This story originally appeared in March of this year. The topic was content marketing and the idea was to bring together a handful of industry experts and the voices of our audience in an interactive discussion. We kicked things off with questions for our experts but also incorporated questions from our audience in a rolling, day-long conversation. The results are below and bear a (long) read as the discussion digs in to one of the year’s biggest topics and one that will be on top of the marketing priority list next year.
The idea of content marketing is nearly as old as the ad industry itself. But in the last several years, with the unprecedented opportunities afforded by digital production, publishing, and distribution tools, a growing number of brands have created a wider than ever array of content and still others say they intend to explore new content opportunities in the near future. By content, we mean everything from a Twitter feed, pins, and blog posts to web video, apps, and feature films, each designed to stand on its own as stuff audiences want to interact with, not a paid interruption to that stuff. On Fast Company recently, Percolate founder (and panel participant!) Noah Brier summed up: "We’re moving to a point where brand communication is always going to be on…a future where marketing on the web is all about content."
We want to find out just how and why brands are moving in this direction, and what the results are. Among the questions:
How do brands move beyond one-off "branded content" projects and become publishers, that have an ongoing, multi-platform voice?
Why create content? Why not just advertise? And which is most effective if you really look at the bottom line?
What are the biggest issues around brand content—from audience reaction, to budget reallocation to talent to corporate culture to measuring results? We’ll explore these questions and others with help from three brand players who have explored different brand content avenues, Werner Brell Managing Director of Red Bull’s Red Bull Media House; Linda Boff, Executive Director, Global Digital Marketing, GE; and Scott Roen, VP Digital, American Express, and a group of agency, social media, and other content players including:
Noah Brier, founder, Percolate; Jae Goodman, co-head and chief creative officer, CAA Marketing; Jonah Bloom, executive director of content strategy, KBS+ Content; Brent Anderson and Steve Howard, group creative directors, TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A.; and Geoffrey Campbell, senior director, MediaCom Content.
Here’s how it’ll work. Below, you’ll see what amounts to a conversation thread, between Co.Create and the brand and agency participants who will be lending their opinions and insights to this discussion. Ideally, the conversation will also include comments and questions from our readers. Post your comment or question in the comments section below this post and we will endeavor to work as many of them into the discussion as possible (note: apologies in advance if your question doesn’t get answered. We’ll do our best to prod the participants to address questions that are relevant to them).
Co.Create: First, let’s define what we’re talking about here. What’s the first thing people/brands need to know when it comes to creating content versus advertising? What’s the practical and philosophical difference—obviously content is more associated with earned and owned media, but I also think of content ideas as starting with the consumer, where ad ideas start with the message that brands are trying to convey. How do brands distinguish between what is content and what is commercial creative?
Linda Boff, executive director, global digital marketing, GE: The best content is a good story well told. That story can take place in any number of different formats whether they are paid, owned, earned, or shared. I think it’s a mistake to only associate content with earned and owned. The more we experiment with content creation and distribution, the more we see a fusing between paid and other distribution channels.
That said, content discovered through trusted recommendations strongly influences user opinions and can build a personal association with a brand. We recently partnered with BuzzFeed to evaluate the success of our content strategy. We hired an independent analytics company to study the impact on users’ perceptions and found that branded content creates significant lifts in brand perception. Furthermore, these lifts are greatly amplified when the content is discovered through social media and sharing. Branded content has a much greater impact on consumer perceptions when compared to the typical Brand Lift driven by standard display ads. Users exposed to GE content via BuzzFeed had meaningful lifts in brand perception compared to those who had not seen the content (control group). Respondents overwhelmingly viewed GE as a "creative" powerhouse resulting in a 138% Brand Lift via social media.
Noah Brier, founder, Percolate: I think the first thing they need to know about content is that it’s part of a bigger shift to always-on marketing. Brands have been creating content forever (I’m sure soap operas will come up lots of times today). What’s happening now with content is different, though. This isn’t about brands being one-off content creators, but instead shifting to a publisher mindset. I guess what I’m saying is that content isn’t the cause, it’s the effect (the former, I’d say, is brands starting to see how to use digital as a truly unique marketing vehicle).
