We live in a world that's awash with information and overloaded with noise. With app choices to wade through, websites to trawl, Twitter and Facebook accounts to update - everything is jam-packed with 'content' to read and respond to.
As consumers, we have become experts at sifting through the rubbish, picking out the relevant and quickly getting to the stuff that's really useful. So, when we come across something that is genuinely good, we appreciate it and it rightfully earns our attention and sticks in our minds. We 'feel' something as a result of the positive experience.
Luxury brands that have got it right include Net-a-Porter. Its website sells to us, yes, but it also provides an edited choice that customers trust and a voice to which they can relate.
LVMH has gone one step further and created the richly indulgent website, Nowness, all about art and culture.
This provides an edited selection of the latest exhibitions, ideas, and trends, reassuring customers that they are buying into a way of life, not just a bag.
At Forward, we produce branded content for watch brand Patek Philippe, which also sets out a cultural landscape rather than just selling timepieces, and has been happily entertaining customers for 16 years.
It is this kind of emotional engagement that all brands are now aiming for when they have a direct conversation with their customers. They know it no longer works to simply push out their messages and products. The focus has shifted toward making communications that are really useful and interesting, and a valuable part of the customer's life.
In today's world, if a brand wants to win a place in a customer's heart and mind, it has to work much harder to engage and to build a relationship that is based on trust, honesty, authenticity, generosity and a two-way conversation. The key is to understand the customer's lifestyle, interests and aspirations - not just what they want to buy - and to connect the customer to others with the same interests.
Take Nike's 'Run to the beat' idea, for example. It is not just a website for selling trainers, it is a whole programme, including nutrition and hydration tips, to help users train for a race and share their progress with others. Similarly, Special K is no longer solely a breakfast cereal: it is your friendly weight-loss partner, full of recipes, tips and fashion and beauty advice.
Every brand you can think of potentially has a world of branded content at its feet: Cath Kidston's clever use of nostalgic 50s style in its accessories could extend to a new Good Housekeeping, complete with sewing app. Boden, favoured by a very particular sector of British society, is not just spotty fabric; it could be a family forum, a place to discuss school choices, mother-daughter relationships or holiday ideas.
For agencies creating branded content there is no room for subjectivity or guesswork. Insight is essential to really understand customers, as is a well-planned content strategy. As the programme will no doubt be rolled out across online magazines, mobile apps, tablet apps and social-media sites, someone needs to ensure it all ties together and makes sense to the customer.
Currently, as an agency, we find ourselves sitting in boardrooms across Britain with a lot of people. In the room there will frequently be members of PR, media sales, advertising, in-store and DM agencies, all with their own part to play in relaying the brand's messages.
The jury is still out on which should be the 'lead agency' for content strategy. Advertising heads are keen to stake their claim, but are they the right people for the job?
One thing's for sure: customer publishing agencies are absolutely key to the process, because it is not copywriting and marketing speak that we need here, it is journalistic writing and editing. Customers know the difference.
Marc Moninski, co-founder of new branded content agency Sutro Digital, recently said: 'For brands to succeed, they need to think and act as publishers.'
Absolutely. Moreover, looking around our office, at all our writers, editors, designers and strategists, with backgrounds in print publishing, digital and social media, who are now confidently embracing every channel technology cares to throw at them, I feel we are well-placed to help brands do just that.
Louise Pearce, Editorial director, Forward
Forward helps clients achieve their business objectives by creating bespoke, targeted branded content that engages customers, builds brand loyalty, inspires action and drives sales.
As a multichannel content agency, we thrive on responding to constantly evolving consumer behaviour, technological advances and media trends across the globe.
In order to help our clients reach their desired target audience(s), we publish our content in various formats including digital and printed magazines, editorialised websites, campaign-related microsites, blogs, mobile apps and content-rich emails.
The results we achieve for our clients prove that we do this effectively, with statistics demonstrating increased brand warmth and advocacy, a rise in the number of store and website visits, and dramatic hikes in product sales, including ROIs as high as 100:1.
The Forward Group's clients include B&Q, Barclays, Patek Philippe, REAP (Fabric), Regus, Standard Life (MoneyPlus) and Tesco.
To find out more about The Forward Group, visit www.theforwardgroup.com
Tesco Baby & Toddler Club
Tesco Baby & Toddler Club is a full relationship programme. Over the past five years, the club has evolved in response to changing consumer behaviour, and now provides members with content across multiple channels, including printed magazines, a club website, outbound emails, and a members panel.
Rebecca Hersey, editor for the club programme (and a mother herself), says: 'Our aim is to help and support members through honest and genuinely useful information and guidance. We create content to help mums make the right product choices at the right time from the moment they are pregnant through to their child's third birthday - whether it's recipes for mums-to-be on our website, a magazine article providing "Top teething tips", or emails with timely offers on nappies.'
One of the most successful elements of the programme is Mums' Choice - a product review panel. Its effectiveness is not surprising when you consider that parents value information from other parents above any other source.
Mothers on the panel are invited to review products, and other members use the reviews to help them make their own choices. The information generated is used in the magazines, in-store and for PR.
Lorna Dickinson, category manager at Tesco, says: 'We are looking forward to building on the success of the Club in 2012, with a specific focus on developing the digital elements of the programme - particularly mobile and social media.'
Success is measured through engagement levels, participation via coupon redemption and incremental sales uplift. Average coupon participation is currently 16%.
Members' spend is £20 per basket more than that of non-members, and recruitment levels reached as much as 100% year-on-year growth. Meanwhile, 82% of members share parenting experiences via the Club website.