Branded content has become a popular and increasingly effective PR and marketing technique to raise brand awareness, strengthen brand loyalty and ultimately bring about higher sales. Branded content refers to creating and/or sharing content that consumers want to see, rather than what the organisation would like them to see (that is advertising!). It has several advantages, especially cost and shareability, but also its focus on storytelling, which is essential for creating connections. I have looked at two case studies of companies who are doing branded content well: the Beanz Meanz Heinz 50th Anniversary campaign, and GoPro on Instagram. I have made recommendations in relation to Barry's Tea: that the company formulates a digital communications strategy, and that that strategy identifies the company's story, that is an overarching narrative aligned to the brand and the goals of the organisation. Finally I have discussed the implications of the emergence of branded content on PR practitioners.
What is Branded Content?
Also known as ‘content marketing’, ‘sponsored content’ or even ‘hidden advertising’, branded content is the latest PR and marketing tactic. It can be anything from a pop-up restaurant to a Hollywood short film. However, the objectives remain the same: to raise brand awareness, strengthen brand loyalty and bring about higher sales.
Branded content “prioritizes entertainment; the product placement comes second” (Richardson, 2015). Unlike advertising, the focus is on what audiences want to watch and engage with, not what companies want to show them.
The success of branded content lies with the principles described in Grunig’s Model of Excellence, in particular the importance of two-way symmetrical communication between an organisation and its publics, and the importance of building relationships.
In order to produce and share content that is relevant and entertaining, organisations must pay attention and listen to their customers. When they do, a dialogue emerges. Customers respond to the message they receive by choosing to accept or reject it. Moreover, they alter their behaviour according to what messages they like and do not like. Branding expert, Ron Tite (2013), explains the phenomenon as follows: “Consumers used to vote with their wallets. Now they vote with their time.”
As we all know, the internet and the development of Social Media (SM) have led to major changes in marketing and PR techniques. Traditional tools, such as the press release, have declined in significance. The role of PR practitioners is evolving rapidly. In line with Grunig’s model, there has been a shift in the balance of power away from the PR and marketing departments into the hands of consumers themselves.
In the past, the relationship between organisations and customers was mediated through the shop where the product was sold or the newspaper where it was advertised, etc. This is no longer the situation. Now organisations can have a direct relationship with their customers.
Companies, NGOs, educational institutions, and many other types of organisations, create, publish and share content on platforms that they manage and/or own. Owned media channels include the organisation’s website and SM platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. These are sometimes referred to as ‘properties’.
Earned media, which include media relations and third party endorsement, are probably more important than ever. They incorporate influencers, from vloggers, bloggers, and Snapchat stars, to more traditional media figures, like newspaper and television journalists.
Why is Branded Content important?
Thanks to Social Media, over the last 15 years the amount of communications channels has exploded. Just a week ago, Facebook announced that it has nearly two billion regular users (meaning that 88% of the world’s internet users outside China have a Facebook account). A billion ‘snaps’ are sent every day.
Creating and sharing content on SM is easy do and no- or low-cost. Everyone is doing it! Consequently, one of the biggest challenges is making sure that your content can be seen above the crowd. To do that, organisations must take a strategic approach.
One of the advantages of the endless array of communications channels, however, is that niche interests can be accommodated far easier than in the past (Tite, 2013). This is an important consideration for companies when they are putting together a digital communications strategy.
The importance of having a digital communications strategy cannot be underestimated. There are more than 500,000 millennials in Ireland. They were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, which means that not only are they the first generation of digital natives, but also that many of them have entered the workforce. Therefore, their purchasing power is rising, and so they cannot be ignored.
Obviously, no organisation can survive on good publicity alone. The bottom line (profit and share value) is a primary concern, as is the Triple Bottom Line which adds two more elements: people and the planet.
Much research has been done into these two areas with very interesting findings. Firstly, international research into CSR has shown that in many countries customers are willing to spend more on environmentally-friendly products (Kochhar, 2014).