I’m not actually sure that creating editorial content is all that different than creating promotional content, at least on a high level. Advertising is a process of combining brand outputs (look, feel, voice) with cultural inputs (insights, trends, etc.) and creating a piece of communication. The shift I see taking place is that the traditional processes around creating content for a world of campaigns break down in a real-time content creation environment: Brands and agencies aren’t currently set up to consume culture as it happens, which is what media organizations do. I think this is a big shift we’ll start to see inside brands over the coming years. It’s not that they’ll try to model themselves on media organizations, but rather, they’re going to rearrange themselves around real-time consumption of content, data, analytics, and anything else they can get their hands on to help make decisions and communicate better.
Jae Goodman, co-head and chief creative officer, CAA Marketing: I think it’s easy to spend a lot of time trying to distinguish between "advertising" and "content" when the practical reality is that the line has been totally blurred. From the consumer’s POV, if they see a great TV ad and then seek it out online to watch it again, then the ad is as much "content" as the funny SNL skit or goofy user-gen video that they might also seek out online. And from the brand’s POV, the best marketers know that just delivering the message any old way and counting on the media metrics to deliver is not a path to success.
As for what motivates "ads" and what motivates "content," I do not agree with the supposition that content starts with the consumer and ads start with the message brands are trying to convey. They both start with an idea, period. Some ideas happen to be inspired by a brief and a budget from a marketer, and some ideas happen to be inspired by a brief from a distributor (TV, digital, film) who is trying to reach a particular demographic (often so they can sell ad space against the value of having attracted that demographic) and, sure, some ideas come to us in the middle of the night and then find their way into the world. But, almost all content is a commercial endeavor of some sort. It’s just that the marketers and the money play in different ways with different content types, including advertising. One of the many great things about writing this to you while sitting here at CAA is that our clients include artists who had an idea in the middle of the night last night and brands who have a very specific message they’d like to convey—and our job is to create opportunities for both to reach their audience, otherwise known as consumers.
Werner Brell, managing director, Red Bull Media House: We think about our audience. They want to be inspired, like we were able to do for The Art of Flight. We are not about lowest common denominator, but about inspirational content. We don’t view content creation and advertising exclusively as opposites or as a "versus." Rather we view traditional advertising and content creation as being complementary. If done right, both can establish an emotional connection with the consumer. For example, a paid-for advertising campaign runs across specific broadcast and digital channels to reach a targeted audience. At the same time, the Red Bull Media House creates and distributes compelling story-driven content through various formats across many different third-party—or earned media—channels, as well as our own platforms, including TV, films, print magazines, video sites and social media platforms, mobile phones and gaming. Red Bull has a long history of creating sports and culture content that reaches a coveted audience and is therefore attractive to media partners and advertisers. In the end, each vehicle pays back to the brand.
Co.Create: American Express has been one of the major players in this space in terms of developing a content publishing discipline, with OPEN Forum. What is it about Amex culture that fostered this sort of approach to marketing and allowed the OPEN project to go from an idea to what it is?
Scott Roen, VP, digital, American Express: Interestingly, we got into this space not because of any trends or technology; we were keenly aware that our customers—small business owners and entrepreneurs—were going to physical events to learn from experts and each other. They were walking out of the events with stacks of business cards. We actually started hosting events for our best customers so they could hear from iconic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. They were incredibly well received, but their confinement to a physical location limited our impact. We changed that in 2007 by launching OPEN Forum online. So to answer the question, I think our incredible focus on knowing our customers and using our Service brand as a bridge to innovate really helps us.
Jonah Bloom, executive director of content strategy, KBS+ Content Labs: Noah’s always brilliant, but I don’t know that I totally agree that there’s little difference between creating commercial creative and editorial content. The key thing about good content is that it requires that you think about it first and foremost from the point of view of the consumer and what they want to hear, rather than from the point of view of the brand and what it wants to say. That is a major shift in perspective for many marketers and one that some aren’t capable of making. It often requires talking about your category or the subject you’re expert in rather than the characteristics of your company or brand.
