Is branded content the future of advertising?

Although the concept was developed many years ago, branded content is being mentioned with increasing frequency in advertising circles. Put simply, branded content is a short film or video that blends entertainment with advertising. The model’s rationale is that the content’s entertainment value more than compensates for the fact that virtually every shot features the product. Instead of releasing traditional content that is supported by self-contained ads, branded content is both the ad and the entertainment. When done right, it works beautifully and is not the least bit annoying.

The first high-profile, explicit foray into stand-alone branded content was probably the series of short films produced by Ridley Scott Associates for BMW in 2001. The series was entitled “The Hire.” The short films had particularly strong scripts and were directed by some serious directors, including Tony Scott. It worked like a charm, and the short films are still very popular and have stood the test of time.

So is branded content the future of advertising? As it happens, they do not directly compete with traditional TV commercials. Instead, they satisfy the demand that has been created by the maturation of online video. When people log on to YouTube they want entertainment, they want it immediately and they want it free of charge. Branded content like the BMW shorts lend themselves beautifully to outlets like YouTube, and will contribute to its future profitability. Users feast on the free entertainment they crave and the advertisers get plenty of exposure. It could also be argued that because the users actively seek these videos, their level of engagement with the brand is greater than with TV commercials that they are forced to watch on television.

With YouTube steadily increasing the quality of its video and the speed with which it is delivered, the opportunities for branded content are also growing.

This is one of those much-vaunted “win-win” situations for advertisers and their potential customers, provided that the branded content is produced to the highest standards — nothing less than RSA’s BMW shorts will do. User-generated content will definitely not cut it here, at least not in the majority of cases.

A more recent example is the safety video made by Air New Zealand, “Bare essentials.” It is a safety video that rapidly went viral by virtue of the fact that the staff in the video are buck naked, with uniforms painted directly on their skin. The painting was so well done that the first time I watched the video I could not for the life of me figure out what I was looking at. They did not look naked, but their clothes did not look right; something was off. It was only later that I found out what they had really done. The company probably knew exactly what it was doing when they made it; it is perfect viral fodder for the Internet crowd. It also technically counts as branded content, because it was meticulously scripted, designed and produced — it is very much an entertainment product in the traditional sense, with the safety info being somewhat tangential. It is very entertaining and makes Air New Zealand look very good; check it out below.

YouTube is increasing its video encoding and delivery capabilities, companies are increasingly reluctant to spend money on expensive TV commercials and the Internet crowd’s appetite for free content is veritably insatiable: this confluence of factors may reasonably be expected to stimulate the production of branded content in the future.

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