Secondly, research carried out by Cone Communications last year discovered that millennials place a high value on being socially conscious and that for them workplace satisfaction is closely linked to social responsibility. Of those surveyed, approx. 75% said that they would take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company. Cone Comunications also found that millennial employees want companies to share employee engagement information for example CSR programmes, on SM, so that they can share it too (Kochhar, 2016).
So, the traditional word of mouth has become word of mouse. But why do people share online? Again, research has identified various motivating factors:
To increase or maintain recognition and status with your peers;
To form and maintain social relationships;
For entertainment, information and social purposes;
The more you share, the more your confidence increases, so you share more. (Lee & Ma, 2012)
All of this sharing – by customers, employees, their family and friends – helps to generate social capital, which ultimately is good for business for lots of reasons.
Again and again research has shown that we consider friends and family to be the most credible sources of information (Kochhar, 2014). On that basis, when a friend or family member posts something online that we enjoy or find interesting, we are more likely to share it than if it was posted by the organisation itself.
CEOs are concerned about customer loyalty. Research by KPMG in 2016 found that 45% of CEOs surveyed felt that they could make better use of digital platforms to connect with consumers (Kochhar, 2016). It is not surprising when you consider that about four in ten internet users follow brands on social media, and of those one quarter are considering making a purchase from one of those brands,
Advantages of Branded Content
As already mentioned, branded content can be in any format – blogs, podcasts, still images, videos, etc. Once the content has been published, it can be shared across one or more platforms, e.g. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, or on the newcomers Instagram and Snapchat. Unlike in paid media, brand content is meant to be shared.
Branded content has other advantages too, especially over advertising. Previously, PR was carried out mainly by larger organisations. But now there are virtually no barriers. Some organisations, e.g. GoPro, even favour User Generated Conent (UGC) over professionally produced content.
When there is a cost (which can be substantial, as in the case of Red Bull’s Stratos), in the main the investment is in the creation of the content, not its distribution. Customers, and employees, are very effective brand ambassadors.
Sometimes an organisation shares other people’s content. This is ‘curating’. The content that you share may be on a completely different topic, but if it is compelling and entertaining, it will contribute to the profile of the organisation (Tite, 2013).
In recent years, video has become a driving force in branded content. Most of us engage with digital content across several platforms, interacting with multiple screens every day (Kochhar, 2014). Over half of Facebook users watch video, and according to Brightcove, 46% of consumers say they have made a purchase after watching a video on a social network. The focus then has to be on delivering content to your publics no matter what platform or device they are using (Kochhar, 2014).
In 2007, Dr. David Weinberger, who wrote one of the first texts on the effect of the internet on marketing, told a conference that “…if you engage the audience in a conversation and learn what the social community is looking for, you might be able to persuade them to hear your message.” But in order to engage this audience, and eventually establish a relationship, the message must be credible. For that reason, it should focus on common ground and shared experiences (Estanyol, 2015).
That is where storytelling comes in. Branded content finds and tells stories. Regardless of the way it is presented, everyone loves a good story. They are engaging, stimulating the language, visual and sensory parts of the brain. They create a connection between the storyteller and the audience. And they appeal to our emotions. Emotion drives behaviour; positive emotions lead to engagement (Ó’Murchú, 2016).
Who is doing Branded Content well?
Beanz Meanz Heinz 50th Anniversary
Last week, from 2nd to 7th May, Heinz ran a pop-up beans café in Rory Gallagher Place, Cork. The previous week, the café operated in Dublin. Cafés also opened in locations in the UK.
The café was decorated with a range of Heinz themed furniture, accessories and even paintings. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served to bean-loving diners for free. All that was expected in return was a mention on social media, or as the company put it: Pay for Beanz by Social Meanz.
The idea of the restaurant was to mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic slogan “Beanz Meanz Heinz”. The interior of the café was decorated with a range of Heinz themed furniture, accessories and even paintings. The menu was diverse; typical Irish breakfast fare in the morning, but more international dishes, with guacamole and cassoulet, as options for lunch and dinner.
Research (Allagui & Breslow, 2016) suggests that including an offline element to a campaign can improve its possibility of success. This campaign did just that, successfully merging an offline/In Real Life (IRL) activity which was shared online. There were 375 posts with the hashtag #heinzbeanz50. They got more than 350,000 impressions, and had a reach of over 250,000.
