Why Traditional Branded Content Isn’t Enough to Attract Consumers

In 2013, US adults will spend an average of 5 hours and 16 minutes online (via laptops, desktops, and mobile devices) and 4 hours and 31 minutes watching TV per day. That’s a lot of time we spend taking in various forms of content (articles, Netflix, YouTube videos, etc.).

Yet, despite all that time we spend consuming content, on average, 8 out of 10 people will read headlines, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest of the content. That indicates we’re spending a lot of time online, but are very quick to dismiss content we don’t find interesting.

So, what does this mean for brands trying to get content in front of consumers? It means your competition is cutthroat and it is relentless. It means if your content isn’t targeted, captivating, and insightful your audience won’t ever click on it, let alone watch or read it to the end.

When our online ecosystem is summed up like this, the forecast can seem pretty depressing if your brand is giving content marketing a try. So how can brands work successfully in this environment and create content that’s interesting, intriguing, and targeted? The trick is to give up on the idea of “branded content,” and start embracing old school brand storytelling.

What is traditional branded content?

According to Wikipedia, branded content is “a relatively new form of advertising medium that blurs conventional distinctions between what constitutes advertising and what constitutes entertainment. Branded content is essentially a fusion of the two into one product intended to be distributed as entertainment content, albeit with a highly branded quality.”

Branded content is a mix of content you might find interesting and brand advertising (which you probably won’t find interesting). And, there’s not usually a lot of audience participation or involvement in branded content, because it is a “form of advertising medium.” It’s purpose is to promote, not to help, instruct, educate, or entertain. Thus, it usually serves the brand’s interests, but not typically the audience’s interests.

As Joe Pulizzi from CMI points out,

The majority of content produced by brands through blog posts, enewsletters, social media posts, print magazines and webinars is flat out awful. In many cases, the content is self-serving, not useful and, maybe the worst, pointless.

If branded content looks like that, why do brands think consumers are still interested in it as a medium?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely still room for brands to explore content and to produce great content.  However, a poorly disguised ad isn’t the way to go, because, as  Jon Thomas puts it, “This is the dawn of the post-advertising age, in which the only messages people see and hear are the ones they choose to see and hear. Audiences don't want to hear an advertisement. They want to be gripped by a compelling story.”

What is brand storytelling?

Brand storytelling is still a form of branded content (I mean they both have the word “brand” in there...). However, brand storytelling definitely has a leg up on standard branded content.

Why? Because, as Jon Hamm says,

Stories rely on the intended audience to develop their own imagery and detail to complete and, most importantly, to co-create.

Think of your favorite books. Think about what happened in your mind as you read them. Your imagination probably transported you to a different place; one where you were free to imagine your surroundings and how the characters talked and looked. And that place of imagination looks different for every reader who comes across that particular book--making each reader’s experience unique and individualized.

Storytelling is a medium that relies on reader participation; it has the ability to whisk your audience away to a different place, and it creates a unique and individual experience for each consumer. That’s a really powerful medium.  

And it’s a medium consumers want to see more. A joint survey by Yahoo! and BBDO found that 57% of consumers want to know about the history and quirky details of a brand, 54% feel it is very important that brands provide information about "why we should care about them," and 45% are looking for interesting stories about the brand.  

Consumers want to engage with brands. But the key for brands is to listen to how they want to be engaged. A whopping 82% of consumers will ignore a brand if it is viewed as being intrusive, but on the other hand, 79% say brands should be “more genuine.”

That’s seems pretty straight forward: engage with consumers in a genuine, authentic, helpful, and interesting way--don’t be intrusive or ignore their wants/needs. And storytelling is a medium brands can use to move in this direction.

Before we jump into how to create a brand story, it’s important to note a few caveats:  

  • Brand storytelling is nothing new. The idea has been around for a long time. However, as media evolves, so should how we tell stories.

  • Storytelling is not right for every medium or bit of copy. Like everything, there is a time and a place.

  • Branded storytelling is a specific form of branded content (again, both branded).

  • Stories, while magical and wonderful, still require strategy.

Basic components of storytelling

Of course the basic idea of storytelling is to create unique and inspirational tales. But despite how individual and different stories can be, there’s still a few basics you have to cover:

  1. Be authentic and honest

  2. Define your setting

  3. Find your main character

  4. Create a story arc

And remember, your brand story should not sound like an ad--it should sound like a story.

Be authentic and honest

Like we discussed earlier, 79% of consumers want brands to be more genuine; so it’s absolutely imperative that your brand stories are all authentic in tone and content.

In order to achieve a genuine brand story, keep two points in mind: stay true to your purpose and your personality

Keep brand purpose center

It’s very easy to become wrapped up in the fantastical and imaginary aspects of a story; however, your stories still have to be true to your brand in order to deliver an authentic experience to customers. This is not the time to reinvent your brand, as customers might become confused by the varying brand messages. Always ask yourself:

  • Is this content on brand? Or, does this content make sense coming from my brand?