It’s why OPEN has such incredible potential, because American Express at its best isn’t just the best payment system, it’s arguably the world’s leading expert in business transactions and what goes into those transactions. That’s what gives AmEx the authority to play in the business insights space, because it has credibility in sharing information that a lot of consumers—specifically business owners—are looking for. As a business owner, who would I really trust to know more about what makes a sale than AmEx? Who would I trust to have a bigger network of experts that they connect me with? A publication that interviews 30 people a day or a company that analyzes data so that it probably knows more about what the economy is doing than the Bureau of Labor Statistics? For me it’s less about AmEx’s culture and more about the fact that AmEx can speak so credibly to the business of doing business.
Noah Brier, Percolate: In response to Jonah’s comment, I agree that they’re not as similar as I made them out to be. Your thought here nails it: "The key thing about good content is that it requires that you think about it first and foremost from the point of view of the consumer and what they want to hear, rather than from the point of view of the brand and what it wants to say." If you replace "content" with "advertising" I still think it reads just as true. The broader opportunity for brands is that they start to ladder up their messages to be about something bigger than their products (like the OPEN Forum example you give). I think the danger is that many brands think they don’t have the permission to level up their communication in this way, which is something that all of us working with brands need to help them solve.
The broader point I was trying to make is that all content creation is about consumption at its most basic. It’s about understanding the world around you and turning that into something new. In the case of promotional content, the process is to connect that with what the brand stands for and in the case of editorial it’s about connecting it with what the publication stands for.
Geoffrey Campbell, senior director, MediaCom Content: I agree with Linda that good content, no matter the medium or distribution, is all about good storytelling. A few years back, I was lucky to be a part of the team that created Iconoclasts with Grey Goose, and there the primary focus was to tell genuinely compelling stories around visionary people and in so doing align the brand with engaging content that consumers would hopefully want to watch. Six seasons later on Sundance people still care about these stories.
So, to me, successful content created on behalf of brands should accomplish both objectives of being consumer facing and compelling, but at the same time attempting to reflect the values and messaging that the brand is attempting to convey. The interesting component of using content to engage the consumer in this way, is the simple flexibility of format and medium. When content can take the form of a one-hour broadcast program, or a long-form integration, or short-form vignettes, or music, you’ve freed up the creative thinking to allow the brand messaging to be woven in seamlessly and subtly without browbeating the consumer with messaging. Good content/storytelling provides the opportunity for the consumer to perceive the brand and the content itself as being more meaningful, engaging, and unique in a crowded and noisy landscape. It’s cliched, but make something good and people will want to watch with you.
Co.Create: Brands weren’t born as publishers. For most brands, publishing/content creation isn’t a core skill set. So, as one of our commenters, Matt Jacobs, from AMP Agency also asks, how should brands approach developing storytelling/content expertise inside the company versus working with existing or new partners to help tell these stories?
Linda Boff, GE: No question, great storytelling is a particular skill. At GE, we’ve engaged some tremendous external partners, such as The Barbarian Group, who are gifted storytellers, both in narrative and technique. We’ve also worked with individuals, such as a talented photographer who shot stunning GIFs at our Aviation plant in Wales. Employees are also natural brand ambassadors and storytellers. We are thrilled when our employees step up and engage on emerging social platforms. We have featured our employees in our new television advertising because their real-world stories are so compelling.
Jae Goodman, CAA: The short answer, and perhaps the obvious one, is that the most successful marketers will do both. As social media exploded, the best marketers both got smart internally and sought out the best partners. The same applies to "old school" advertising: the best clients know what a great ad is, and they partner with agencies who can deliver it. It’s no different for storytelling, content creation, publishing… whatever you want to call it. The brands who commit to learning best practices themselves and then to partnering with the best, will succeed.
Noah Brier, Percolate: I addressed a bit of this in my answer before, but I think the big thing here is about learning how to be real-time consumers and synthesizers of information instead of just talkers (I’m obviously a bit biased on this one, as this is a big part of what we’re trying to tackle at Percolate). Brands need to pay attention to a world that’s wider than just mentions of their brand and start to think about how their voice can extend to broader categories and topic areas.
