As brands continue to pour forth websites, magazines, ad-funded TV programmes and co-creation campaigns, many consumers are struggling to wade through the rising tide of content.
Some brands are reporting that feedback indicates they should actually produce less content; the amount of material can be a distraction, and many consumers would prefer it if companies cut to the chase. The question marketers must answer is: how much branded content is too much?
Fashion house Burberry has taken a fascinating approach to the content conundrum with its Art of Trench site, where people can upload pictures of themselves wearing the label's coats. The co-creation campaign has been widely praised in the fashion and marketing industries for its role in forming a community of fans. However, Burberry would not comment when asked by Marketing whether the campaign has been a success in driving sales.
Measuring the impact of branded content on sales is difficult, and marketers tend to see content creation as part of general brand-building, rather than as a sales driver. It is something that is easy for marketers to misjudge; outlined below, then, are the seven sins of branded content.
1 - The dead weight of long copy
Keeping website copy to the point is something brands often struggle to achieve. Users tend to prefer photos and videos, and shun long-text forms. Fashion retailer My-wardrobe.com, which has used the services of former Grazia editor-in-chief Fiona McIntosh as a consultant, has axed much of the editorial on its site after research found that customers had little interest in reading it, viewing it as a hindrance to purchase.
Sarah Curran, the site's chief executive, says customers found the volume of editorial on the site the equivalent of having someone stand in front of them at a department store and give a long explanation about the products, when they wanted simply to quickly find what they needed and pay for it.
After all, the site's users often shop during a lunch break, for example, curtailing the time they have to devote to content on the site. Furthermore, growing numbers are shopping via mobiles, which are an unsuitable platform for long copy.
'They are already surrounded by editorial from their favourite fashion editors and blogs (that inspires them to shop),' adds Curran. 'A lot of etailers out there are leading with editorial content, when the beauty of etail is that it is for people who want to just click and buy.'
There are exceptions though. Curran adds that users do like editorial they cannot get elsewhere, such as profiles of up-and-coming fashion designers.
2 - Failing to use media in the right way
Brands can be guilty of losing sight of their objectives by overloading their marketing with content.
Hugh Fletcher, national digital manager for Audi, oversees the car brand's online content. 'As businesses we over-complicate the content and think it has to be break-through and innovative every time,' he says. 'But the most important thing is that it simply has to answer a need.' He argues that many web pages tend to be copy-heavy, when what is actually being sought are quick, easy-to-understand explanations.
A recent usability study for Audi revealed that many people wanted to know how to link their mobile phone to their car, but found the online explanations too long.
'I don't think that as a society we are losing the reading bug, but what we are reading has to be shorter and supplemented with other content,' adds Fletcher. 'In the past, we explained in long copy how to link your phone to your car, but now we realise our users want copy and video.'
Audi, he says, is lucky because it has cars that interest people and which they are prepared to go online to discuss, so there is a ready audience for branded content.
For instance, Audi's UK Facebook page recently had a section for users to submit pictures of their Audi cars in the snow; at the time of writing, 29 fans had invested the time in doing so.
'I believe it requires encouragement from brands for people to send in their content,' says Fletcher. He accepts, however, that it can be tough for many brands in sectors that don't generate the levels of interest of the automotive or fashion industries to get consumers to contribute or participate in social-media commentary.
3 - Deluding yourself that people care about your brand values
Eurostar launched its in-train magazine Metropolitan, in 2010. The publication is used as a brand-building tool, intended to boost customer loyalty, says Reuben Arnold, Eurostar's head of commercial development. It features articles in English, French and Flemish, targeting visitors to London, Paris and Brussels, and aims to espouse the values of a lifestyle, newsstand magazine.
Arnold contends that many airlines' in-flight magazines are boring because they are too promotional, with a focus on 'selling', and pay little heed to whether travellers are interested in the content.
'It is about being able to talk about the things your brand stands for, but you can't ram those brand values down people's throats,' he explains. 'We do it subtly, using content to reinforce what we are as a brand. Rather than have a one-page piece saying we are environmentally conscious, we might instead feature a business in Paris that's doing something interesting about sustainability. That is a far more powerful way of communicating our environmental values. Passengers probably don't care much what Eurostar's values are, but you can get them interested in the issues with the right editorial.'
4 - Underestimating the public's scepticism about brands
Many people, especially in the UK, see brand messages as necessarily self-serving and dubious, so trust has to be fought for, warns David Murray, joint head of planning at ad agency RKCR/Y&R.
'There is a natural suspicion of corporate propaganda prevalent in the UK, where we tend to be sceptical of the motivations of brands. Branded content is seen as a bit grubby and desperate,' he adds. 'Anything that whiffs of short-termism and opportunism is on shaky ground.'
Murray cites Eurostar's funding of the Shane Meadows film Somers Town as a good example of a subtle use of content that refrained from overtly promoting the brand.
Elsewhere, beer brand Beck's sponsorship of independent art projects also carries a sense of altruism and aspiration, he argues; the branding is understated, and many people don't think twice about the sponsorship at art festivals. Murray points, too, to Red Bull's backing of extreme sports and motorsport and Levi's use of music in its ads as powerful examples.
Murray adds, however, that for everyday household brands, the brand story needs to be based on the values of the product, which can be hard to achieve through sponsorship, film or other content.
'A beer would struggle to build long-form content around the subject of refreshment,' he says. Such brands need to construct an interesting story from the outset if they want to create intriguing content. Murray identifies Lynx as a brand that has achieved this by attaching itself to the 'mating game'.
5 - Believing co-creation is for everyone
If a brand is in a low-interest sector, it can scarcely hope to follow Nike, BMW or Burberry by enticing consumers into co-creation. Some packaged grocery brands have tried to imitate the success of the leaders in branded content, and been criticised by industry experts.
One example was Kingsmill's 'Confessions' campaign, created by M&C Saatchi in 2009. It encouraged people to go online and own up to stealing others' 'delicious' sandwiches.
The campaign was supported by a TV ad about a woman who stole a sandwich from her husband. It contained the line: 'He is convinced he is going cuckoo.' Six months in, fewer than 20 'Confessions' videos had been uploaded to YouTube; the campaign ended in late 2010.
Other questionable attempts include OXO's drive to encourage people to upload home-made versions of the brand's ads on YouTube. The executions received a few thousand views each on YouTube. A similar campaign by Dolmio asked people to make their own version of the 'Papa Dolmio' ad and upload it; most of the entries attracted fewer than 1000 views.
6 - Focusing on a measurable return on investment
Brands should refrain from putting too much emphasis on return on investment from the branded content they produce, says Audi's Fletcher.
'Working out return on investment from content is not linear,' he adds. 'The way to think about whether it sells cars is to consider the way we use different channels to buy a car. You don't just watch a TV ad and go out and buy one; you go online, read information and watch content. It gives you a better picture of the cars and brands.'
Meanwhile, Arnold says Eurostar's Metropolitan pays for itself through advertising, but adds: 'It is not designed to make a sale; it is not just a fancy form of advertising. It gives us a voice to communicate with customers.'
7 - Turning to technology as a saviour
Aaron Nicholls, business development director at customer publisher Redactive, says brands must think carefully about the technologies and platforms that they use.
'Don't use technology for its own sake, just to appear clever,' he explains. 'It has to work. For our business-to-business clients and brands that don't have vast budgets, it is about choosing what is effective.'