Dassault Systemes is one of the French industry’s greatest successes. Everyday, unbeknownst to most of us, we use products designed using DS software: cars, gadgets, buildings and even clothes. This €2bn company provides all the necessary tools for what has become known as Product Lifecycle Management: starting from the initial design, moving to the software that runs the manufacturing process, then to distribution logistics and, at the end of its life, disposing of the product.
Hence a simple question: What could be the axis of communication for such a company? The performance of its latest release of CAD software? Its simulation capabilities?
No. Dassault Systemes opted to communicate on an science-fiction iceberg-related project. The pitch: a French engineer — the old-fashion type, a dreamer who barely speaks English — envisions capturing an iceberg from a Greenland glacier and tugging it down to the thirsty Canary Islands. The DS mission (should it choose to really accept it): devise all the relevant techniques for the job, minimize melting, maximize fuel-efficiency. The result is a remarkable and quite entertaining documentary, a 56 minutes high-tech festival of solutions for this daunting task’s numerous challenges. I watched it in HD on my iPad, in exchange for my email address (the one I’m dedicating to marketers). It’s a huge, multimillion video production, with scores of the helicopters shots, superb views of Greenland and, of course, spectacular 3D imaging, the core DS business. The budget is so high and the project so ambitious, that the documentary was co-produced by several large European TV channels such as France Televisions and the German ZDF. Quite frankly, it fits the standard of public TV — for such a genre.
But this is neither journalism nor National Geographic film-making. It’s a Brand Content operation.
In advertising, Brand Content is the new black. You can’t bump into an ad exec without hearing about it. It’s the new grail, the replacement for the other formats that failed and the latest hope for an ailing industry. But there are side effects.
Let’s have a closer look.
1/ What defines Brand Content as opposed to traditional advertising?
In a good BC product, the brand can be almost absent. It’s the content that’s front and center. In France, advertisers often quote a series made by the French Bank BNP-Paribas titled “Mes Colocs” (My roommates). The title says it all. Launched two years ago, it featured 20 shorts episodes, later supplemented by… 30 bonus ones, all broadcast on YouTube and DailyMotion. Mes Colocs became such a success that two cable TV channels picked it up. The brand name does not appear — except in the opening credits. But, far from being a philanthropic operation, its performance was carefully monitored. BNP-Paribas’ goal was obvious: raising its awareness among young people. And it seems to have worked: the operation translated into a 1.6% increase in accounts opening and a rise of 6.5% in the number of loans granted to young adults (details in this promotional parody produced by the agency.)
This dissociation between brand and content is essential. An historical French brand has been rightly celebrated for being the first to do brand content decades before the term was coined: Michelin with its eponymous guides provided a genuine service without promoting its tires (read Jean-Louis’ Monday Note Why Apple Should Follow Michelin.)
The following opposition can be drawn between traditional advertising and content-based message :
2 / Why the hype ?
First of all, medias are increasingly fragmented. Advertisers and marketers have a hard time targeting the right audience. BC is a good way to let the audience build itself — for instance through virality. It is much more subtle than relying on the heavily (and easily) corrupted blogosphere.
Second, most digital formats are faltering. Display advertising is spiraling down due to well-known factors: unlimited inventories, poor creativity, excessive discounts, bulk purchasing, cannibalization by value killing ad networks, etc. Behavioral targeting is technically spectacular but people get irritated by invasive tracking techniques (see my previous take: Pro (Advertising) Choice.)
Three, marketers have matured. The caricatural advertorial grossly extolling a product is long gone. Today’s contents are much smarter, they provide information (real or a respectable imitation), and good entertainment. Everything is increasingly well-crafted. Why? Because — and that is reason #4 for growth in BC — there is a lot of available talent out there. As news media shrink, advertising agencies find an abundance of writers, producers, film-makers all eager to work for much more money they could hope to get in their former jobs. Coming in with a fresh mindset, not (yet) brain-washed by marketing, they will do their job professionally, accepting “minor” constraints in exchange for great working conditions — no penny pinching when you do a web series for a global brand.
Five, compared to traditional advertising messages, Brand Content is cheap. As an example, see the making of a recent and highly conceptual Air France commercial shot in Morocco; the cost ran into seven figures. Now, imagine how many brand content products can be done with the same investment. Brand content allows an advertiser to place multiple bets at the same time.
3/ The risks. (Here comes the newsman’s point of view)
Brand content is the advertiser’s dream come true. The downfall of the print press has opened floodgates: publishers become less and less scrupulous in their blurring of the line between editorial and promotion — which is precisely what ad agencies always shoot for. Most women magazines, the luxury press, and now mainstream glossies allocate between 30% and 70% to such “tainted” editorial: nice “journalistic” treatment in exchange for favors on the advertising side. I’m not blaming publishers who do their best to save their business, I’m just stating the facts.
The consequence is obvious: readers are not informed as they should about products. Less and less so. (Although islands of integrity like Consumer Reports remain.) That is not good for the print media as it feeds the public’s distrust. While many publications lose what’s left of their credibility by being too cosy with their advertisers, brands are becoming increasingly savvy at producing quality contents that mimic traditional editorial. As brands tend to become full blown medias, the public will get confused. Sooner or later, it will be difficult to distinguish between a genuine, editorially-driven prime-time TV show and another one sponsored by an advertiser. Call it the ever shrinking journalism.