Branded Content: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

This is the fourth installment of a five part series: Reflections from WPP Digital's unconference Stream.

Today we are joined by Alex Hultgren (Ford) who asks the million dollar question: should brands create product or content?

Although I'm sure Mick Jones and the late Joe Strummer would cringe at the thought of having their punk anthem reinterpreted for a corporate event -- even an unconference like Stream2011 -- I must admit that these are the types of questions marketing managers are facing these days. Should we be co-creating original branded content with publishers? Should brands be producing their own original content? And perhaps even more fundamentally, what does "branded content" even mean in the modern media world?

The concept of Branded/Original content came up early on the first day of Stream2011 and was continuously reintroduced throughout the two days of intense conversations. The first thing we settled on was that branded content is... everything. It can range from a simple photo of a Ford Focus posted on Facebook to the multi-faceted Small Business Saturday campaign designed and executed by American Express on Facebook and beyond. For the purposes of our discussions, we decided to focus on the branding opportunities with the new original content that is being created continuously, particularly video.

It really wasn't that long ago when things were much simpler. For video, branded content opportunities really fell into two categories: sponsorships (where a marketer would associate their brand with some existing programming) and product placements (which were almost invisible when done well and clunky and destructive when done poorly). As a consumer in the US, my favourite example was the waaaaay-ahead-of-its-time Dana Carvey Show in 1996, which in the second episode, "The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show," featured Dana onstage surrounded by dancers in soda jerk costumes holding bottles of Mug while singing a warning to Dana not to anger the sponsor. This show was ground-breaking in many ways (which led to its rather quick demise), but this over-the-top transparent treatment of the sponsor was brilliant. Note: I have never worked for Pepsi -- who undoubtedly had a different opinion on their association with the content of the show -- but 15 years later, it is still a memorable marketing moment.

Now fast forward to today's world of seemingly endless TV channels and the truly endless Internet. Combine that exponential growth in channels with the collapse of any barriers to entry for production (clearly demonstrated in the explosion of UGC) and marketers today are faced with a whole host of new options for branded content. Not only can any publisher create content, but brands can even create content themselves.

But should any of us be in this business? After all, creating compelling content is really, really difficult, particularly video. Even when there were only three networks, many TV shows in the USA never saw a second season -- and that was with a relatively built-in audience. Today, anything created for the time-shifted world of the internet is competing against everything on the internet (from "Charlie Bit My Finger" to... less innocuous examples).

Let's start with the digital-specific properties: should the portals, pubs and ad networks be producing content? Absolutely, and we saw some great examples at Stream2011. Digital media properties big and small are creating some really great original programming, and when done well, it rivals anything from traditional broadcast. But publishers also have to resist the desire to grab "original content" off of the shelf when responding to an RFP and splash a Ford logo on it -- particularly when you could just have easily pasted on a VW logo. Savvy brands have little interest in tangentially relevant content that ends up being a glorified TV sponsorship without the audience reach of broadcast. On the other hand, when we sit down at the beginning of a campaign to collaborate on creating something -- as Ford USA did with MSN for SYNC's "Play It 4-Ward" -- fantastic things can occur.

Now the tough question -- should brands and their agencies be producing original content? Again, an unequivocal yes. To share a few recent examples, the Czech Ford team saw tremendous results from a campaign based on a national passion for DIY that provided creative solutions to imitate the technologies in the Ford Focus. And in the US, Focus Doug is a fantastic spokespuppet with his own Facebook page and Twitter handle, but where things get really interesting is when Doug starts interacting with other brands (check out Doug's weekend with the Travelocity Roaming Gnome).

So to answer the initial query I posed, we should all definitely stay in the world of original branded content. Note: In full disclosure, there's another reason I chose this title, but if you don't already know you will have to attend Stream2012 to find out.

Alex Hultgren is the Digital Communications Manager for Ford of Europe, focusing on social and digital media. He currently lives with his amazing family in London, but he has been a Clash fan since his neighbor William played him Give 'Em Enough Rope on vinyl. The opinions expressed here are his own.