On a more micro level, I think brands need a bit of an ego boost. I have often felt like my job as a person who works with brands is to remind people inside the organization that they’re interesting. I remember standing in front of a big conference full of representatives from a large brand and saying, "You guys do cool stuff, stop thinking you’re boring." Such a big part of being a storyteller is trying to bring fresh eyes to a situation. Recently I heard someone say that what made Steven Spielberg such an incredible director is that he can sit down and watch his movie at any time with the eyes of an audience member—throwing away the annoyances and hardships that might have gone into putting a scene together and instead just enjoying the story.
Jonah Bloom, KBS+ Content: You definitely need internal champions both in terms of advocating for a more editorial/audience-focused approach to content creation and knowing where the brand’s expertise, insight and talent lies. But external input is often important too. Brands get very close to their own stories and even to their own categories and the subjects in which they are expert. Sometimes that closeness gets in the way of delivering content through the filters of what does the audience really want to consume and what’s the most useful, clear, objective or entertaining way of telling that story. Having someone outside the brand organization fighting for those things can be invaluable.
Scott Roen, American Express: OPEN Forum has never been about us, it’s been focused on helping business owners be more successful in an ever changing environment. To do that, we’ve curated outside experts, entrepreneurs that have faced the same challenges our audience turns to us for. What we’ve learned over the years is how to find those experts, recruit them in, and ensure we’re surfacing the most important issues of the day. Luckily for us, there is a lot of innovation going on in this space and we’re constantly looking to use new tools to refine our editorial approach.
Jae Goodman, CAA: I love Noah’s suggestion that some marketers need a reminder of how cool they are—or at least how potentially interesting they might be to consumers if the brand presents itself and its story in the right way.
We recently had an experience with our client Dell while working on a platform called America’s Favorite Small Business, wherein we opened a meeting by enthusiastically reminding them that Dell was started by one guy in a dorm room. We suggested that Dell is the embodiment of the American Dream, and by encouraging the small business community to engage with each other and nominate each other for the title of America’s Favorite Small Business, Dell is continuing to support the American Dream.
By the time we got done with our opening, I felt like a choir should have been humming "Glory, Glory Hallelujah." It was emotional because we were presenting our heartfelt belief, but we were really just providing our client with an objective POV on how they could engage small business with a level of unexpected relevance given the difference in scale between Dell and the small business customer we were trying to reach. And yes, it worked—both in the meeting and in the market.
Co.Create: How do brands move beyond one-off "branded content" projects and become publishers, that have an ongoing, multi-platform voice?
Werner Brell, Red Bull: It requires a long-term commitment to build an audience through a strategic content creation and distribution plan vs. one-offs with short-term impact. Brands will be more successful in this space by knowing who their target audience is, what content will be relevant for them, and which platform will be most effective in reaching this audience. Establishing dedicated, continuous home and viewing patterns are keys to success.
Organizational change requires adapting from a marketing company to a media company. Long-term content and programming strategy is at the core. We want to create great stories that are designed to inspire our audience and we have to navigate how we distribute it since distribution platforms are constantly evolving and changing. Focusing on the right distribution channels to maximize the impact of our content is essential. We are all 100% focused on making our programming work even harder for us in order to drive more viewers and generate more revenues.
Also, we don’t consider our content as branded content, rather content that is derived from the playgrounds we support such as sports, culture, entertainment, and exploration. Red Bull creates experiences and tells stories with lasting impact; we never pay our way into the hearts and minds of consumers.
Co.Create: While some brands have opted for more of a story/entertainment bent to brand content, AmEx has really focused on providing utility. Can you talk about that focus? And at the same time, AmEx advertising has been known for really great storytelling. How are advertising and content integrated?
Scott Roen, American Express: Probably the best example of this for OPEN Forum was during the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. We saw a big spike from business owners and entrepreneurs coming to Forum for help and we realized that while American Express didn’t have all the answers, we had a platform that could help. We decided to promote this in our advertising, you can see the commercial here:
Co.Create: Give us, as simply as possible, a rundown of how OPEN works—what’s the balance between journalists and community contributors? What kind of resources does it take to do OPEN Forum every day?
Scott Roen, American Express: We have the vast majority in Expert Contributors, but we’ve been testing using more journalists as our audience has grown and we continue to look for new ways to ensure we have the best quality offering out there. Internally, we have six people dedicated full-time to OPEN Forum. There are many others across the organization that spend some portion of their time on it and we also have technology and agency partners.
