“On Branded Content”

More and more people agree that branded-content will “the ways of the future,” (or one of the ways of the future along with open-source and interactive media). It’s no secret that the preeminence of the 30 second spot is waning because of Tivo and other DVRs that allow viewers to skip ads. As of writing this piece, 12% of Canadian households had such a device, and that figure is expected to leap to 30% in a few short years. Nearly one in three, which doesn’t even include those who grab snacks, hit mute or visit the restroom during commercial breaks. In the US, DVRs are already at about 20% saturation, and growing at a much more rapid pace. If nobody’s watching ads, how would producers finance their shows? And companies push their products?

The future of television will likely be “on-demand” according to the “Fast Forward Trend Analysis” report conducted for the CRTC. It’s still unclear whether on-demand content will be delivered by DVR, cable on-demand, or a PC connected to broadband internet. While the dominant content providers may find ways to prohibit ads being skipped, there will always be work arounds (say, by downloading shows using P2P file sharing platforms). Subscription-based content providers may even offer ad-free content, with subscriptions providing revenue in-lieu of ads (much like HBO in the US, which offers viewers their shows ad-free and on-demand when you subscribe). Even then, however, subscription costs need to be low enough to cut demand for internet piracy, with content providers likely looking to branded-content and product placement to underwrite production costs. And it’s impossible for those who download pirated content to remove branded-content like they do ads, since the branding is embedded in the shows themselves.

As for government regulations, if TV-style content ends up being delivered via broadband internet, it will be difficult for, say, the Canadian government to regulate the Web as it does TV and radio. And even if the CRTC somehow manages to regulate the Web, it’s unclear how a subscription-based, ad-free model would provide enough revenue to underwrite Canadian-created content, leaving the government to foot most, if not all, of the bill – with Canadian content quite possibly getting lost in a sea of global media anyhow. And in a sense, governments financing shows are already in the branded-content game, as they’re providing financing in exchange for their message being integrated into the media itself.

Regardless of how this technology equation plays out, I believe branded-content will continue to grow because of its ability to birth the kind of authentic lifestyle culture consumers are hungry for. Even when viewers don’t hit mute or fast forward, they’re sick of advertisers pushing products on them. And in the First World, with our basic needs met, we’re less and less interested in products anyhow. What we care about are lifestyles: ways of being that give our lives meaning, that transforms vacuous global capitalism into a holistic quasi-spiritual experience.

Witness the rise of environmentalism, evangelicalism, and hip-hop culture, each with their own “spiritualized” connection to brands and products. Lifestyle brands – whether embodied in Nike sneakers, Honda hybrids, Motorola “Red” phones or “THE PASSION OF CHRIST” – fill the void left by traditional culture, something little 30 second spots simply can’t do, no matter how funny, slick or aggressive.

And brand savvy companies are perfectly aware of this. “TRANSFORMERS” isn’t just a big GM ad: it’s a means of initiating a new generation of consumers into the mythology of the American Machine made human, where a Camaro is deemed more “alive” than its foreign counterparts. And GMs “Jay-Z blue” SUV and “Snoop-de-Ville” Cadillac is a savvy admission that urban culture has made a lifestyle out of a brand previously suffering from serious fatigue.

So, branded-content is not about making TV shows into infomercials, nor regressing back to the days of “MILTON BERL’S TEXICO THEATRE.” Rather, it means transforming content into powerful lifestyle bibles informed by real life. Products are thus given meaning because of the broader cultural lifestyle the brand is now part of. Whereas GM SUVs are already an integral part of Urban culture thanks to hip-hop music, marketing a “Jay-Z Blue” Kia simply wouldn’t work.

While hip-hop is probably the ultimate form of branded-content – selling more in products than Hollywood makes off movie tickets – the culture’s conspicuous consumption is at odds with the growing interest in sustainability. From housewives to evangelicals, consumers otherwise indifferent to activist culture are turning to cause-related brands – eager for a sustainable lifestyle that gives quasi-religious meaning to their capitalist habits (e.g., hybrid cars, organic foods, energy-efficient appliances as symbols of a morally righteous life).

