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Selling or Storytelling? The Blurred Boundaries of Branded Content

Trends and Insight 612 Add to collection

LBB’s Paul Monan taps into Australia’s production community to find out how the branded content landscape has shifted

Selling or Storytelling? The Blurred Boundaries of Branded Content
It’s fair to say that the line between traditional advertising and branded content is blurred. Existing in parallel to a brand, branded content is less focused on the benefits, key elements or selling of a product, instead it’s more interested in telling stories, connecting with people and building relationships with an audience. 

Despite the proliferation of branded content, the increased reliance on it as a marketing strategy hasn’t necessarily been matched by an increase in spending. As the whole industry knows, budgets are ever-tightening and, from a practical perspective, that’s meant production companies have had to adapt to offer new thinking and approaches, whilst preserving their high production standards.

LBB’s Paul Monan caught up with members of Australia’s production community to find out how the branded content landscape has shifted and where it looks like it’s heading…

Whether it’s a Vine, a short film, or a mini-documentary series, branded content is everywhere. It’s no recent phenomenon – branded content dates back to radio advertorials of the 1930s – but it’s a strategy increasingly relied upon by marketers to promote and reflect the identity of their clients.  

Fortunately for these brands and marketers, there just so happens to be a whole host of Australian production companies and directors creating cutting edge branded content. 

Delivered online, branded content requests a time investment from its audience - so it's vital that the content is of immediate interest and benefit and less driven by selling a product.

“First and foremost, branded content is about connecting with people and telling stories, whether they be heart-warming, funny, entertaining or downright ridiculous,” says OTTO Empire director Tim Potter. “It’s less focused on the benefits or key elements of a product, but instead more interested with its connection to an audience.” 

“Branded content, for me, is just another form of storytelling,” says Robber’s Dog director Daniel Borgman. “Content has become a broad term for films and experiences that are distributed on the most common place to experience something like that; the internet.”

Hungry Jacks; Tim Potter; OTTO Empire

But has the definition of branded content changed over time? Not for Craig MacLean, creative partner and director at Mr Smith, who believes it’s the understanding of branded content that’s shifting: “The term ‘content’ no longer applies exclusively to online video. Everything a brand sends out into the world is content. What separates the good stuff is its ability to share values beyond the hard sell and strengthen the emotional connection between the brand and consumer. In a world where the difference between most brands in a category is emotional rather than physical, that connection matters a lot.”

Smart clients and content makers now know the difference between branded content and product placement. “Effective branded content aligns a brand’s values with compelling communication that may or may not involve a product or service,” adds Craig. “It’s about a brand finding a logical way to share its values, rather than trying to force its way into popular culture or people’s lives.”

But why is branded content so important compared to more traditional methods of advertising? “It can speak to a different audience - millennial - because of the editorial nature of it. It engages audiences in a different way,” says OTTO Empire director Sophie Edelstein. “It tends to be more narrative driven which is interesting for directors and it can be riskier because of its online placement, so it can tend to have a higher impact. Its value to brands is a place in which they can experiment and engage a different audience. Audiences are hungry for more but also, and most importantly, they are searching for an emotional connection now more than ever as there is so much on offer. People want to connect.”

Light Therapy; Riley Blakeway; Robber's Dog

So, advertisers are clearly using branded content to form relationships with their audience - it is designed to entertain and engage an audience, who in turn generate an emotional connection with the brand. “It provides infinite possibilities when engaging with audiences,” says Tim Potter, director at OTTO Empire. “In contrast to TVCs, branded content allows companies free rein to create whatever they want, without being hindered by time restrictions.”
In whichever form it may take, it’s evident that branded content is becoming increasingly important. There’s been a shift in engagement platforms and in the increasing flexibility for the consumer or audience to decide what they watch and when. “Branded content isn’t restricted to this tired, traditional format. It can be one minute or it can be ten. A lot of brilliant directors are making exciting, watchable and sharable media that appeals to a savvy market. It’s exciting,” believes Robber’s Dog’s Riley Blakeway.

“As both a director and an audience member, it feels like there's been a great increase in branded content in recent years,” believes Tim. “In addition to a great many reasons, I imagine it's a lot to do with confidence and familiarity, for both clients and agencies, as well as for consumers.”

Converse 'Couples'; Daniel de Viciola; PHOTOPLAY Films

With both creators and consumers becoming increasingly confident and familiar with branded content, as opposed to more traditional methods of advertising, there’s been a global rise in the sheer volume of content that’s created, and for Riley, the process of content creation - and its consequent dissemination - is a bit of a double edged sword. “Anyone can make something and put it online with their iPhone. With the current platforms, technology and outlets it’s possible for anyone to make a film and put it in front of people, and for this reason the web is so saturated with content that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make something lasting and unique.”

Despite this broader access to technology seemingly making the process of content creation and distribution easier, to be able to create something to a high enough standard still requires an expert with a much wider set of tools and skills. “The process of creating quality content is as involved as ever, because it still relies on good ideas being put in the hands of people who understand their respective crafts,” says Craig. “The expansion of the media landscape has made it easier, but the rule of ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ still applies.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Oliver Lawrance, Executive Producer of PHOTOPLAY. “If you want to create a good content film then it takes the same effort it always did. I don’t think you can cut corners but technology has made the process more streamlined. Dissemination is definitely easier - we can all run content films on YouTube, Facebook or wherever - but to do it effectively takes a smart strategy and the right people.”

