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The New Rules of Engagement Branded Content - An Old Idea Comes of Age
By Christina C. Schroeder, Chief Rouser, rabble+rouser, Inc.

There's a new sheriff in town. He's technologically savvy, brandishes a channel changer and a cell phone, is a quick draw with a DVR and is able to leap from traditional to new media in a single bound. The new sheriff is today's consumer. And for marketers, he's laying down the law: Be relevant or 'get outta town.'

Push Me, Pull You

It is no longer enough to push out one-way advertising messages through broadcast media in a one size fits all approach. Today, marketers are increasingly using the power of their brand to pull consumers to (often interactive) content, that is informative and entertaining. That's because in this new frontier town, the ability to engage consumers meets with the sheriff's approval. Instead of telling consumers exactly what they want them to hear, savvy brand marketers are drawing people to their brands through engagement. When done well, this elicits trust by providing content that is valuable to consumers, and bonds consumers to brands by creating goodwill and positive associations that go far beyond simply delivering an ad message or logo impression.

Known as brand-based content, this type of marketing is rapidly developing into a force that consumers can't and, more importantly don't want to ignore. Brand based content covers a spectrum that begins with minimal involvement, such as a logo impression at a sporting event and continues all the way to the kind of total brand immersion the consumer experiences at a Disney Resort. In between, brand-based content includes everything from simple product placement to more robust brand-owned content which enables the brand to package and purpose content as a profit center.

The following chart summarizes the brand-based content continuum:

A Brief Look Back

Creating entertainment and being associated with entertainment are time honored brand advertising traditions. In the 1950's, advertisers such as Colgate and Wrigley Chewing gum sponsored TV shows like the Colgate Comedy Hour and Gene Autry show, in order to associate their brands with entertainment that was popular to consumers. This advertising model evolved over the ensuing decades with brands creating broadcast commercials that were entertaining or humorous, in and of themselves, but distinct from the programs in which they were broadcast. Remember Speedy the Alka-Seltzer guy, and Brylcream's little dab that'll do ya?

Yet today's marketing environment is radically different than that of a generation ago. In the era of limited media types and three broadcast TV networks, it was not difficult to reach mass audiences with your brand. Consumers heard your message whether they wanted to or not, because they had no control. Today, largely thanks to technology, two factors have changed the advertising paradigm dramatically and forever:
The level of consumer distraction caused in part by media fragmentation including the Internet, makes it much more difficult to reach the consumer; and

The consumer's ability to control the media interruption through DVR's, remote controls and the like.
Taken together, these two developments leave advertisers no choice but to develop more engaging ways to reach consumers.

Cutting Through the Today's Clutter

The key to success in today's media environment is to be nimble and engaging. Let's take a look at a number of innovative techniques used by leading marketers today.

New and Improved Branded Content. In May 2001, BMW launched a series of eight short films produced by high profile Hollywood directors and starring BMW cars. After a four and half year run, the program came to an end in 2005, but not after racking up more than 100,000 million downloads and a handful of film awards. At a cost to produce of $15mm, cost per immersion was less than 15 cents.

New and Improved Product Placement. The 2006 movie Talladega Nights featured over 75 brands in the big budget Hollywood film about NASCAR featuring Will Farrell. Brands like Perrier and Wonder Bread paid for their placements, but others were included without their explicit approval. For brands, opportunities like this create exposure and ties to entertainment, but provide limited to no control over the message.

Branded Entertainment. Last year, OfficeMax shifted all of its' television budget into branded entertainment. It developed a series of 20 branded web-sites, including “” and “” (which are still around) that let users create and distribute content starring “you.” The web-sites generated 36 million hits, improving brand awareness and entertaining consumers, but provided no distinct OfficeMax brand messaging.

Brand-based Content as Marketing Strategy

Weber Grills has elevated the concept of brand-based content from the tactical to the strategic. By integrating brand-based content into everything from its' advertising to Point of Sale, content has become central to its' overall marketing strategy.

Weber has the highest level of satisfaction of any grill brand and has long had a loyal following of dedicated grilling enthusiasts. In 2005, it launched Weber Nation an innovative program featuring “Real people, with real stories about their Weber Grill.” A national advertising campaign featured real Weber owners talking about their passion in their own backyards around the country. The ads encouraged others to go online and share their Weber grilling experiences.

Weber created an online community at “” to accompany the ad campaign. The website gives Weber lovers a voice by letting them share their stories, opinions and tips for grilling and buying the right grill. In addition to user contributed content, Weber added additional useful content such as recipes, videos, podcasts and more for its' users. Visitors interested in buying a new grill can even download a booklet based on the user contributed content, called “Why I Love My Weber Grill.” The ad campaign was the most successful in Weber's history.

Weber has also developed a publishing initiative to create and distributed grilling content and recipes. The recipe section of Weber's web-site is one of the most heavily trafficked areas of its site. Weber has produced and marketed a new cookbook each year since 2003. Titles range from Weber's Art of the Grill to Weber's Charcoal Grilling and each help establish Weber as a thought leader and expert in the category. In 2007, Weber leveraged its' brand-owned content initiative in support of charitable causes with Command of the Grill: A salute to steak, a cookbook benefiting our nation's wounded men and women of the military.

Weber can repurpose the content it owns and the publishing division is not just good for the brand, it's so successful that it is a profit center for the company.

Weber has succeeded in re-creating marketing in a way that recognizes who's the sheriff now, by both respecting and engaging the consumer.

Putting Content to Work For You

There are no specific rules of the brand-based content game, but here are a few pointers that you should keep in mind:
  1. Give it a name. Content needs to be recognized and valued within your organization in order to succeed. Make it memorable, like “elfyourself” or “Webernation.”
  2. Start now. Chances are you already have a fair amount of branded content in house that is simply waiting to be put to use.
  3. Look for a content play in everything you do. Once it becomes a discipline you'll realize that almost every marketing initiative you undertake can serve multiple purposes and can be leveraged very cost-effectively
  4. Don't tread on trust. Consumers know if they are being manipulated and resent it. Be straightforward.
  5. Content is not king, value is king. Simply having content isn't enough. Making sure the consumer gets something of value in return for their engagement with your brand is mandatory, and
  6. Own it. In order to maximize the value of brand-based content, you are almost always going to be better off if you own the content rather than outsource it.
In summary, brand-based content represents an ideal way for the marketer to respond to the reality that is today's fragmented, competitive media marketplace. It effectively recognizes the growing power of the consumer in filtering and choosing between alternative media choices. And because it engages, it creates good will for the brand at the same time that it delivers value in exchange for the consumer's time. And most importantly, when done well, it delivers sales.

About the Author

Christina Schroeder is a pioneer in the development and use of brand-owned content. She is founder and Chief Rouser at rabble+rouser, Inc., a Denver-based agency that helps client leverage their brands in today's media world. She can be reached at

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