Branded content may be the marketing phrase du jour, but it is nothing new. Its use was not as sophisticated, but in 1964 Sean Connery's James Bond was seen driving around in an Aston Martin DB5 in the film Goldfinger, and during the 60s and 70s, BBC crime drama Z Cars showed the police patrolling in Ford Zodiacs and Zephyrs, from which the show got its name.
The technique has attracted its fair share of followers, but uncertainty remains as to how best to define it and how to measure its effectiveness.
There is certainly a burgeoning number of channels through which companies can deliver tailored content to a target audience. In recent years, advertiser-funded programming (AFP), customer magazines and experiential marketing have been joined by channels such as blogs and podcasts, while the multi-channel television revolution has opened up opportunities to target niche audiences. One of the most striking examples of the latter was last year's launch of the Audi Channel, a satellite TV station dedicated to the luxury car marque.
Put succinctly, branded content can add entertainment value to brands by integrating them into the editorial content of media channels or making them an integral part of live events. Ultimately, it is about developing partnerships with media owners that run deeper than buying spot advertising.
But how much branded content do consumers want and how effective can it be? 'The content element must be real, for real people, in the real world,' says ITV brand partnerships director Gary Knight. 'It must never be advertorial, as it then becomes "fictitious" and the franchise is lost. The best starting point is to think about how to create a genuine viewing experience that can adopt true brand-extension positions, both on- and off-air.'
Knight cites ITV's Orange Playlist, which began as a 26-week commission and features celebrities picking their 10 favourite songs, as a good example of branded content working well for broadcaster, audience and brand. He argues that editorial integrity is maintained because it offers viewers a show that they are keen to watch - it has just been recommissioned for a second series. At the same time, the programme has enabled Orange to realise its business objectives by highlighting the concepts of downloads and mobile interactivity.
Orange, which works with brand entertainment agency Cake, has now extended its Playlist content into experiential marketing through roadshows touring universities and city centres.
'Branded entertainment is about having a strong, engaging idea,' says Adrian Pettett, a partner at Cake, which has also worked with Carling on its live music events and created online content for Sony Ericsson and Lynx/Axe. 'Just because something is free does not mean it is good. You need to understand the consumer perspective; what will they take out of it? Once you have that covered, you can find a place for the brand.'
Duracell is another brand to have used AFP. In 2003 it began work with sponsor-funded programming specialist Broadcast Marketing on a series of 13 half-hour TV programmes called Explorations. The show explained how science and technology can improve consumers' lifestyles and was intended to align the brand with technological breakthroughs.
Now in its third series, the programme is broadcast by channels such as BBC World and National Geographic in 130 countries. Each episode costs about £30,000 to make and contains a mixture of original content and material licensed for three years from BBC Worldwide's Science & Technology archives.
Selling it globally offers Duracell a good return on its fairly substantial investment.
Adroitly integrating a brand with compelling content is not easy. Flextech and UKTV head of commercial partnerships Claire Heys says only one out of every 10 enquiries she receives from brands is of sufficient editorial value to merit development time. 'Ideally, they will approach us with their objectives and not much else,' she says. 'A fully formed programme idea often has people who are heavily emotionally welded to it. I prefer to have a blank canvas, but with a moti-vated advertiser.'
Engaging with consumers is one area where many brands fall short. One agency that has found a way around this is Bartle Bogle Hegarty; songs it has used in advertising for clients such as Levi's, have seen it be involved in more number one hits in the UK than Madonna. Last year, the agency made 62 TV programmes, the majority for the Audi Channel.
New channels such as podcasts are also attracting interest, but according to BBH's director of content, Mark Boyd, brands must be careful not to misjudge consumers. 'You can't force your message down people's throats. You need to come up with something singular and engaging, and brands can struggle with that,' he says.
Future Plus head of customer publishing John Gower insists the key is consumer choice. 'Cross-media branded content is about amplifying the message across different channels,' he says. 'You can do that across TV, mobile, online and magazines. But if you add channels, (you have to consider) how much louder the message becomes.'
The Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) was founded in 2003 to examine such questions. Its chairman, Chris Shaw, says one of its main objectives is to find better ways to track the effectiveness of branded content and investigate how its impact differs from traditional advertising.
