Advertising's trust deficit: why branded content is the way forward

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When branded content is doing its job correctly, it's not selling anything, says Mustache's founder and CEO.

If you believe that today’s mass-media audience is still majorly influenced by the glare of traditional advertising as we know it, take a glance at a recent survey by Time Inc. The publishing giant recently polled 17,000 consumers across three key age demographics—Gen X, millennials and Gen Z—and discovered that approximately 90 percent of those surveyed prefer customized, engaging content from brands, while two out of three have greater trust in custom branded content over traditional advertising.

Why? It’s because when it’s doing its job correctly, branded content is not selling anything. The second a brand starts selling, leaning in to close with a sales pitch, consumers lean back and potentially pull away. Brands would be better off taking a more honest approach with more emphasis on creating branded entertainment before traditional advertising completely wears out its welcome.

The Trust Issue
When asked, most brands and agencies will say that they don’t want advertising to feel intrusive. But in truth, traditional advertising says a lot of what brands think consumers want to hear, and more so, whatever moves their product. It’s been this way for a long time, but with diminishing returns. Years of being continuously sold to has led to disengaged audiences. 

Trust, though, can be regained by adopting the lessons and approaches of branded content and entertainment. At its core, branded content is not just a format, it’s a state of mind. A 30-second TV spot can be branded content if it’s fun and entertaining, moving or provocative, if it’s not pushing, but rather pulls consumers in. Whatever the format, the goal is to be interesting.

If you have a truly unique product, then create content that shows (not tells) how it’s unique and do it in a unique way. If your product isn’t unique—and this is where it’s time be honest with yourself and your client—tell consumers what you believe in. Consumers, specifically those in the younger age demographics, want a more honest relationship, so why not engage with them on their terms, with content they identify with. In turn, the relationship will grow and they will listen. These are areas where branded content excels, giving advertisers the chance to experiment with different ways of communicating their message without the burden of decades of established advertising protocol. 

The Power of Youth
When you really think about it, it makes sense that younger generations prefer branded content. Young people feel empowered, and they believe they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. If they want to listen to any song ever written right then and there, they think it’s their right to have it served up for free. Millennial parents told their kids that they can be and do anything they want, and with the magic of modern technology, that message was reinforced. That freedom has also conditioned them to demand open, direct conversations with everything from news sources to the brands they support.

Branded content offers a similar authenticity. It entertains them honestly with joy, sadness or even humor, just like their peer relationships. Normally, when you tell a joke, you’re trying to make someone laugh. You’re not trying to sell or convince. Similarly, content needs to telegraph right up front, saying that it wants viewers to respond naturally. Then, if they do, you have fostered a deeper brand relationship. You have provoked a genuine emotion, and thus, spurred a connection.

How to Make a Connection Through Content
Making a connection isn’t always easy but becomes more likely when content-driven campaigns begin in earnest, with less emphasis on blatant product promotion. For example, our campaign for KLM Airlines helped redefine the brand through content that was fun and truly entertaining, not forced. It helped us refine a few basic steps for creating content that foster a better relationship with the potential viewing public.

  • Start with an honest conversation. Be open about the brand or product and clearly relate what’s actually special or interesting about it.
  • Do your research. Look at the data, but don’t get lost in it. Data is prevalent in this day and age, but ultimately, it’s not going to tell you what to do or dictate your creative direction. Understanding the playing field is critical, but in the end, we are more driven by qualitative insights, like what do online behaviors tell us about what our target consumers want.
  • Take risks. Don’t allow the campaign to be shaped by a million voices on a corporate ladder, which can lead to the extinguishing of more inventive ideas. Empower a small team to develop a vision and execute on it. If it does not feel a little risky and make some people a little nervous, it might not be worth doing.
  • Have fun. If you have not created an environment where people love and believe in what you are doing or if the project is not provoking some passion and excitement, scrap it.

The Road Ahead
Advertising depends on gaining consumer loyalty and trust, which begins and ends with content. Nowadays, everything is about content, from paid media to platforms, technology and social media.

That’s why putting more energy and effort into quality brand content is the present and the future, especially as the industry sees an increased emphasis on mobile as the priority distribution channel. Mobile will continue to amplify the consumers desire for more dynamic, highly customized content and advertising—taking into account factors like location, weather, and other personal preferences. Advertisers must be prepared to use content to spark a direct and truthful dialog with their audiences.

Branded content is the best way to start that dialog, creating trust that is reciprocal and communal, while letting influencers and the general public participate in a brand in an authentic, emotional way. With time, that content will create more engaged audiences and (hopefully) more ROI for advertisers.

John Limotte is founder, CEO and Executive Creative Director of Mustache.