Branded content is like organic food, according to one marketer: constantly talked about as the next big thing, but no one knows exactly why.
Trying to even define branded content is tricky. To some it is simply another name for ad-funded programming (AFP), while to its champions, who claim it is one of the most effective ways to fight the personal video recorders (PVRs) onslaught, it is much more.
The Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) talks about bringing entertainment value to brands and integrating brands into entertainment. Or, put more bluntly, the funding of editorial content in any channel where a client might advertise.
Good examples include the four case studies featured here for Audi, Disney, Old El Paso and Pepsi. Another notable deal was the MasterCard Priceless Evening music concert broadcast by Channel 4 in November and attended by cardholders.
"There is still a massive gap between people talking about branded content and actually doing something about it," says Mark Boyd, director of content at advertising agency BBH and BCMA chairman. "This is about helping brands engage consumers across all platforms including films, contract publishing, mobile phones and radio."
Indeed, the Radio Advertising Bureau's seminar today (Tuesday) is about encouraging advertisers and their agencies to explore branded content opportunities beyond television. The interest clients are showing in branded content is certainly growing, if slowly. In reality, both clients and their agencies are wary about investing too much time or money because, they say, many media owners remain sceptical about working so closely with advertisers to develop content.
ZenithOptimedia created the Alliance division four years ago specifically to investigate the opportunities for brands outside the traditional 30-second ad.
"There is not really a 'branded content market' as yet, but our department is working closely with planners and building relationships with various producers in order to drive things forward," says sponsorship director Tim Brady, who heads Alliance.
"Broadcasters are starting to mellow as they address the problem of how to finance good programmes. They do need other sources of income, so the outlook is good."
Elsewhere, Starcom launched Starcom+, headed by Andy Roberts, in April, while OMD unveiled its own branded entertainment services department earlier this year. OMD Fuse will look at branded content ideas across all media, from AFP to computer games, online, advertorials and live events, as well as in-store experiential marketing.
It is a joint venture with The Radiate Group, led by head of OMDtvi Toby Hack, who says clients must start to think differently. "Brands have to associate themselves with the things their customers are passionate about," he says. "This area will be driven by media agencies using consumer insight to find the right properties or content to deliver the best results."
Carat's head of sponsorship, David Peters, agrees. He oversees a team which has grown from two people in 1999 to 10 today. "Clients don't have time to consider all the options, so it is up to us to manage the whole process," he maintains. It has not yet reached a stage where a dedicated "branded content person" is required though.
As a concept, branded content is not particularly new. The first AFP deal was arguably Gillette World Sport, negotiated by Bill Orde in 1985 while he was at World Sport Television. Today Orde, now managing director of AFP specialist Broadcast Marketing, says advertisers must be aware of the different relationships broadcasters around the world have with advertisers and agencies.
"It can be very difficult convincing European television companies of the merits of AFP, particularly in Italy, France and Germany where, if they don't feel that they need an advertiser's money, it is unlikely a deal will ever be struck," he says.
Indeed, negotiating any branded content deal requires a different skill set to agreeing a programme sponsorship, mainly because so many parties are involved, from the client and agency to the production company and media owner. The relationship between media agency and owner is also different, because the advertiser is part-funding the content. It is therefore in everyone's interest to work together to create a product that will appeal to consumers.
"Broadcasters are starting to embrace branded content, but things can fall down if a client just expects to get a long advert on terrestrial television," says Mark Eaves, managing director of television content provider Drum Screen, the PHD subsidiary which puts together the Guardian Sports Show for C4, which is currently under review.
C4 negotiates more branded content deals than most broadcasters. It has aired about 30 ad-funded shows so far this year. Last week it announced its latest deal, with Sony-Ericsson, an event called Christmas Calling created by Freedom Media, to air this weekend.
Head of sponsorship David Charlesworth has not always been a fan of working so closely with advertisers. "I'm more relaxed in my approach now and I do want to help media agencies ensure their ideas meet our editorial needs, as these shows are ultimately perceived by viewers as our programmes," he says.
