Butterfly at Ad Week Europe: Brand Storytelling – Lessons in creating effective branded entertainment

In an age of short attentions spans and an increasingly fragmented and noisy media landscape, it’s never been more important for brands to tell their stories in a credible and relevant manner.

Brand storytelling, through the creation of entertaining branded content formed the basis of a lively and enlightening panel discussion at Ad Week Europe this past week.

Now branded content is of course nothing new, but the democratising effect that digital has had on the traditional producer-broadcaster model has had significant ramifications on how brands create and distribute their content.  No longer bound to established media owners and their pricey media plans, brands can and do produce and broadcast their content themselves, directly to the consumer, via proprietary channels that entirely cut out the agency middleman.

This is all well and good, but as with any campaign, commercial impact and ROI must always remain top of mind.  Savvier brands are recognising that leveraging existing platforms and their established audiences to drive home a brand message is ultimately more effective and fiscally responsible than going it alone and trying to create an audience from scratch.

One way of making branded content work commercially is by making sure intellectual property rights are adequately protected. Andy Holland, Head of Talent & Production at Drum, described the Heineken Group as suffering from “a bit of naivety” by failing to commercialise the IP they created when Foster’s financed the Alan Partridge reboot, which the production company ultimately lucratively sold off globally once their exclusivity deal had expired.

Ultimately, what brands and marketers should be striving for is to turn their marketing spend into a profit centre as opposed to a cost and “cashing cheques” according to Jonathan Perelman, Head of Digital Ventures at ICM Partners.  Whilst this might sound like music to the ears of CFO’s around the world, this holy grail is in reality very difficult for 99% of brands, who either lack the ambition, financial clout, know how or ownership over an inherently valuable property to adequately commercialise it.

To cement this point, Ben Cyzer, Head of Creative Strategy at MPC, argued that “there’s a real distinction between working on an ad and an ad that’s disguised as something that can infiltrate popular culture.”  Either way, the end goal should be to engage audiences through some form of entertainment.

The reason why every other brand isn’t racing to produce culturally relevant content comes down to simple risk.  Whereas the traditional media plan almost guarantees an audience and ROI, branded entertainment as a potential profit centre requires a leap of faith and doesn’t deliver a tangible return at the outset.  Niall McGarry, Founder and CEO at Maximum Media, described the area as “embryonic” and “without enough big examples” to convince the moneymen that telling their brand story by this means is worth doing.

That said, some brands have more permission than others in this space, which is why the likes of Nike and Red Bull who have tangible assets and a sexy brand story to activate have proven so effective in this space although a lighter touch way in for brands with a less relevant or attractive story does lie in product placement.

The inherent tension that envelops all of this type of branded content lies in how seamless and unobtrusive the brand message is, with McGarry positing that “the best branded content is the stuff that the brand is seen the least in.” with Cyzer mooting that “it depends on how cool the brand is, if it’s Nike or Red Bull it doesn’t really matter.”  Those that fall down are those brands that jump on the content bandwagon too late and in the wrong way by making bad content that gets lost in the noise.

Holland highlighted the added influence of “an element of luck, timing, talent and all sorts of things that you can’t control…which is what brands don’t like”, as it effectively hands over the control a marketer or brand has over its audience, its brand message and when and where that is delivered.

One place all this might be leading in the future could be in brands co-opting the role of media platforms themselves.  Cyzer suggested that “there is no reason other than brand led reasoning” to stop brands becoming content distributors, given the ease in which anyone can create a digital channel at low cost and for minimal risk.

With the bun fight to remain relevant to audiences unlikely to abate, it looks like the race to create cut through, culturally resonant content will remain tried, tested, failed and hotly contested for some time to come.  Those brands that succeed will be the ones that adopt a consistent approach to their campaign planning and pursue a media plan that drives home their brand story and message in a meaningful and credible way.  Ultimately, to ignore those fundamentals could have a detrimental impact on relevance, equity and bang for buck.

Alex Beattie, Senior Consultant, 25.04.16 (alex@butterflylondon.com)