Co.Create: Question for Jae Goodman—You’ve worked on the advertising proper side and now at CAA developing a broad range of brand content projects. How does the way you approach a brief/your process differ now, and, indeed, how do the briefs themselves differ?
Jae Goodman, CAA: The briefs look remarkably similar in that they state a business objective and the target consumer for the initiative. The briefs rarely, however, include the form(s) of media that the brand content should take. Obviously the brief is at CAA because our brand client believes that the message should be delivered through something other than a standard advertising format, but we try to keep the delivery mechanism wide open at first. If the idea we land on is best delivered by a Broadway play or a social game or an original TV show or a Sundance-worthy short film, so be it. The whole idea of having our group at CAA is that we can easily go from idea to execution. We are a company full of experts in all of the aforementioned content types—and dozens of other content types—and our culture is one of collaboration, so those experts are motivated to help our brand clients succeed in creating or partnering with virtually any and every form of content.
Co.Create: To Noah’s previous point about telling brands that people are actually interested in what they (brands) are doing and saying: There’s clearly an opportunity for companies to tell stories about themselves, making content out of the inherently interesting stuff that goes on in a company. What are the ways you’re looking at ways to bring those stories to life (through platforms beyond what we think of as traditional ads)?
Linda Boff, GE: We have this phrase we use, which is to show GE’s "interestingness." We are a 130-year-old company literally built around invention, innovation, and making the coolest stuff on the planet. With that type of heritage, bringing the brand to life visually is a real mantra for the team. We have used video and photography extensively because it brings the vibrancy of our brand to life. We’ve shot videos on the factory floor using helicopter drones, done Instagram shoots of enormous jet engine technology, and used just about every pertinent social platform to bring the brand to life. When engaging beyond front-line customers we always want to find common ground—we think it’s essential in building true relationships, especially when the user may be far removed from the actual purchase. When developing programs, we look to connect with existing communities that share the same passions we do—design, building, wellness, innovation, etc.—and then, like any other relationship, try to identify how together we can reach a goal.
Noah Brier, Percolate: Two examples come to mind immediately, one large, one small. On the big side, I think about The GE Show. That project came out of some work we were doing when I was at The Barbarian Group where we were exploring GE, trying to uncover interesting stories within the organization (I was literally traveling around to different GE offices and talking to people, getting product demos and climbing wind turbines). What we discovered were lots of different stories that hung together through a couple key themes (aviation, infrastructure, etc.). We then came up with the idea of trying to rethink episodic content on the web: Instead of doing a show that was just a smaller and shorter version of a TV program, we wanted to make something interactive, with different kinds of units that helped tell a story, from games, to video, to quizzes. It’s very cool to see The Barbarian Group still producing the show two years later.
On the small side, a friend of mine started a clothing line called Outlier a few years ago. Their idea was to make work-appropriate clothing in innovative materials and cuts: A pair of pants that you could ride your bike with and still turn up at a meeting looking sharp (and clean). Much of their communication happens through the stories of the materials they use. Here’s how they describe their Keiren Cut Dungarees: "Don’t call them jeans, there is no denim in here. No cotton to blowout after a month or two of cycling. No cotton to suck up sweat and rain and clam up your life for hours as it sort of dries. If Levi Strauss set out today to sell pants to gold miners, do you think he’d pick a fabric centuries old? Or would he do what he did 160 years ago and find the toughest, most durable and most comfortable cloth around?"
Co.Create: Linda, why did you decide to produce The GE Show. What were the challenges there and what were the opportunities that you saw in doing something like this?
Linda Boff, GE: The GE Show has given voice and image to our technology in ways that I couldn’t have imagined 12 months ago. The Barbarian Group has done an amazing job of using visual metaphors to bring our technology to life. In my view, it’s some of the best content we’ve ever produced. In terms of challenges, telling stories isn’t new for GE, but using cutting edge technology and new platforms is a departure. We worked hard to make sure everyone understood the concept, but in the end it was The GE Show itself that sold the concept in. Our businesses loved it and were excited to have their technology featured. The merger of consumer technology and business tech through the iPad and mobile also means that B2B can no longer get away with delivering a substandard UX and content. Business users no longer engage with you through a pokey, graphics-lite terminal—(people are) connecting with you after swiping away from Angry Birds and Netflix. You can no longer afford to be a decade behind.
