The ground is shifting beneath our feet. Marketers are being forced to reconsider a fundamental marketing principle. Like the Copernican revolution, the question being asked is: what is at the centre of everything?
Traditionally, brand has always been at the heart of all marketing. Once upon a time, every platform, communication and scrap of content adhered to strict brand guidelines. The power of brand repetition reigned supreme, but all of that appears to be changing.
As more brands veer towards digital-first strategies to reach wider and more targeted audiences, online consumers are somewhat ironically becoming more desensitised and less receptive to brand promotion. The sheer volume of noise on the web has had a deafening effect.
As a result, marketers are starting to accept that the web (responsible for a massive chunk of their brand’s exposure) is becoming a less brand-friendly communications channel. It might fly in the face of traditional methodology, but branding now seems to be shifting to the periphery.
The question then is what takes its place at the heart of a modern strategy?
Perhaps digital’s greatest challenge to traditional brand-focused marketing is user-generated content. Online consumers with new-found voices can steamroll through brand guidelines and say whatever they want on mass media platforms such as social media or review sites.
This leaves traditional brand-centric marketing departments with only one option… to react to these user-generated off-brand messages, hoping against all hope that they can steer conversations back in the right direction. Their downfall though is that that this approach is, of course, inherently reactive rather than proactive.
A much better idea is to take ownership of the conversation by throwing the party and inviting everyone to it. In other words, it’s easier to manage and steer a dialogue with users if you trigger the conversation yourself.
The most effective way of doing this is to create what is known as ‘branded content‘, which in turn facilitates the right kinds of user-generated comments and discussions.
‘Branded content’ is a misnomer as the whole point is to downplay the brand. Essentially, the philosophy is to create content that customers would want to consume—regardless of direct brand relevance—and then to slip in the branding afterwards. In fact it would probably be more appropriate to call it ‘self-sponsored content’.
Felix Baumgartner’s skydive from space is a great example. Red Bull made the whole thing possible, but the actual Red Bull branding was secondary to the main attraction. Yes it was plastered over everything in the background, but it wasn’t really talked about. Despite this (or more accurately because of this) it earned them a huge amount of brand awareness and mind-share. Had they pushed the branding more, it might have triggered a negative reactance reflex, but instead they maximised engagement by being more subtle.
The lesson here is often misunderstood. The thing to take away is not that you need to create mindbogglingly extravagant content like Red Bull, but simply that Red Bull stopped talking about themselves and started focusing on things that genuinely interested people. In doing so, they became much more attractive and captured attention.
Interesting infographics, entertaining short videos and well-written/informative blogs are all budget-efficient mediums for branded content.
Better SEO strategies
There are also SEO benefits when you let go of the traditional outbound brand messaging strategy in favour of an inbound ‘branded content’ approach. It’s an incredibly efficient way to get more sites linking to you and more people creating online buzz… both important signals of value in Google’s algorithm.
If your digital strategy is too prescriptive and you try to sensor everything outside of your brand guidelines, you are in fact throttling the creation of the very commodities which can help you to reach more customers through search engines – natural back-links, social engagement, brand mentions etc.
But more to the point, you simply won’t be able to sensor and micro-manage it effectively. You can’t fight the tide of social media, review sites and user-generated content platforms. Instead of working against consumer behaviour online, you need to dedicate time to working with it. Facilitation is more efficient and more effective.
Perhaps what’s at the heart of your marketing output is not at the heart of your marketing success.
True to the ’80-20’ rule which dogs most aspects of our working lives, you may well find that you’re putting 80% of your efforts into brand-heavy campaigns which only generate 20% of your results. Conversely, you may only be spending 20% of your digital resource on what your brand manager would consider ‘fringe’ marketing, but that could be generating 80% of your engagement and mind-share.
One thing is for sure. if you are not specifically dedicating any of your time to branded content or the management of user-generated content then you are almost certainly missing a trick. It’s ultimately up to you where you draw the line, but perhaps more of your time could be spent creating engaging experiences rather than interrupting them. Forget your brand… just educate, entertain or make something easier for your customers. They’ll love you for it and so will Google.
Traditional brand-centric marketing wasn’t born out of guess-work, so it’s important that we never forget the lessons learned there. However, with digital marketing constantly creating new opportunities and disrupting the marketing landscape, we can’t be so naïve as to think that all traditional marketing philosophies are sacrosanct.
There was a time when it was considered heresy to suggest that the Earth was not at the centre of the universe. It feels a little bit like that with brand being revered as a nucleus which must be placed at the core of every marketing strategy. More and more, those brave enough to question this orthodox thinking are the ones reaping the benefits.