Recently, I sold my shares in a business I founded, to my partner, Shaftesbury, a leading production company.
We had to update a 30-year-old brand to include the new and growing business of branded entertainment. If you’ve ever been through a branding exercise, you know it’s tough – we worked for days on our brand essence, our shared beliefs, emotional drivers, product attributes and functional benefits to help position ourselves in this highly competitive market. The debates got heated, as they should; we were defining how this brand would grow in a highly competitive and disruptive business. Yet somehow, when the new logo arrived, it became the focus of our efforts.
We have all been there. This exercise is repeated again and again in marketing meetings around the world. You have spent time and created great work that reflects your brand values and how your brand can make a difference in people’s lives, and when you sit down to share your content the first thing your CMO will say is, “the logo isn’t big enough, the logo needs to appear sooner, it’s too close to those other logos.” They become vigilant about the logo.
One of my clients was telling me about quantitative research they conducted in an effort to determine awareness of a brand’s name and logo. Perceptions of the brand’s current logo proved to communicate the brand’s functional benefits, but there was a lack of understanding of what the brand stood for. It was seen as “generic,” subliminal in some ways, like “muzak”. The brand wasn’t communicating its emotional benefits or a compelling and differentiated positioning to help drive preference over its competitors. They were missing the value of the brand.
We have lost sight of the importance of the values and stories of a brand in favour of a logo. We are practicing helicopter marketing! Like helicopter parents who smother their children, creating a cohort of young adults who struggle to deal with changes in their lives, brands are being smothered by the need for logo first, resulting in their stunted brand development. At a time when traditional advertising is losing impact, especially with a younger consumer, helicopter marketing can have long-term effects on the health of your brand, including:
A lack of brand independence.
With the rise of influencers, rating and review sites, other people will now be telling your brand story. You won’t be there to position your logo or convey your brand attributes; the brand has to be able to stand on its own and have confidence that the true brand story will be told.
Learning from mistakes.
Never have we seen such disruption in the consumers’ path to purchase. Limiting opportunities to practice and learn important skills and best practices will stunt the growth of brands who will struggle to keep up with the massive change required to get the attention of an audience.
Low brand worth.
Your brand has only a second to make an impression; the logo is only a symbol, the real connection is the value your brand brings to its potential buyer. A recent study by Wunderman found that in the U.S., "79 percent of respondents said they only consider buying products from brands that show they care and understand their consumers." The logo alone can’t do that!
Many brands conceptually understand that the audience needs to come first – they are not tuning in to see your brand. But how do you take a back seat when you are paying for the content? How do you increase awareness of your product if the consumer can’t see your logo, let alone how you position your brand?
In 2014, we were hired by U by Kotex® to find a way to connect to young women 18-24, a demo that is blocking ads and cutting cable in record numbers. The challenge: reach this demo in a category that has strong competition from a legacy brand (once a woman has found a fem hygiene product that she trusts, she is typically not willing to try a new product). U by Kotex® launched in 2010 with a video called Reality Check that made fun of the way traditional tampon advertising talked to women about their period. The video was fun and relatable, just like the brand’s colourful packaging and black box. However, trust - a key benefit that was needed in order to convert users - takes time to establish, and one-off videos and ad campaigns are expensive.
Our suggestion was to create an ongoing story in the tradition of TV soap operas with great characters, story arcs and cliff-hangers. We told the brand they had to take a back seat; the brand had to come last. In fact, we were not going to mention them by name, have product placement or include a “brought to you by” until we had developed an audience. Enter Carmilla, a broody vampire, and 3 seasons and 80M views later we have a global fandom. However, for the first 17 episodes we never once mentioned the brand or had product placement. Rather, we offered the audience this great content that they fell in love with and couldn’t wait for the next episode – and it was funded by a brand.
During episode 18, we released the name of the brand and the fans went out in record numbers to personally thank U by Kotex®. The agency and the brand were not prepared for the onslaught of praise including women wearing crowns and necklaces of U by Kotex® tampons. Post research also found that there was 94% unaided brand recall in conjunction with the series. Keep in mind there is not one logo or reference to tampons or pads in any of these episodes. The brand allowed the story to come first and brand last, resulting in a lasting impression and a community of loyal fans of the brand. Carmilla is now a major motion picture and is in development for a TV series and book deal.
This is brand content at its finest, thanks to a brand that understood audience first and brand last, and a brand manager who at the time that was considered by many to be “brave” because she removed the logo.
If you feel you are still suffering from helicopter marketing, what can you do?
1. Start with small changes.
Take one campaign and use it as an A/B test. Only have one reference to your brand when you must and then step back and let your brand rise to the occasion. Pepsi management introduced the 70-20-10 budget formula, incentivizing brand managers to go outside their comfort zone and use 10% of their budgets to try new ways of connecting with audiences.
2. Let the audience come first.
Focus on equipping your team with the skills they need to do this. Learn from other industries that have built their business based on building audiences. TV, movies and sports teams have built their fans by thinking of their audience first. So instead of forcing your brand benefits into the content, teach your team - including the C Suite, the signs of an engaged audience.
3. Don’t rely on your logo to convey your brand.
Remember your brand story, its heritage and core values and benefits for the consumer. We have to remember that the brand should be capable of standing on its own. If you removed logos and product shots from the content would the audience recognize the brand? My guess is they would.
As consumers become savvier at avoiding your ads and controlling the relationship with brand purchase through voice, the stakes are higher. Resisters to change could mean brand decline, loss of market share, or worse. So remind yourself, we are at a tipping point and it can be in your brand’s favour as long as you see your brand as an educator, influencer and entertainer. An audience-first strategy virtually ensures that the brand will not pay a higher price later.
About Kaaren Whitney-Vernon
Kaaren Whitney-Vernon is SVP, Branded Entertainment of Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury is in the business of storytelling and creating deep, dynamic fandoms. She is a sought after speaker and a visionary for the future of marketing. Before this position, and while on the road to becoming one of the best known experts in the branded content space, she was CEO and founder of shift2, a Branded Entertainment agency and is the founder of Youthculture Inc., a youth-focused media company specializing in creating branded programs. Kaaren now heads up the North American chapter of the Branded Content Marketing Association as their president and is working towards a new model for measurement while providing a voice for industry experts.
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