“It’s the story stupid”; the Truth About Branded Content

To (mis) paraphrase Bill Clinton’s ’92 campaign manager, audiences want to be entertained and informed (in that order)

Branded Content is the latest shiny object to obsess both agencies and clients alike. The perfect opportunity to combine creativity (budgets) and metrics; consumers, you see, can’t get enough of such content.

Well’, I’ve seen plenty of branded content.  It’s not difficult to spot; in most cases it’s a case study, users story or – heaven forbid – an advertisement masquerading as editorial. An attempt to ‘game’ the audience into reading it, I suppose.  We used to call this ‘advertorial’ – paid placement for content that would otherwise get past the editor. Plus ca change . . . now it’s back.

At moments like this, I’m reminded of James Carville, one of Bill Clinton’s campaign managers during his first presidential bid. He was famed (or notorious) for his insistence of driving every single conversation towards the incumbent Republicans’ Achilles heel; the state of the US economy, particularly across middle America. In effect, whatever the issue, question, discussion, debate, data point being cited, Carville systematically highlighted the plight of Middle America’s working class. This was the Republican weak spot, and a conversation where the Democrats could thrive; simply by not being the former.

It’s the economy, stupid,” became Carville’s mantra and, ultimately, part of the American political lexicon.

This logic applied to branded content reads: ‘It’s the story stupid . . .!’  The proliferation of social media, analytics and big data may have blinded certain marketing and communications professions to the reality – human nature hasn’t changed.  Strip away the brand embeds, the data insights, and selective paid . . . unless there is a genuinely compelling story in there, you are wasting your time.

I’m constantly amazed by the assumption that the emergence of social media analytics means that the fundamentals of storytelling can be simply dispensed with.  I repeat: “It’s the story, stupid.”

Brands must consider this cold, hard reality; given the variety and volume available, unless they are paid to do so, people only consume content (branded or otherwise) for three basic reasons:

  1. Entertainment; to be amused, gratified and satisfied. Branded content could range from sport to soap opera, from documentaries to newspaper articles . . . . . but the consumer’s primary motivation is amusement; to be stimulated and enjoy the experience.
  2. Information; whether the branded content be educational or practical (traffic or weather reports), the basic motivation is driven by necessity.
  3. Prestige; with the advent of social media (particularly mobile) certain branded content has become a form of social prestige, and sharing the same a means to derive such prestige. There is considerable research on the subject; suffice it to confirm that the act of sharing is not simply altruistic, it generates benefits (social and other) to the emitter.  The combination of branded content which is both (perceived to be) prestigious and shareable starts to become extremely compelling . . . but – when it comes to virality (the great promise of branded content) – there are still no guarantees.

The great unwritten law of branded content is the idea of gratification – and I don’t mean the brand’s.  I mean the audience’s . . .  Why should they share your content?  What is their incentive to participate in your campaign?  Motivations can range from prestige (especially with content that is somehow ‘exclusive’ or ‘private’) to monetary (offering discounts to people who participate in your campaign), but the key is to provide some form of acknowledgement to your audience; it is they, who are going to propagate your message after all.

My ‘earned/editorial’ instincts tend to favour the ‘prestige’ approach to gratification; if your story creates genuine value for your audience (premier access to a product or service), exclusive interaction with a celebrity, or some form of public recognition (the ‘super fan’ logic), there is an opportunity to develop deep, valuable relationships that last.

And the brand in all of this . . .? The paradox is that the best examples of branded content are rarely dependent on the brand; they are all about the audience.  This is one of the characteristics of the ‘post protagonist’ age in which brands are operating.

To return to James Carville – and the advice I (politely) offer to requests for branded content. Of course, we’d be happy to help.  Let’s discuss the story first!

In true Carville-style, this approach ensures that we create a differentiation not only for our clients, but our agency as well!


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