He believes there are great opportunities for brands to become more embedded in content, but is wary of involvement in activities such as blogging. 'There have been a couple of attempts to do commercialised blogs, but they have backfired. Blogs are anti-commercial in nature, so it goes against what they stand for,' he says.
Media convergence is bringing different agency types into competition, with customer publishing and broadcast production firms now competing for briefs that take in multiple channels. In this climate, the Association of Publishing Agencies (APA) says it is considering whether to conduct joint initiatives with the BCMA.
'Five years ago clients had a more structured view about talking to a direct or digital agency, but these boundaries have blurred,' says Ian Sewell, commercial director of customer publisher Redwood. 'We are doing both development and repurposing of content between magazine and online.'
One example is the company's work for BT, for which it produces Talking Business, a magazine available in both print and online formats. One big advantage customer magazines have over areas such as AFP or live events is the wealth of available research into their effectiveness, according to Sewell. He cites four major research projects conducted since 2001, including the recent APA-backed Advantage Study.
The definition of branded content is elastic, having different meanings for different people. Given that it is becoming harder to make an impact using traditional advertising, allying brands more closely with engaging content is an attractive proposition. The hard part is to please and involve consumers while reinforcing brand values.
ADVERTISER-FUNDED PROGRAMMING (AFP)
Pros: At its best, advertiser-funded content can entertain and inform like few other media.
Cons: Most proposals fail to make it to the screen, falling foul of product-placement regulations or broadcasters' demands for content that is engaging and impartial.
Effectiveness: A rapidly evolving medium, AFP has the potential to provide significant impact on the bottom line when done correctly.
Thirty-two per cent of people are willing to watch entertainment TV content provided by advertisers, according to a recent survey of 1000 people conducted by ICM Direct. This figure rises to 61% among 18- to 24-year-olds. Specialist AFP firms, which have evolved from the increasing uptake of the medium, are beginning to form evalution tools that measure the success of such activity more accurately. The disadvantage of the medium is that Ofcom regulation on AFP is not yet fully formed, meaning brands do not have a completely free rein when it comes to their strategy.
Old El Paso wanted to change consumer perceptions that Mexican food, in which it specialises, is too spicy and complicated to prepare. It approached UKTV, which developed An Italian in Mexico, a six-part cookery and travel show featuring chef Gino D'Acampo, which ran on the UKTV Food network last autumn. Research found that, after watching the show, 63% believed Mexican food was easy to cook; 68% said the show was an appropriate way for Old El Paso to communicate; and 60% said Mexican food was less spicy than they had thought. The show has been sold to 45 territories and a second series has been commissioned.
Pros: Good way to convey detailed brand and offer information; consumers appreciate well-crafted titles and will read them if the content is high quality and relevant.
Cons: The editorial, production and distribution costs can be substantial.
Effectiveness: Of all forms of branded content, customer publishing is most proven in terms of return on investment. Half of consumers who receive customer titles like them, according to the Direct Marketing Association, making them twice as popular as any other kind of direct activity, and 40% strongly agree that they are a better way for companies to inform them about their products and services, according to Henley Centre research.
On average, people spend 25 minutes reading them, according to APA Advantage research through Millward Brown, and two-thirds keep their copy for at least a week. This study also found that consumers who receive a customer magazine feel a stronger affinity with the brand.
Debenhams' Desire, published by Publicis Blueprint, was designed to attract younger, fashion-conscious consumers, without alienating its traditional customers. The title apes glossy fashion magazines such as Vogue, and storecard holders who received it increased their spend by 18% compared with those who did not. Of Desire's readers, 62% have been to a Debenhams store and 51% have made a purchase, according to recent Millward Brown research.
With a circulation of 745,000, the title has had a positive effect on brand perception, with 88% of readers believing Debenhams offers the latest styles and fashions.
Pros: Offers brands the chance to build a dialogue with their audience and receive valuable consumer feedback.
Cons: Blogs are seen as platforms for individuals to air views - the antithesis of corporate communications - so brands must be careful to avoid being seen as cynical.
Effectiveness: The use of blogs by brands of Honda and Guinness' magnitude suggests that the medium has promise. However, blogging is built around the power of word-of-mouth and its relative youth means there is no defined tracking model to assess its impact on a brand's health. That said, the rise of indie band Arctic Monkeys to the mainstream, based almost entirely on recommendations made via online media such as blogs, indicates the medium's potential power. There is a feeling, though, that blogs' appeal is limited and that they are suitable only for industries such as music and entertainment, rather than products and services that consumers would not normally discuss.