Claire Heys, who was appointed head of commercial partnerships for Flextech and UKTV 18 months ago, primarily to grow the branded content business, is also keen to have more discussions with media agencies. She spent a busy summer explaining why they should consider multi channel television.
Cow & Gate's Baby Squad programme, aired on UKTV Style in September, is a good example, she says. The 10-part show, presented by Patsy Palmer, involved a sponsored website and branded events around the country, while a DVD covermount appears on the latest edition of Emap's Mother & Baby.
"We would probably turn down a deal that was just about programming. We want to work with advertisers that have a broader marketing strategy to link any editorial content with their commercial aims," she says.
Mobile phones and other digital platforms offer advertisers more avenues to develop and offer branded content. Nigel Sheldon, head of Starcom Digital, says brands are particularly enthusiastic about this area.
"The mobile is a personal device so people can interact with the brands they want to when they want to, whether that is reading magazine excerpts or watching clips from a TV programme or film. Advertisers are beginning to realise how investing in engaging content for mobiles will bring them closer to customers."
Red Fig, the interactive division of branded television business Enteraction TV, has already created a branded mobile microsite for Seat's new Leon model. The advertiser used television and print advertising to persuade consumers to text a code on their mobile to access the WAP microsite.
James Penfold, business development director at Enteraction TV, predicts mobiles is where the biggest growth is likely, "because it offers a one-on-one mechanic and the activity is measurable. Most media agencies have yet to realise what can be achieved here," he says.
With almost one in 10 digital homes owning a PVR (source: Ipsos), allowing them to skip through TV advertising, agencies and clients are considering branded content because they know they must work harder to engage all consumers - whether they eat organic food or not.
It took more than two years for car manufacturer Audi to get its brand-specific entertainment television channel off the ground.
Audi's head of operations, Gary Savage, was behind the initial idea, developed with a host of other stakeholders, including MediaCom, BBH and producer North One Television.
"There was a lot of talk during meetings about how we should have a content-driven approach to advertising, so I put down the challenge of creating our own television channel," says Savage. "After all, we had already spent a lot on branded promotion. We had a customer magazine reaching 300,000 people and a website attracting 700,000 individuals a month, so being a genuine broadcaster would complete the jigsaw in my mind."
Yet Audi faced a number of obstacles before it went live in October. Most notably, it had to convince regulator Ofcom to grant a self-promotion licence which had previously only existed in mainland Europe.
The second challenge was the cost, says BBH director of content Mark Boyd. "We were running a television channel, but there was no money for a large account team in a separate building and we could not afford programme schedulers, so we had to think differently."
BBH developed an online system to manage communication, from briefs to sign-offs. The agency also paid software engineers to create a scheduling system which stores programmes and trailers on a main server. The content is arranged at the last minute using coded data, which allows Audi to choose which model of car it wants to promote at a particular time of day, while ensuring the same programme or presenter does not appear too often.
Savage says the cost of running the channel has been kept down to about £2m a year. "It has been a massive learning curve for everyone at Audi and our agencies, because we are a broadcaster now and not just an advertiser," he says.
Pepsi is running its biggest branded content campaign in the run-up to next year's Fifa World Cup, as it hunts for new ways to make the most of its global links with football.
The soft drinks giant, an early adopter of branded content marketing, sees it as a way to fight advertising clutter on television and around big sporting events.
The company is spending about £4m on The Pepsi Max World Challenge, developed by branded content agency Freedom Media and executed by the agency's in-house production unit, Freedom TV.
The campaign will feature 24 teenagers, two from each of 12 territories including China and the Middle East, taking on football-related challenges at grounds around the world. These include Manchester United's home Old Trafford and AC Milan's San Siro stadium. Among the players expected to take part are England captain David Beckham and Arsenal striker Thierry Henry.
The first trials for UK teenagers are being shown on Channel 4 strand T4, while the final rounds of the challenge will be broadcast as six one-hour programmes on C4 next April.