  • Does this content support brand and marketing goals?

Showcase brand personality

Keeping your brand’s personality front and center is also key to being authentic: people want to get to know who your brand is. So let your stories embrace your personality. Again, this isn’t the time to make your brand personality something it’s not, so don’t try to create a fun, fresh personality if that’s not who your brand is. But, no matter what your brand personality is like, remember stories are told by people, not corporations, and that should be reflected in the way your story sounds. To help put your personality front and center, ask yourself:

  • How do you approach your content? What’s your attitude?

  • How would you describe your brand? Are you witty, playful, serious, inspiring, etc.?

These questions can give you insight into how you can authentically incorporate your brand into stories.

Define your setting

After you’ve thought about how you can incorporate your purpose and personality authentically into your story, it’s time to define the world in which your story takes place. There are a few things you can consider when you decide what type of world you want your story to take place in:

  • Setting: How does this world (whether fictional or realistic) work? Are there different rules or creatures? What do the characters and their surroundings look like?

  • Impact: How does this new world impact the characters? How does it make them feel?

Find your main character

Since your brand story will likely be short, you need to limit your characters to just one hero. And this hero needs to be someone your audience can root for and can feel emotionally connected to--that’s really the whole point of a brand story: to draw readers in emotionally. There are a few ways readers can connect with your hero:

  • Recognition: Your audience will feel immediately connected to your character if there’s a shared experience. You can have a more “universal” shared experience, as Allstate has in it’s Mayhem series (we’ve probably all had a close call on the road due to some other terrible driver). Or, you can have a more specific experience, as Kraft did their Sanity Snack campaign, which told the daily struggles of stay-at-home moms.

  • Dimension: While you only have a short time to give your characters depth, it’s important to give them an air of humanity. Nike, for example, gave Casey Neistat and Max Joseph money to make a series of commercials for their Make it Count campaign. Instead, the two friends took the money and visited 13 countries in 10 days, and produced a video around their travels. This is a perfect example of allowing your characters room for depth and independent experiences. Ultimately, consumers want to see your character’s humanity.

  • Dilemma or Pain: In order for your characters to develop, they must face pain or a problem. Consumers can relate to overcoming obstacles, and want to know it’s possible. A great example of this is Ikea’s Make Room campaign, which details the lives of some very real people whose passions are taking over their homes. Ultimately they overcome those obstacles and pain to triumph.

Create a story arc

Once you have your strategies for authenticity, story setting, and main character figured out, it’s time to create a story arc.

There are many complicated versions of a story arc out there, but since most brand stories are rather short, the arc needs to be simplified. Really, the arc is broken up into three categories: opening, conflict, and resolution. But we can break it down a little further:

  1. Opening: this is the setting of your story world

  2. Conflict: your hero encounters a problem

  3. Quest: your hero sets off to find the solution

  4. Climax: your hero has found the solution

  5. Resolution: the situation is resolved--the problem is fixed

Chipotle’s video, Scarecrow, is a great example of the story arc played out.

  1. Opening: We see a very industrial, gloomy world. The main character is the scarecrow, but there are also people and crows.

  2. Conflict: The food is packaged and branded as “all natural,” yet is far from it. The food is ruining the land and isolating people from their food sources.

  3. Quest: Scarecrow seems to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, but is inspired by a single red pepper in his garden.

  4. Climax: Scarecrow has cooked a wonderful, natural meal from his garden, and sets up a food stall to sell his food to the public.

  5. Resolution: The people realize how wonderful the food smells. The reader is left to infer that people prefer this food over the industrial style meat and dairy.

These basic story components can help you start crafting an authentic, personable, and relevant brand story. However, remember that each brand and audience is different, and you’ll likely have to tailor this process to fit yours best.

Final thoughts

The constant onslaught of content and information has made consumers very savvy about branding and marketing--we all know when we’re seeing an ad and we all know when brands are being too pushy in their marketing.

The good news for brands is consumers want to engage, but brands have to go about it in the right way. Going back to the joint survey by Yahoo! and BBDO, 46% of respondents said a great brand is like an interesting person at a party. That’s a pretty powerful statement. Consumers want brands to act like people; they don’t want a plate full of marketing-speak.

Of course, brand storytelling is just one way to accomplish this, but it’s a great place to start. If you are going to embrace storytelling, remember these key takeaways:

  • Storytelling is a medium that relies on reader participation

  • Brand storytelling is nothing new--it’s actually pretty old school

  • Storytelling is not right for every campaign  

  • Stories still require strategy

  • You need to remain true to your brand identity and goals

And, of course the starting elements of storytelling:

  1. Be authentic and honest

  2. Define your story world

  3. Find your main character

  4. Create a story arc

Do any of you have brand storytelling success stories? Share below!

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