The black stuff does its blog stuff at www.guinnessblog.co.uk. The content is produced by the brand's in-house marketers, rather than an agency, in a bid to reflect the spirit of blogging - web logs are generally opinionated diaries and musings.The Guinness blog covers brand developments and initiatives in an informal, personal way and two-way communication with consumers is encouraged. For example, visitors to the site are urged to post their thoughts on subjects such as the brand's advertising, how Guinness is served, product innovation and how best to celebrate St Patrick's Day, with which the brand has an unofficial association.
Pros: Can take a brand to its target audience and encourage sampling.
Cons: There is a danger that the brand message could be overwhelmed in an unpredictable live environment.
Effectiveness: The live events, or brand experience, industry prides itself on talking a good game. It has certainly evolved from the days when the activity consisted of hiring a few attractive girls in baseball caps to hand out fliers. Such is the extent of increased spend on the sector that it now has its own trade body, the Live Brand Experience Association, although internal wrangles have limited its success as a voice for the industry. The figures, however, do add up. According to a survey carried out last year by Jack Morton Worldwide, 70% of consumers believe that participating in a live event would make them more predisposed to buying a particular brand, while 75% said they would be more receptive to a brand's advertising.
Last year Bacardi used experiential marketing by taking its B-Bar environment, which showcases how the rum should be consumed, to big music festivals.
This year it is taking the activity a stage further with Bacardi B-Live - a collaboration between DJs, musicians and vocalists across a range of musical genres. Under the tagline 'Many artists collaborate, one spirit released', the event is intended to embody Bacardi's 'free spirit' and give UK festival- and club-goers the chance to see performances by artists who have not previously appeared together. B-Live will feature at T in the Park, V Festival and a series of nightclub events.
Pros: A chance to reach the affluent, mobile MP3 audience and impress as a pioneering brand.
Cons: Consumers may not be comfortable about downloading branded content onto their iPods.
Effectiveness: As the most recent entrant to the branded content arena, podcasting has yet to prove its effectiveness, and it is unclear how many consumers would actively download a branded podcast. The internet community seems convinced of the medium's potential, though, and a recent BMRB survey appears to support this conviction. It showed that among adult internet users, 17% have downloaded a podcast in the past six months, rising to 28% among 16- to 24-year-olds, with 24% likely to download a podcast in the next six months. The figures may not be enough to convince everyone, but they show there is scope for the adoption of such techniques.
O2 has been working in conjunction with media content agency Drum, sports marketing agency IMG and radio group GCap to create a series of podcasts linked to its sponsorship of the England rugby union team. Each week during the recent 6 Nations championship, they produced a 10- to 15-minute podcast that focused on a key England player and covered challenges, tactics and preparation ahead of a game. GCap, which owns various radio stations, including Capital, ensured the content was of broadcast-standard quality and operated as a media partner to leverage O2's sports sponsorship.
Pros: Increasing broadband penetration is opening up untapped opportunities for eye-catching and dynamic video and audio content.
Cons: Investment in other channels may be needed to drive traffic to the brand's content.
Effectiveness: The oldest of the 'new' technology media, branded content online has the most sophisticated methods for measuring effectiveness.
A quick glance at the rapid growth in online adspend, which was approaching the £500m mark in the last six months of 2005, is indicative of brands' confidence in its power. Almost 19m consumers bought a product or service online over the same period, and online branded content offers a means to reach them. There is still debate over its viability as standalone strategy to deliver sales, however, and disagreements over potential measurement tools have also cast a shadow.
Stella Artois has sustained its premium positioning through a long-standing association with movie sponsorship. Working with content agency Zone and technical agency Holler, the beer brand has created an online movie show, Movie Rush, which airs on the www.channel4.com/film website. The show, which comes out every Thursday, features clips from the latest cinema and DVD releases, trailers and interviews. Movie Rush is tightly integrated with the rest of the content on Channel 4's film site, featuring links to reviews, but it also carries clear Stella branding, with a clickable logo that takes visitors straight to its own website.