The general consensus is that the brands who are creating the most worthwhile and effective content are those that know their audience and respect the role the brand plays in both people’s lives and the culture as a whole. “It all depends on the quality of your idea and the clarity of that idea’s expression,” reinforces Craig. “If those two elements are missing, all the channel strategy in the world isn’t going to save you.”

Movember; Craig MacLean; Mr Smith

Audiences now have an unprecedented freedom of choice when it comes to what they consume and how they consume it. With increasing use of social media platforms, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Snapchat, content creators are challenged with thinking about the most effective channels for the client, and therefore what content works best for those channels. 

“The biggest challenge for branded content is getting people to engage with it,” believes Tim. “Obviously social media offers an amazing platform, but in doing so gives audiences the liberty to engage or disengage with whatever they wish.”

In a world where audiences consume content at their convenience, devouring content on demand when it best suits their time-starved schedules, it’s important to capture – and keep – your audience’s attention, otherwise they’ll switch off (and they do - the average drop-off rate for a YouTube video is 50% after 30 seconds).

Chandon 'A Friendly Race'; Scott Otto Anderson; PHOTOPLAY Films

“Nobody wants to sit through a three minute film anymore, they want it wrapped up into 15 seconds on their iPhone,” says Riley. “I think these statistics influence the way content is structured. I know there is a lot of emphasis on the statistics of how audiences view content and this information influences the way content is structured.”

Stretching further than simply measuring the length of time a viewer is engaged for, both social and video platforms are providing ways with which we can measure an audience’s reaction. “We’re in advertising’s own version of the ‘share economy’ – an obsession with likes and shares, which is understandable in a lot of ways,” says Craig. “The instant feedback provided by likes, shares and comments is attractive because it gives an immediate impression of success or failure. But it’s only an impression. What’s harder to measure - and always will be - is the true level of engagement. Social media is a beast that needs constant feeding, so the volume of content brands require has increased.” 

Filmgraphics director Kevin Lim has witnessed a number of branded content trends across the past decade. “With the introduction of the Canon 5D in 2008, production was suddenly thought to be ‘nimble’ and there was a lot of event capture content being produced to showcase the activations brands were doing - flash mobs in train stations, product giveaways in shopping malls, things like that. Then in 2013, infographics were in vogue so there was a surge of motion graphics briefs that tried to get audiences excited by animating pie charts and statistics. When Snapchat arrived and Instagram introduced video, branded content became stop-motion animation and ‘How To’ utility life-hacks.”

Vogue 'Eyebrows'; Sophie Edelstein; OTTO Empire

But what’s in vogue at the moment? “The real-feeling, human documentary story has been popular for a while,” says Riley. “But I think things are now shifting back to a more considered and conceptual vision.”  

Kevin also believes that we’re coming off the tail end of this ‘profile documentary’ trend; leaving behind stories showcasing Australians that demonstrate certain values that align with a brand.

“To take a step back from all this, I think this demonstrates that audiences are far more savvy and allergic to direct advertising. We’re seeing a shift to more entertainment-centric content,” says Kevin. “People don’t go on Facebook to watch ads but if you can craft an entertaining story that elicits an emotional response, then your audience doesn’t mind if that story came from a brand.”

And eliciting an emotional responses from the audience appears to be a key requirement for any branded content brief. “The scripts I see are to do with this classic relationship between the audience and the character,” says Daniel. “It’s not about entertainment or education, but about depicting an experience that the viewer can project themselves into to create a direct relationship with the brand.”

Tourism New Zealand 'Curious'; Daniel Borgman; Robber's Dog

“Branded content’s main focus is to primarily engage an audience, as opposed to sell a product. The 'selling' of the product should almost be as discreet as possible,” adds Tim. “Personally, I feel there's a leaning towards entertaining an audience, as opposed to educating or serving a function.”

The future of branded content looks exciting as it allows a larger canvas for creativity. No longer confined to the restraints of a 30’ TVC, Kevin believes that - much like TV does now compared to film - directors can tell deeper, more involved stories in the branded content realm. “There’s a stigma attached to branded content about it being cheap and disposable, but we’re hopefully seeing a shift in marketing budgets towards content that allows for more creative and adventurous work.” 

“What excites us as a company right now are the possibilities opening up in longer form scripted narrative produced in collaboration with like-minded brands,” says Craig. “The skills required to seamlessly weave a brand, its products and its values into a narrative are the same as they ever were, and it’s really only the channels and the story length that have changed.”

Amnesty International 'Syria'; Kevin Lim; Filmgraphics

When branded content is well conceived then it often gives directors more creative freedom when making a film than a traditional commercial allows which, according to Oliver, becomes ‘great storytelling that is extremely watchable’.

It’s this notion of creative freedom, and the championing of storytelling, that seems to be exciting for everyone. “I'd like to think that branded content will continue to allow directors more collaborative input and freedom into the content that they create,” adds Tim. “With a focus on engaging an ever saturated audience, it's exciting to know that the stories are the main focus and can be fully explored.”

“If you look to what’s being done in the US, brands are taking a more ‘hands-off’ approach, trusting their audience and allowing directors to, first and foremost, create entertainment,” concludes Kevin. “That excites me and I’m patiently waiting for Australia to catch up.”
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LBB Editorial, Fri, 23 Sep 2016 16:00:52 GMT