The Pepsi Max World Challenge follows on from Pepsi Max Downloaded, the six hour-long music specials broadcast on C4 and digital channel E4 in the summer and promoted on about 100 million packs. Consumers win tickets to be on the show by taking part in a text-driven campaign.
Andy Woodford, Freedom Media's creative director, says all his clients, including Pepsi, have a progressive view of branded content and see it as something more than just ad-funded programming.
"It is an integral part of Pepsi's cross-media marketing campaign and is never considered in isolation. The campaigns are carefully designed to get people using or sampling the product as well as raising brand awareness," he says. "Pepsi is constantly evaluating everything it does. The football promotion is a global campaign, but allows the brand to get involved with local markets using international and national football idols."
OLD EL PASO
Apparently sales of Mexican food have been held back in the UK by a perception among the public that it is too hot and spicy and difficult to prepare.
In an attempt to challenge this view, Universal McCann's vice president and head of programming Phil Cresswell persuaded client Old El Paso to back a television programme to raise awareness of the culinary delights of Mexico.
The result was six programmes entitled An Italian In Mexico, following Italian chef Gino D'Acampo visiting food markets, talking to chefs and explaining recipes.
The brief to the producers was to make Mexican food more accessible to the British audience watching UKTV Food. The programme, which went out in October and was supported by product-orientated advertorials, has now been distributed to 51 countries. The brand is keen to commission a second series of 13 episodes, including more travel content.
"Old El Paso is the market leader and knows if it invests in anything that raises awareness of Mexican food, it will benefit. The aim of the show was to demonstrate how Mexican food can be prepared in a relaxed way and is tasty and colourful," says Cresswell.
Old El Paso and Universal McCann are discussing how the content can be delivered across other platforms, particularly through DVDs and books. "The content we are producing and storing will certainly be used in the brand's future marketing plans," confirms Cresswell.
Claire Heys, head of commercial partnerships at UKTV, says the Old El Paso deal is evidence that working with multi channel broadcasters is a cost-effective option for advertisers looking to enter the branded content market. "These can be difficult projects to get off the ground because brands want to be on terrestrial primetime and they get disappointed when they see how much that would cost," she says. "Working with someone like us and supporting a programme with PR and other marketing can deliver an excellent return on investment."
Television and mobile are not the only media available to advertisers looking for innovative branded content ideas.
Since October, all Heart FM radio stations have been airing 60-second episodes of Disney fairy stories. The tales, including Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Dumbo, Bambi and Robin Hood, are broadcast at 6.45pm, four evenings a week and repeated on Saturday mornings.
This is the first time media owner Chrysalis has allowed speech content across the Heart network and the deal, negotiated by Carat, runs until May. The stories were successfully trailed as 90-second features on sister station LBC last year, but Heart insisted they were shortened to fit around the music programming.
Carat's sponsorship manager, Vicky Connerty, says Disney wanted to demonstrate that, in an age when children's movies are often judged by the technology they use, classic films remain popular because of the strength of the story.
"Radio is all about the theatre of the mind and engaging the listener, and Disney wanted to talk to parents of young children at bedtime and the Heart audience fitted perfectly," she says.
According to Chrysalis, 63% of Heart's adult listeners have children aged under 14.
Connerty adds that Disney was closely involved throughout the process and approved the tone and style of the scripts, read by actors Rik Mayall and Lisa Tarbuck.
Carat admits that ultimately it would like to roll out the stories on other radio stations, but would have to reach agreement with Chrysalis, which co-owns the rights.
Meanwhile, Chrysalis' non-spot sales director, Richard Brinkman, wants to continue working with Disney and link with other brands. "Our main concern is that any content is contemporary and upbeat to meet Heart FM's own brand values," he says. "Our audience is already used to non-music content such as travel and the weather, so linking with other advertisers to produce engaging short programming is certainly possible."
The deal, along with opportunities for advertisers that want to create specific branded content for radio, was due to be discussed at the Radio Advertising Bureau's branded content seminar today.
This article was first published on Media Week