I thought about this a bit. Couple of weeks back, Amber wrote a well thought out post on branded content over at Naked blog. She asks: “How can brands create something more interesting than advertising to win the hearts and minds of the public?” While her argument is solid in that she proposes that brands should “make what people find interesting”, I was not sure.
I am still not.
If we learned anything about branding, that's to keep in mind that history is a very poor guide to the future. Creating content that people will - or will not - like is a tricky business (just ask the movie industry). Success stories are more often exception than the rule. Success is random, and usually explained post-fact. We like selective evidence: if something worked, we say: "branded content is great." If it didn't, we simply don't mention it. Brands create content all the time, and it doesn’t always become popular. And even if we forget all of this for a moment, there is a fundamental question: why would we want to continue to do the same thing we did in the past?
Digital lets us do things differently.
In their excellent presentation, Adrian Ho & his team at Zeus Jones nicely explained the difference between "classic" and "modern" branding. Classic brands communicate an image. Modern brands deliver an experience.
Or, more specifically: classic brands are built via communications: "A (classic) brand is simply a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer." Modern brands are built through actual experience and improved by interactions: "A (modern) brand is ... simply the sum of the great ideas used to build the brand." Modern brands are defined by what they do.
Let's talk about modern brands.
Some of the most prominent and successful brands in the world are in fashion, so I looked there. I also wanted to avoid the usual suspects who do digital branding well. And then, fashion brands are notoriously criticized for staleness of their branding practices. So I thought if even they have recently managed to do their branding differently, there's no excuse for the rest. :)
For example, digital lets us experience things in real time; and it lets us share them immediately with others. Live, real-world online streaming hit big ever since Dolce&Gabbana famously webcast their fashion show last Spring. Burberry, Alexander McQueen, Isaac Mizrahi, and others quickly followed the suit. Blogs described Burberry's stream as "almost as exciting to watch as the real show," probably because online fans were for the first time allowed to participate in the experience and provide live commentary.
Then, obviously looking to offer a brand experience that goes beyond a minisite, Burberry went on to create a social network: Art of The Trench (currently in its pre-launch version). For whatever it's worth, they are at least trying something different. As so do Luis Vuitton with its 50K Twitter acct, and Dolce&Gabbana with their YouTube project, "The Pre-Show Diaries". (For some more interesting stuff that fashion brands are doing with webcasting these days, see this morning's BOF article).
What these brands have figured out is that digital does not have to be just another brand communication channel for their pre-created content. It can also bring us a real life experience, in real time. So, the recent branding campaign that I liked the most actually comes from Coca-Cola. It's "Open Happiness" campaign sends three bloggers to more than 200 countries in a year to uncover what makes people happy. This is something that I find way more relevant and real than their Happiness Factory thingy.
These are just some of the examples. What they all have in common is not their success or failure. It's the different approach to branding that they offer.
Branded content may have indeed served the (branding) function. I wonder, though, if it still serves any purpose.