Branded Content Is Marketing's Last Frontier. Here's 3 Ways to Do It Right

Stories that generate engagement and sell product

Don't blink or you'll miss it.

In the time it takes to read this article, yet another innovation will add to the disruption already transforming how we watch, consume, interact. And marketers will continue to dance around the tectonic shift in an effort to stay in step as the beat changes at whim. New touchpoints, lower attention spans, a generation on the go—all impact the way we spend ad dollars or promote content, as marketers chase ROI with uncertainty. 

This is hardly breaking news. For years, we've been warned about disruption—the funeral of marketing forecast time and time again in an onslaught of gloom and doom editorials. It's death to TV and the 30-second spot, remember? Fact is, change is an inevitable, often confusing beast, and the marketing landscape certainly is different. Disruption has given the ad-skipping, banner-blocking consumer ultimate power, and they are done being sold. They want control over what they watch, when and where they watch it, all minus the blatant sales pitch. 

It's understandable that marketers are scrambling for the best way to connect their brands with users, adjusting and readjusting their budgets to get that perfect balance as the floor shifts beneath them. Yet amid the chaos, one area of this business remains surprisingly stable, if not increasingly robust.

Long live branded content, marketing's last frontier.

See, despite a climate of upheaval, branded content actually continues to expand, not shrink, as the art form evolves into as many different manifestations as you can imagine. We're now seeing it as a component of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, whereas the earlier days of branded content were still focused primarily on television. Over the past five years, working knee-deep in branded content's trenches for creative agencies like Impossible and 2C Creative, I've seen this skill really transcend the output, effectively marrying brand messages whether you're working with TV screens, hand-held devices or jumbotrons. 

Branded content is flourishing because it plays directly into the lifestyle of today's all-powerful, on-the-go consumers. It gives them an entertainment experience where they spend time, while bringing the equity of two (or more) brands together in a positive, seemingly organic way. It's about identifying those serendipities and customizing a story around them with no preaching or hard sale … playing into the passion behind one piece of content to generate interest in another, as this recent integration between Jumanji and Discovery illustrates. 

It works because it leverages the strong emotional connection people have with the content they love, removing their defenses when a brand is connected with a character or intellectual property they've grown to trust. Fans of The Walking Dead are immediately drawn in when they see Daryl in an integrated scenario with Dish, while Shark Week fanatics pause to take in a Great White's crazy trip to the dentist with Crest, as they did with a recent 2C integration. 

Similarly, consumers are more likely to embrace brands that champion the causes they care about and will take notice of branded content wrapped in social good … those associations that highlight a brand's social responsibility while giving us the feels, such as this vignette connecting the hurricane relief work of Paramount Network, Spirit Airlines and Operation Puerto Rico Care-Lift.  

The best branded content understands how to leverage that brand equity and loyalty … finding ways to create custom scenarios and stories that generate user engagement and sell product, whether the viewer is directly aware of it or not. 

When done well, branded content has tremendous product-selling potential. On the flip side, poor execution can turn even the best-intended brand integrations into instant turn-offs if the takeaway message is convoluted, inauthentic or untrue to the brands. 

So how can marketers get it right? Here are three best practices shared by the most successful efforts:

Understand who wins in the message

To me, it's sort of a benefit hierarchy. Who benefits and how do you make sure it both stays fair and makes sense in a combined message? It's also about being careful not to overdo it with too many brands and competing messages. Hone in on that ideal marriage in which everybody wins.   

Stay true to the core values of all brands involved

Branded content, at its heart, is about putting two brands together organically, so that the story scenarios make sense whether they're traditional or fantastical. The danger comes when an idea gets hijacked by an inauthentic message or something not true to one of the brands' values. Would Character X ever say that? Does this even jibe with Brand Y? If it doesn't, your message may be ignored. Successful integrations employ both a keen understanding of core brand values and the ability to express them authentically. 

Don't be constrained by time

Branded content gives you the chance to tell a richer, longer story because it comes with a benefit. If consumers believe they're getting something extra, they're more likely to stick around longer and absorb the brand message. The story is as long as it needs to be. Let the story tell itself.

In the end, after all, you're only as successful as the compelling story you tell, whether you're selling content or product, so give it the wings it needs.

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Brian Eloe
Brian Eloe is a live-action director who has worked extensively with 2C Creative, growing the agency's branded content business.

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