John Lewis is celebrating its 150th anniversary in style. The department store chain has created an exhibition at the flagship Oxford Street store, launched one of its stylish TV ad campaigns, created commemorative products and rolled out competitions and content through social media.
The anniversary is at the heart of the chain’s marketing and comms efforts this year and has provided fuel for a ‘paid, owned and earned’ strategy with content that John Lewis has created itself alongside PR and paid-for advertising, as the public increasingly engages with the retailer.
John Lewis comms director Peter Cross compares the chain’s use of digital media content with the way stores use their shop windows as a form of owned media: "What digital has brought is potentially a dynamic new channel of communication for brands in the same way that shop windows were the most immediate and theatrical way to touch consumers," he says.
Brands have long made use of their assets to create engaging content – from collectible cards in cigarette packs to designs on shopping bags and, of course, shop windows. But the explosion of digital and social media has given brands unprecedented opportunities for storytelling and reputation management through media that they control.
The best brand communication today involves telling a brand story through owned, paid and earned media and finding powerful ideas that work well in all three.
But the growth in owned media – everything from Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, blogs and YouTube channels, to events, magazines and mobile apps – is transforming the role of PR.
The industry’s previous methods of eliciting positive coverage from external media are increasingly obtuse in this new environment. Brands are looking to create engaging content themselves to show they understand consumers’ lives and know how to improve them. That does not mean this is an easy task, as the best owned media insist on collaboration across several disciplines. The challenge for any big firm when it comes to creating owned media is breaking through the silos inside the organisation.
Marketing, PR, corporate affairs, customer service, social media and even human resources all have an interest in creating content.
According to Hugh Davies, director of corporate affairs at mobile firm Three, brands must ensure they have a collaborative approach to creating content that draws in people from across the business: "The most important thing is to have clear accountabilities," he warns.
Davies says owned media offer "a huge opportunity" for PR agencies: "They help to influence the idea and its creation; they see how to bring the personality of the brand to life."
Three’s blog content is mainly created in-house, though there is sometimes a need for ideas and views from external agencies. But Davies warns that brands need to remain relevant to their own offer or people may start questioning the content: "Occasionally we stretch too far and that confuses our customers about why we are going there. The further away you go from the natural core of your brand, the harder it is for people to relate to it," he admits.
The smarter PR agencies are boosting their content creation skills and staffing up to offer services as video producers, web writers and journalists. They are now required to work in real-time, pushing out ‘always-on’ content.
As comms disciplines converge around the paid, owned and earned model, PR agencies, ad agencies, media buyers and digital specialists are all vying for the same work.
The industry has one of the largest contributions to make in creating owned content, according to Denise Kaufmann, chief executive of Ketchum London. "PR agencies have a vital role to play in helping clients to create owned media channels that are relevant to their audiences," she says.
Where brands often struggle is creating content that goes beyond mere self-promotion. "When brands get it right, it is really powerful, but they have to make sure they have balanced information that is not so brand-centric that it acts as another form of advertising," Kaufmann adds.
She believes PR agencies can help give branded content a feeling of impartiality as they are "paid to think like journalists". She points to Coca-Cola as a brand that has managed to create strong owned content that gets the balance right between corporate promotion and user-generated content.
Coca-Cola introduced a new-look website last year, which is more like a digital magazine than a corporate website, so it is much more engaging than the usual list of financial news with a potted history of the brand that you find on many company websites, Kaufmann says.
Stuart Smith, regional chief executive of Ogilvy PR, muses that few brands have cracked the secret of owned media yet: "It is still a big experiment. Everyone is trying to work out what kind of content people want."
Agencies and brands are using data to work out which content works best. "We are seeing a rise in data to really understand the return on investment and what content works and what doesn’t," says Smith.
"Rather than pouring money into social media for its own sake, we are looking at data to see what the interesting content is."
Brands have been learning the hard way that an owned media strategy can have its pitfalls. For every successful Red Bull – which has created its own TV station, magazines and events to promote extreme sports and support its brand message that "Red Bull gives you wings" – there are failures.
There are stories of brands such as Heineken spending a cool million on creating a Champions League app that got downloaded just a few thousand times; attempts to act like journalists, asking for the public to offer brand views which then spectacularly backfires on social media; and tasteless jokes posted by employees on official company social media sites.
Disasters include Tesco’s "we’re off to hit the hay" tweet in the middle of the horsemeat scandal and the recent hijacking of the #WhyI’mVotingUKIP Twitter feed by dissenting voters, even though it was set up to promote the party.
It's sleepy time so we're off to hit the hay! See you at 8am for more #TescoTweets— Tesco (@Tesco) January 17, 2013
Mike Harvey, head of content at Bite, says brands have tended to put content into the public domain without necessarily having a strong idea of who they are trying to reach or how their message relates back to the brand. "These random acts of content can lead to content pollution," he says. "There is a lot of crap content because the barrier to entry is so low. Brands and agencies need to ensure the tone and targeting are right for their audience."
Cross sums it up: "Owned media are a brilliant extension of the brand, offering lots of additional ways to interact with consumers. You achieve that integrity by using experts, writers, video producers and other talented people who will develop daily brand content that people want to interact with. Otherwise, it is just fluff."
And right now, there is a worrying amount of fluff out there.
Sony takes to world stage for owned media launch
Sony is experimenting for this month’s FIFA World Cup with a social media network that aggregates conversations on football as part of its sponsorship of the event.
The agency’s head of strategy, James Caig, says: "Owned media demand you create something that hasn’t existed before and then get people to care about it. That means you should work hard to add value – do something that no other brand can. Make sure the experience is a good one – is the reward worth people’s effort to get involved?"
The service uses listening tools to gather social media conversations from across the web and then groups them into topic areas. Fans can then join in with these conversations. Sony does not take part in the conversations itself, but sees itself as an intermediary.
Caig believes this is part of a new approach to owned media that is transforming PR. "It’s about intermediaries, not institutions. Owned properties have created a very long tail of potential media outlets. That makes PR coverage difficult, but it creates opportunity too. Bloggers are more open to two-way relationships with brands – this requires PR skills but may kill off some unwanted PR tactics," he says.