Or take Red-branded products (embodied in everything from Motorola phones, to Amex cards and Converse sneakers), a percentage of whose profits is given to fight aids in Africa. Red blatantly admits it’s marketing “meaning,” which it infuses in, say, a red Motorola RZR cell phone, giving the device the kind of cachet lacking even in the gold D&G branded RZR. Interestingly, Red is the primary sponsor of VANITY FAIR’s “Africa” issue, with a similar “environmental” issue being sponsored primarily by earth conscious brands – blurring the line between editorial and advertisement – but considered cool because it’s for a good cause.

Whether urban, environmental or cause-related, it’s about cultural authenticity born from a real dialog between ALL of a brand’s stakeholders, from employees to management, agencies, consumers, tastemakers, or anyone else effected by or having effect on a brand.

Vision is also important, because it’s not just about understanding cultures, but inspiring and transforming them. This means infusing pre-existing brand strategies with relevant inspirational meaning. The seed of such inspiration should come from the stakeholders themselves, in a way that allows them to transforms “their” brand into something they find uplifting. This inspirational meaning should then be communicated through branded content back to the communities to which the stakeholders belong. As much as possible, this content shouldn’t just be “informed” by stakeholder interests, but actually made by stakeholders themselves. The producer’s role then becomes more about helping stakeholders make their own content than outdated notions of “auteurship” in which “creative geniuses” guess what people really want or lead them to where such geniuses think they should be.

So, we’re talking about creating a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialog between stakeholders. This is a recipe for transforming brands into movements, perhaps best illustrated by Nike in the 90s: young African-Americans made Nike products cool for youth at large, so Nike borrowed from these urban youth, integrating their lifestyle culture into Nike product design and marketing strategies, but also adding an “inspirational” message about empowering urban youth. Nike then sold this “inspirational-urban” dialog back to the culture on which it was based, increasing the synergy between tastemaking consumer and inspirational brand. The result was Nike became near-religion for millions of young people worldwide, and the company grew ten-fold in ten short years. But this process was undercut by the Nike sweatshop scandal, as well as by Nike failing to reward their urban tastemaking partners or do anything substantial for the urban community. But there’s no reason why a truly equitable branding dialog couldn’t be established. For years, manufacturers of European luxury goods were indifferent to urban (ghetto) cultures integrating their brands into the hip-hop lifestyle. But today, everyone from Louis Vuitton to Courvoisier are engaging in this cultural dialog. For such a dialog to be authentic, I believe it must involve cause-related initiatives that benefit stakeholders – something I include in all my branded-content concepts.

So, rather than just manufacturing other people’s ideas based on the 30 second spot production model, I believe tomorrow’s content producers and agencies should work to facilitate this brand-culture dialog – by familiarizing themselves with both a company’s brand and the culture that company wishes to penetrate, then helping them come together through the creation of inspirational content and equitable deed. This involves a three stage process in which producers: I) deconstruct the cultures that make up a brand II) “embed” themselves in those cultures III) inspire them to dialog through a common cause, by means of truly equitable branded-content.

Great brands, cultures and content are all driven by great stories. So inspirational branded-content is in essence the story of the relationship between the cultures that make up a brand, which would be a living brand “bible” whose characters would include ALL the brand’s stakeholders (including not just management and consumers, but employees, tastemakers and all those who influence and are affected by the brand, including, say, protesters targeting Nike for using sweatshop labor. What would be more dramatic than Nike and anti-sweatshop protesters negotiating a settlement whereby Nike becomes truly equitable?)

To be clear, this process isn’t just about documenting stories that already exist. It involves helping stakeholders find their vision, or, if vision is lacking, channeling inspiration from elsewhere. Producers become like art-therapists, helping stakeholders get in touch with their creative sides so that they can make great (branded lifestyle) artwork. Thus, through the creation of communally made content, everyday life is turned into art and brands into artistic movements. It’s not just about telling “true” and “authentic” stories, but true and authentic stories that transcend and inspire, that inject meaning and hope into everyday life. And since all stakeholders are creating this brand value, they should share the rewards.

— Booker Sim

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