Meg Carter is a freelance journalist based in the UK.
Earlier this year, Budweiser, the lager brand owned by family-run brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, launched its own TV network. Bud TV is a family of entertainment channels distributing a mix of music, comedy, sport and celebrity interviews – all of which have been originally produced for or acquired by Anheuser-Busch. It is the most ambitious example to date of a new form of marketing communications fast attracting attention in boardrooms worldwide: brand content.
The term brand content refers to a piece of editorial – entertainment- or information-based – made for, funded by and/or distributed on behalf of a brand owner. By investing in the production of this content, the brand owners seek to get closer to it than can be achieved through conventional TV sponsorship or product placement. By becoming a content producer, it can ensure key values contained within a TV show can be closely aligned with its own.
The reason why brand content is becoming increasingly popular is simple. The proliferation of TV channels resulting from the rapid expansion of cable and satellite TV throughout the 1990s caused TV audiences to fragment, which, in turn, led many to question the value of conventional TV spot advertising (which depends on an ad being seen by as many of a particular target audience as possible).
Following the dot.com boom, TV audience fragmentation was further hastened as the growing proportion of time consumers began spending online and using other new, emerging, digital media. As a result of all this, a growing proportion of the world's advertisers began moving ad budgets away from traditional media and spending more on exploring opportunities with newer media technologies.
In the director's chair
In a sense, brand content is as old as the hills: many companies have invested in contract publishing – using customer magazines to build consumer loyalty. However, it is only recently, with broadband internet connections enabling users to download video content more quickly and cost effectively, that the video equivalent of contract publishing has been commercially viable.
The first brand to embrace this in a big way was BMW, which four years ago launched a ground-breaking initiative called BMW Films. It commissioned and paid for leading Hollywood directors to produce a series of short films. Each director was given a free hand to create an entertaining story, the only requirement being that they featured a BMW car. The end results were then put onto a dedicated website, www.bmwfilms.com.
Since then, a growing number of other companies have started to commission their own video content. Some, like mobile phone company Orange that conceived and paid for the production of music show The Orange Playlist, approached traditional broadcasters to distribute it. Others set up their own distribution mechanism to distribute it themselves, typically via a dedicated website. And it is into this category that Anheuser-Busch's latest venture sits. For unlike other TV networks, Bud TV is an entertainment network distributed online.
"Bud TV came to life as we sought to develop new ways to reach adult consumers on a more personal level," explains Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch's vice president, global media and sports marketing. "Consumers know that Budweiser and Bud Light represent humour and entertainment. Bud TV integrally associates that experience with our brands in an engaging, interactive experience."
Bud TV is a portal for original entertainment found nowhere else on the internet, Ponturo explains. This includes further evolution of ideas already developed for the brand's advertising along with content relating to existing Anheuser-Busch sponsorship activities and media partnerships. But there is also ample new content, much of which can be "edgier", he adds, than might otherwise have been possible using traditional broadcast TV.
The venture, developed with Anheuser-Busch's lead ad agency DDB Worldwide, cost $30 million to set up. In return, the company set out to attract one million adults to the site each month by the end of its first year. Two months in, Bud TV is reportedly attracting a quarter of that figure, although Anheuser-Busch is confident this figure will grow. Industry observers praise the ambition behind Bud TV but are quick to stress that brand content doesn't have to cost this much or be on so great a scale.
"Budweiser already spends a lot on advertising across numerous media contact points providing strong potential for cross promotion to drive considerable numbers of people to the Bud TV site," observes Mark Boyd, director of content at advertising agency BBH, which developed The Audi Channel, a TV channel that airs on the Sky satellite TV platform in the UK and carries programming promoting all aspects of Audi's business.
Boldly Embracing Broadband
Bud TV, however, is just one of a myriad different models brands can now explore to capitalise on the potential of brand content. It can cost just a few thousands pounds to create a branded game or two-minute-long piece of video entertainment that can then be distributed virtually, Boyd points out. Other companies, meanwhile, are challenging convention with relatively modest investment in brand content to give consumers unprecedented insight into their inner workings.
One such brand owner is family-run Ford Motor Company, which is currently midway through a drive to return the North American business to profitability by 2008. As part of this plan, Ford developed a new marketing strategy called Bold Moves, which was launched in May 2006. The idea was to showcase Ford products by presenting Ford customers and employees making bold moves in their everyday lives.
Ford's Bold Moves idea inspired a range of marketing communications activities including a groundbreaking brand content initiative – Bold Moves: The Documentary – a documentary series about the challenges it faces and the business's response. To avoid any criticism that such a venture would simply be a whitewash, Ford and its lead advertising agency JWT worked with independent filmmakers from New York-based production company Radical Media.
"We wanted to communicate directly with our customers in our own words rather than go via a third-party intermediary," Ford brand communications manager Whitney Drake explains. "We had a story to tell about how the business was changing, which had almost exclusively been told in the press beyond our control."
Radical Media produced a series of five-minute documentaries about Ford that ran on a website, www.fordboldmoves.com, from 29 June 2006 to 11 January 2007. A key element of the project was to directly engage with consumers who were invited to lodge comments via the site's chat room.
"We measured the effectiveness of the documentary by counting the number of views, time spent on the site and traffic from the Bold Moves site to other Ford product-specific sites," Drake adds. "It was very successful. It helped change perceptions of Ford and let people see the actions we are taking to transform the business."
Ford refuses to reveal the cost of the venture, but Drake confirms it is now considering whether to go ahead with a second series later this year. "It can be a very cost-effective marketing investment for a business when you compare it to the cost of making a commercial and buying airtime for a 30-second TV ad," she adds. "The key for any business considering this sort of thing is a willingness to engage in conversation with consumers – and that includes acknowledging their criticisms, too. This doesn't have to be a negative experience, however. In fact, it can be transformational: for critic and company alike."