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Marketers, is your branded content playbook future-ready?

Hamsini Shivakumar, co-founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, outlines the recipe for a successful branded content playbook for marketers and reminds them to keep their advertising strategy separate from their branded content strategy.

Branded content is not ‘advertising’ in another format. It has its own place in the communication mix.

Over the last six months, we have analyzed over 60 pieces of carefully selected branded content, often in comparison with their advertising counterparts and have looked at video content (fictional narratives, performance poetry, stand-up comedy and music videos), digital series (comedy show, reality show and home tour videos), websites (editorial site and repositories), influencer-driven content (cooking videos and comedy bits) and offline content (cookbook).

Our conclusion: when created in its purest form, without adulteration through advertising codes, branded content can find an enduring place for the brand in consumers’ lives. I must clarify; I don’t think that advertising is ’dead’ and I don’t offer any similar hyperbolic conclusions. Having worked as a planner in advertising for about 14 years, I experienced it at close quarters and understand that it comes with benefits that the world of brands and marketing cannot do without.

But what branded content can do, by joining in with content that consumers watch, is have an impact that advertising just can’t. A challenge that grows truer for advertising as consumers feel increasingly saturated with traditional brand communication whose aim is to ‘sell’ products and services to them.

So, what should marketers, trained in the tenets of advertising, consider when creating branded content for an upcoming project? Here are some key takeaways:

  • Content doesn’t have to be as straight-jacketed as advertising and this requires marketers to stretch their thinking beyond the familiar:

  • Advertising is highly codified and formatted, whereas branded content comes with no such restrictions. Since one of its parameters of success is how well it can merge with non-branded content of a similar kind, it can take on any form and technique – given that the approach and style precede it in the non-branded world. The novelty in creation is not restricted by requirements of brand visibility, airtime budget restraints or even the moral/social dictates of a publisher/network.

  • Your brand needs to act as a publisher, and this requires marketer unlearning: This is as opposed to acting as an advertiser or a sponsor. You cannot feature elaborate product shots or center the experience around the brand/product. It must not feel like an ill-disguised sell or like your brand trying to get its money’s worth by inserting itself into as many frames as possible.

As a publisher of content, the brand’s role is to make the socially and emotionally desired, possible for consumers to experience. Ask these questions: would your audience feel represented/empowered if you joined a cultural debate and created a moving monologue to put into words what they have been feeling? Would your audience feel comforted if you created a sweet video to briefly pluck them out of their daily schedule? Would they feel excited to see their favorite celebrity from a fresh lens?

If yes, it is your brand’s job as a publisher to make all these and more possible without making it about itself or its agenda. Two brands that I see landing this requirement are Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk with its music video ’Sang Rahiyo’ (above) and Asian Paints, with its celebrity-driven home tour series ’Where the Heart Is’ (below). Both entertain while keeping the branding subtle and the audience sentiment primary.

Branded content is a new tool in a brand’s communication mix. Hopefully, it will find its own share of the budget, over time as it becomes a must have-must do, not a nice-to-do extra for brands. Marketers who are considering commissioning branded content would do well to remember:

  1. Branded content is NOT advertising in another format. It is different and has its own reason for existence. Advertising and branded content are not like powder and liquid detergent, just different forms of the same product. They are more like skin cleansers and skin creams, different products with different reasons to be used, for different benefits.

  2. While advertising’s purpose is to ‘sell’ entertainingly, branded content’s purpose is to ‘engage’ with consumers and with culture.

  3. While advertising builds brand salience and product preference, branded content builds out the symbolic space in a culture that the brand wants to occupy and be an agent in.

  4. Advertising, with its goal of sales and brand salience/image building, is bound within the category. Branded content breaks the boundary of the category to enter the realm of culture.

To create effective branded content, marketers need to think like publishers and open their minds to the many creative possibilities that exist out there to engage with their consumers. And tread lightly with the branding. This is a scary prospect, especially when ROI questions must be answered.

But as we found with many brilliant examples of branded content, for those who get it right, there is much to be gained.

Hamsini Shivakumar is the co-founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting

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