Co.Create: What are some of the ways you’re measuring success in terms of any of the content you’re doing—from social media to web films?
Linda Boff, GE: We have created a new tool that we call MetricsThatMatter. It’s a real-time look at our key content and social KPIs (key performance indicators). I have it on my desktop and look at our engagement metrics (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly) every day. There’s no substitute to understanding your metrics.
Scott Roen, American Express: Last year we had close to 20MM page views; for the Small Business segment, that’s pretty good and we’ve tripled our size over the past three years. That’s not really what is most important to us; our goal is that we’re helping entrepreneurs be more successful. We get excited to see how quickly our natural search volume is growing because it is an indicator that people are looking for help and we’re answer their need. We look at Net Promoter Score and a number of other brand metrics and they’re all much better for those that use OPEN Forum than those that don’t know us. If after you use Forum, you’ll recommend us, we’re doing something right.
A question from a commenter: GE is enormous with multiple divisions all doing hundreds of fascinating things. How does (Linda) decide which stories to tell?
Linda Boff, GE: We are looking for stories with a real human impact. For instance, our recent ads have featured GE Aviation and GE Healthcare employees and the direct impact they are having, whether it’s making jet engines fly or treating cancer patients. Those are the type of stories we love to tell!
Co.Create: Do you think of social media and content as one and the same?
Linda Boff, GE: The best content has a strong social component and vice versa. Here’s a good example: The new GE.com is a real-time window on the work we do and its impact on the world. Given the always-on velocity of the company we think there’s only so much that can be captured in an annual report or a 30-sec spot—we want to use the always-on digital platforms to share what’s happening right now. We think we can connect best by shining a light on all aspects of what we’re doing—data points on the site include not just commercial matters but also a bit of what happens within the GE community (community service hours performed, jobs available,etc.). GE is an exciting place to work and we want others to see that too. We are excited by how social media has given voice to everyone—not just professional communicators—and are putting the Twitter feeds of experts from around the company right on our front page, unedited.
In terms of our social media voice, GE is at its best when we are the most transparent and accessible. We are a very diverse global company and social allows us to be extremely visual and compelling, whether that’s on Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, or Facebook.
Scott Roen, American Express: Content and social channels are combining to almost become products in and of themselves. A brand can use Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn to get their message out just like they did in the Yellow Pages of years past, but if they create a presence within one of these channels, it’s like setting up shop on Main Street. Content is the product, Social is the store, but as any great retailer will tell you, success is when the product and store are harmoniously intertwined.
Noah Robischon, Fast Company: How do you know what story your customers want to hear? Analytics help, obviously, but they can’t tell you what stories you aren’t telling that you ought to be. And then there’s a whole range of different styles and tones to choose from. What guides each of you in figuring out the creative direction to take?
Werner Brell, Red Bull: We have a pulse on all the core scenes that we participate and play in. And we are looking back at almost 25 years in content creation and learnings. Obviously we continuously strive to evolve, push new limits, and transform scenes. For example, we expected for The Art of Flight to do really well with the core audience and figured that this film will transcend to a wider audience due to the added storytelling elements. But we were surprised to learn that the film resonated with so many new audience layers and inspired people who don’t even snowboard. So based on this success and together with Travis Rice, we took big mountain snowboarding to the next level and created a TV event with the world’s best big mountain snowboarders, Red Bull Supernatural. This show will air as part of the Red Bull Signature Series on NBC on March 31st. We also obviously learn a lot from our social media channels where we have daily conversations with our fans and audience. Having said that, we stay true to our core brand attributes and to the distinct tone and voice of Red Bull. Red Bull is an experiential brand and authenticity is at the core in everything we do.