GoPro on Instgram
The camera company, GoPro, won the 6th Shorty Award for Best on Instagram. On the basis of the statistics alone, it would be hard to argue with the judges’ decision:
Year ending 2014
an average of 70,000 new followers every week.
top photo: 396,000 engagements (up 55% from 2013)
3.78m followers (up 1.4m from the end of 2013)
The GoPro Instagram page is a powerful platform for the company to demonstrate what this tough, little camera can achieve. The aim is “to make our users the real stars of the channel”, and so it publishes content created and submitted by camera owners. Though it also publishes content produced by its staff and team of sponsored athletes.
The results are amazing. The images and videos tell the story of life at its most exciting and beautiful, and would inspire anyone to pick up a GoPro and give it a go!
It is a niche market and the company highlights the community spirit of its followers: “GoPro thrives on tapping into our passionate customer following to find and share their stories and memories”. By actively sharing and tagging users’ videos, a web of connections are made between the company and the users, and also between the users themselves, which facilitates
Barry’s Tea a family business, founded in Cork in 1901. The company initially operated as a tea retailer, but in the 1960s it moved into wholesale distribution.
It is an Irish market leader, with 38% of tea sales here. Moreover, it is sold in shops worldwide as a premium Irish tea. The tea blends have leaves from India, Sri Lanka, as well as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda., giving Barry’s its distinctive taste. In addition to black tea, Barry’s sells a range of herbal teas and infusions.
Barry’s Tea has a limited presence on several SM platforms, namely Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. Despite posting sporadically, it has nearly 11,000 followers on Twitter, and 3,200 followers on Instgram.
Recommendations for Barry’s Tea
Put together a digital communications strategy
It is clear that Barry’s Tea has made efforts in the area of digital communications, but they appear to lack focus. To ensure that loyalty for the brand continues into the future, it is essential that the company do more to engage with younger consumers. Digital media have to be the cornerstone of any future brand-building initiative.
With that in mind, the company management must come together with the marketing and communications staff to agree a plan that would see the company embark on a targeted communications campaign.
Identify the Barry’s Tea story
As part of the strategic plan, the company should identify an overarching narrative that is true to the brand and aligned to the company’s business goals. Barry’s Tea has 200 posts on Instagram, but it is tagged in approximately 7,500 posts. Based on previous advertising campaigns, and the buzz that exists around the brand, a possible theme for the story could be Barry’s Tea as something that connects people at home and abroad.
Implications of Branded Content for Public Relations Practitioners
Since the advent of the internet and SM, the changes in PR have been massive. It is hard to predict what will happen next. Nonetheless, there are some key issues that will have a significant impact on those working in the PR industry.
Certain skills are required now that were not part of the traditional PR toolkit. Those include both technical and editorial skills. The technical skills are photography, video recording and editing, but more significantly the ability to understand and analyse statistical data. Regarding editorial skills, it is worth noting that Fleishman Hillard CEO, John Saunders, has predicted that the demand for content will result in PR firms becoming populated with journalists.
Up to now PR efforts have concentrated on transmitting messages. Branded content requires companies to listen more (to competitors, through monitoring positive and negative reaction, monitoring for opportunities to make a good impression, etc.).
On the soft skills side, despite research showing that CEOs largely understand the importance of digital media, in the short-term to ensure that companies invest in digital, PR professionals will have learn how to communicate about digital communications in a way that is easy to understand and effective.
Lastly, PR practitioners will have to become even more comfortable with risk-taking. In this accelerated communications cycle, it is inevitable that decisions about sharing content will be required quicker and with less preparation than before.
Having examined the factors that make branded content important and that give it advantages over other PR and marketing techniques, it is clear that it is a form of publicity that is here to stay. It harnesses some of the characteristics of ‘early’ viral campaigns, especially the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which showed that no matter how amateur the production values, followers are always attracted to fun, entertainment and a good story. The value to businesses might seem incalculable, but modern statistical analysis methodologies are delivering on essential business data. As a result, statistics and data analysis is just one string that PR practitioners are having to add to their bow. These are interesting times!
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