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Why ‘story-led’ marketing changes ‘everything’

Justin Kirby, author of Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) – which curates and discusses the latest content from brands – sets the tone for his talk at FIPP Mobile in London by discussing emerging trends in branded content creation and the continued move to – and beyond – mobile-first…

FIPP Mobile forms part of FIPP London, which also includes FIPP Tech, FIPP Innovation and the Worldwide Media Marketplace as channels, taking place on 10-11 May.

Speaking to Jon Watkins, Justin says it is worth making a distinction between story-led marketing and marketing that simply uses content or “content-like” stuff, because “the former changes everything about the way brands go to market.”

Here’s more.

What trends are we seeing around branded campaigns right now and audiences’ acceptance of content delivered through this route? Just how far have we come?

The general consensus among industry experts two years ago was that content would be at the heart of every marketing strategy in five years’ time. By the middle of last year, the consensus was that content is now just what marketing is and does. That’s how far we’ve come and the speed at which things are moving.

The marketing industry is really being reshaped from three different directions, all of which are converging. These are:

1. Customer publishing merging with direct marketing: brand publishing might be a better term for content marketing, or at least one important area of what the term is coming to mean – i.e. any marketing that uses content. This is really the evolution of the customer-publishing model, particularly when delivered digitally. But it’s also the evolution of the direct marketing industry through its increasing use of tech – content publishing, CRM, marketing automation, analytics, etc. Adobe’s CMO.com site is an example of this type of content publishing platform that delivers a more editorial-style content, or what Google calls ‘Hub content’.

2. The advertising and entertainment industries colliding: it’s really interesting to note that Cannes Lions have dropped their Branded Content & Entertainment award category this year, and have instead launched their new Entertainment Lions festival. The LEGO movie is now the benchmark in this space, rather than Red Bull’s jump from space, particularly when it comes to longer-form storytelling. But you don’t need movie budgets to create the kind of campaigns that Google call ‘Hero content’, and these campaigns can be short-form too. Lowe’s ‘Fix in Six’ DIY life hacks animations on Vine are only six seconds long and became an internet sensation with a budget of only $5,000.

3. Content driving customer experience: there are those that are trying to build bridges between the User-Experience (UX) design and Customer Experience (CX) disciplines, showing how more information architecture-orientated Content Strategy and Content Marketing are separate but connected approaches, with common concerns particularly around SEO. There’s also a lot of talk about how content can help create added-value experiences for the customer and help build relationships over time that can be monetised. But no one has really joined the dots between the CX discipline and content-based marketing as an approach, despite how content is increasingly being used as part of Marketing as a service (MaaS). The Customer Service space is, however, emerging as the obvious starting place from where content can be used for improving the customer experience by creating the kind of ‘Help content’ that Google talks about– not least because the space is already one that CX specialists focus on.

Are we seeing a shift from brands in terms of global campaigns versus local campaigns?

I think it’s worth making the distinction between story-led marketing and marketing that simply uses content or content-like stuff, because the former changes everything about the way brands go to market. Storytelling is the cultural glue that binds us. Or, to put it another way, brands must realise that connecting with people happens through culture – what we read, share, consume, etc. And stories are the means by which brands can connect to people through culture in more relevant ways. That’s why we are seeing the rise of more locally produced content versus globally adapted campaigns.

What work have you seen lately that has really impressed you, and which defines the direction branded campaigns are going in right now?

Interestingly, the Cannes Lions Branded Content & Entertainment jury has not awarded a Grand Prix for 2 years now. That’s partly because the category is horizontal, and because there’s still a lot of protracted debate in jury rooms about whether or not submissions are advertising or branded content. However, I can’t help agreeing with those pundits who argue that not enough risks are being taken, because the best ideas seem to be those that play through the lines rather than fit neatly into an award category. One example of a brand doing this well is Chipotle. They’ve created a series of award-winning work that helps them win hearts rather than burrito-promotion-comparing minds. My favourite is their Farmed & Dangerous sitcom that first aired on Hulu, the case study for which can be found at BOBCM.

How do publishers and agencies maximise their contribution to this world? Presumably the key is the art of storytelling and the ability to really engage audiences?

I think your point about storytelling hits the nail on the head, but it is also about what kind of content is created and where in the customer decision journey it appears, as well as who is on the team to help brands plan, create, deliver and measure. What agencies are great at is coming up with ideas that create a big culture moment, executed as a campaign across multiple channels in different formats. It may, however, be the editorial and programming skills of publishers and broadcasters that are better suited for the delivery of more continuous content production.

There’s another related question about what kind of content is created for who by whom. We are starting to see more examples of mechanisms that help customers tell their stories at scale. The case study for the Duncan Hines baking brand in the latest edition of BOBCM is an example that has delivered spectacular results. Ideas like that could come from a platform provider, boutique creative shop, start-up, etc. That makes the brand-funded content space an exciting one where great ideas could come from anywhere, which is one reason that agencies, publishers and also brands need to have a rethink about the skillsets of those they think they need to hire – not least because there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for using content to solve all business challenges. That means the days of the generic content specialist are numbered.

How is branded content starting to really embrace some of the emerging technologies and platforms?

There are some standout examples of a particular platform/technology being chosen to engage an audience, such as Lowe’s Fix in Six Vine animations that I mentioned above. There are also a number of boutique creative shops – that have suddenly emerged from nowhere – winning multiple awards for ideas that have used technology cleverly, although it’s still too early to say if they will deliver anything more than one-hit wonders. What I have also seen is a progression from more digital-first strategic thinking to mobile-first and increasingly content-first. That’s less about embracing technologies for the sake of it, and more about using technology to help deliver stories – because it’s a relevant way to reach and engage an audience who will hopefully share the content and like it etc. Delivery aside, I am also seeing technology being used to help brands get their stories straight in the first place, to ensure they’re both relevant and that they resonate with their audience/public. This can often start with defining or refining their brand personality as a precursor to brand narrative development (storytelling) and is often focused on the authenticity and consistency of the way the story is told through different channels in order to help rebuild consumer trust.

Join Justin and others at FIPP London from 10-11 May. Sign up here.

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