Jae Goodman, CAA: Noah, I spent midnight to 2 a.m. last Wednesday in a New York bar with Brian Monahan of IPG MediaLabs/Magna Global debating the value of insights provided by analytics versus the magic of creativity. I know, Brian and I should get a more interesting life. But our debate ended right where your question begins: We agreed that analytics are more than helpful, they are a necessary first step and a necessary tool for real-time optimization. A marketer must know their market before embarking on any initiative, and they must be nimble enough to adjust on the fly. They also need an idea.
As for the qualitative part, we try to be guided by brand values, brand voice, and contextual relevance of the content. And we also try to be aware of the brand elasticity and breathing room (or lack thereof) in different forms of content/media.
And then there is the leap: the risk in trying something new. And yes, compared to doing the same old thing and relying on the same old metrics, there is a risk. That said, I’ve yet to meet a successful marketer who says they tested their way to the top. They were smart, they did their homework, they worked with partners they trust to craft an idea they believe in, they mitigated their risk, and then they made the leap. Mind you, the leap doesn’t always have to be Evel Knievel over Snake River Canyon. (But if you look at the success my co-panelist Werner Brell is having with Red Bull Media House, maybe Evel was onto something!)
Linda Boff, GE: Rule #1 is listen hard. What stories are resonating with your audience? What content is being shared or promoted? We can’t figure that out based on a single story or video, but over time, clear preferences and affinities emerge.
Co.Create: Let’s talk examples. Gatorade’s "Replay" was one of the higher-profile entertainment-focused content projects of the last few years. Briefly, how did "Replay" come about in terms of what the brand was looking to accomplish—why this and why not (just) an ad campaign?
Brent Anderson, group creative director, TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A.: "Replay" was born out of the desire for Gatorade to become a more democratic sports brand. For years the brand had been about championing champions. It was about the MJs and the Peytons and showing their epic successes. When TBWA\Chiat\Day got the business Lee (Clow, the agency’s creative head) and Jimmy (Smith, a lead creative) worked with Gatorade to land on a strategy of broadening the definition of the term "athlete." The brand started to be more inclusive of the non-stick and ball sports and, more importantly a wider range of athletes. We began to split our focus and find the middle ground between professional athletes and everyday athletes. And that was where "Replay" was born. Stories of a wider range of athletes and the journey they undertake to be the best they can. This country needs more stories like that.
The other half was that Jimmy and Lee were also working to create missionG, the digital hub of sports entertainment for Gatorade. A part of that effort was creating a few content-based offerings based on different products. "Replay" was originally the G2 content—skewing toward older athletes. The thought was what if we leveled the playing field and bring pro athletes and these older everyday athletes together to offer something every athlete dreams of—a second chance.
As far as whether it’s an "ad campaign," in our mind "Replay" was always the ultimate product demonstration.
Co.Create: Jae, describe briefly how the Chipotle project came about. It’s an initiative that includes not just the videos but a broader Cultivate Foundation project, etc. What was the brand looking for and how did you address that?
Jae Goodman, CAA: First and foremost, the Chipotle initiative came about because Chipotle is more like a collaborator than a client, and our teams engage in a constant flow of ideas. Chipotle is also decisive, and clear about what they want us to help them achieve. They do not, for example, want or need help with their advertising. They do it themselves and it is working wonderfully.
What they asked us to do was help them tell their brand story. Chipotle has been committed to sustainable farming since day one, they just didn’t use it as a marketing platform. So our team (led by Co-Chief Creative Officer Jesse Coulter) helped the Chipotle team (led by CMO Mark Crumpacker) articulate their story. The Cultivate platform takes many forms, and will take many more forms. It starts, of course, with the Cultivate Foundation. Chipotle has always been thoughtfully philanthropic. But now they’re able to be philanthropic through the focus of the foundation, which of course reinforces the Chipotle brand story in a very meaningful way. We also helped Chipotle create the Cultivate Festival—a food, ideas, and music festival that drew 16,000 people to Chicago’s Lincoln Park. This brought the brand story to people in a live, fun, interactive environment. And, of course, the Cultivate platform includes a short, stop-animation film with a soundtrack featuring Willie Nelson covering Coldplay. Really, though, this is just the beginning.
Co.Create: How do you think about curation versus creation?
