michael Karg is group chief executive of Ebiquity