Noah Brier, Percolate: I think about curation as a type of creation. If you think about the vast majority of "content" produced on the web, it’s people sharing things with a bit of context. Most of us are not content creators, but instead content curators (sometimes I like to think of it as information brokering—passing a piece of content from one network to another). I think for brands original content creation is an important piece of the puzzle. It’s something that fits into their more traditional production capabilities and offers them an opportunity to build a new audience. The problem with original content creation, as any journalistic organization can attest to, is that it’s expensive. I think this is where the mix of content starts to be much more important. To stay relevant a brand is going to need to create quite a bit of content every day and that will need to be a mix of original and curated.
Co.Create: A reader asks: To what extent has the explosion of social media influenced GE to become more active in the content arena, or are you more driven by the opportunity to create long-form content that can do justice to explaining GE’s businesses to prospective customers?
Linda Boff, GE: As a brand, I like to think we’ve always been in the business of telling great stories. What has changed is there are many more platforms, and tons of niche communities where we can target different types of relevant content. Sometimes that means using long-form video, other times an awesome photo on Instagram or Pinterest are the best way for us to tell our story. Speaking of, here’s a link to our Pinterest site. GE was one of the first brands on Pinterest and we use the boards to showcase the breadth of work GE does.
Co.Create: As Matt Jacobs from AMP Agency asks, are brands rethinking the way marketing budgets are apportioned in light of the brand content mandate? Where is the money coming from?
Linda Boff, GE: We are investing in great content, however, some of the best content can be remarkably cost-effective. As of this morning, we have nine Pinterest boards which are getting a ton of traffic and referrals. Cost there is zero. What we are rethinking is how to use distribution to maximize content. Creating a great piece of content that no one sees is worthless. So we’re experimenting with properties like BuzzFeed or HealthGuru to maximize distribution. We’re putting our best content across our digital ecosystem. It needs to be easy to find, easy to share.
Steve Howard, group creative director, TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A.: Honestly the budget for "Replay" was very small in terms of a traditional marketing campaign. Gatorade had money allocated for branded content but it was always done on a shoestring. Fortunately, the idea of giving athletes a second chance and letting them relive their past one more time was something everyone could relate to. So everyone was fully vested in making it happen, no matter what. Hopefully, as there are more and more success stories related to branded content we’ll see more of a shift away from the 30-second spot.
Jae Goodman, CAA: Most of our clients don’t think about allocating a "branded content" budget, nor would we encourage them to do so. Instead, we work within their budget allocation for a given business initiative, and provide content solutions at a range of costs.
By way of example, our client bing spent very little to create a short film that became only the second-ever brand film accepted to Sundance (this was in 2010—we helped our former client eBay create the first-ever in 2008). At the time, Bing was thinking of becoming a Sundance sponsor, and liked the idea of making their sponsorship more meaningful by also being the producer of a Sundance-worthy film. We had no guarantee that we could make a Sundance-worthy film, of course, so we did not want Bing to risk a lot of money trying. Not only was the film accepted to the festival, it was one of only 10 films featured on the YouTube Sundance Screening Room page, leading to substantial earned media.
At the other end of the budget spectrum, when Bing first launched, they wanted to create some meaningful interactive content that put viewers only a click away from trying Microsoft’s new "decision engine" Bing. So we worked with the tech team at Hulu and director Brian Beletic to create the first-ever live, interactive show on Hulu, called the "Bing-a-thon." Both the production and the media cost to promote the show were significant, but the result was that 1 in 6 people who visited Hulu during the live broadcast of the Bing-a-thon watched the Bing-a-thon instead of the popular TV shows they came to Hulu to see. Moreover, "Bing-a-thon" viewers watched for an average of 26 minutes—that’s like watching 52 commercials back-to-back. In both cases, the small budget film and the larger budget interactive content, Bing established clear ROI and KPI’s ahead of time, thereby justifying their attempt at something new and different, and measuring their success. Bing, led by Eric Hadley at Microsoft, has gone on to create a range of interesting content with a range of partners (Jay-Z "Decoded" with Droga5 comes to mind), and I think it is Bing’s commitment to using content as an important part of their marketing mix, and their commitment to both experimenting and measurement, that keeps them moving forward.
And that’s a wrap. Thanks panelists and commenters for a fun and informative discussion.