The Blurring Boundaries of Branded Content


Robb Young | December 23, 2010

Gone are the days when luxury marketing was defined by the process

A seismic shift is being felt in marketing circles today. The two foundations which once anchored marketers in the luxury industry – the product and the brand – are now being thrust forward like tectonic plates on a collision course with a red-hot mercurial element called ‘content’.

Just as Web 2.0 is transforming publishers into retailers by embedding e-commerce into the pages of online magazines, the digital era has also triggered an explosive innovation in the other direction. Luxury e-tailers like Net-a-Porter have long produced editorial content in order to buttress the vending component of the business, but now luxury brands themselves are becoming content providers too.

Net-a-Porter Homepage

Some of this new digital content complements the brands’ goods and services while other content is peripheral or seemingly unrelated to their core offering. But however such content may be positioned, its promise is to present consumers in-the-know with exclusive entertainment and information which enhances their brand experience online.

Platforms to Create, Curate & Commission

Dolce & Gabbana’s recently launched is one example which combines several categories of content. It publishes magazine-like articles about products and people unconnected to Dolce & Gabbana but which are likely to interest their consumer such as a review of the new Range Rover model Belle Evoque and an interview with a renowned champagne expert. There is also content subtly connected to the brand’s products like a photo gallery of ideas for Christmas gift wrapping or carefully curated Youtube videos of celebrities who inhabit the designers’ universe. The latter case is of particular interest.

When’s authors featured a news story in November about Rihanna’s appearance on the David Letterman show, for instance, a fleeting reference to the fact that the pop star was wearing a Dolce & Gabbana dress only appeared in the caption of the video. Another article about the release of a book by Monica Bellucci is a wink and nod to the brand’s loyal followers, many of whom probably noticed that the Italian actress is also the model for the ad campaign of the co-branded product Martini Gold by Dolce & Gabbana.

Original multi-media content is similarly commissioned to bolster the firm’s many other business initiatives like an interview with Diego di Luisa, a boxer for the Italian boxing team that Dolce & Gabbana sponsors, and videos featuring ‘must-have’ items from Yigal Azrouel and other up-and-coming designer collections which are sold at Spiga2, the new multibrand boutique in Milan – owned by Dolce & Gabbana.

However, Dolce & Gabbana’s content model is very different to that of other luxury brands. LVMH’s landmark launch of earlier this year provided one of the most liberated templates for such a platform with its exceptionally discreet branding and its reputation for editorial freedom. Chanel’s behind the scenes blog, Chanel News and Thomas Pink’s Pink TV channel are examples of a more pragmatic content approach to increasing customer loyalty.

“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Patrizio Miceli, CEO of Al Dente, the Paris-based branding and communication agency whose clients include Groupe Richemont, Gucci Group, Chanel, Dior Couture, Estée Lauder and Longchamp. “Brands have become the new media – their own media. They’re flirting with film, snuggling up with the art world and this connection is generating a whole new type of content. It’s an artistic production which conveys the image and values of the brand, even when disconnected from a product.”

Miceli says that it was within this context that Al Dente created a contemporary art blog for Le Royal Monceau Raffles Hotel in Paris, called homepage

“With its own art concierge, gallery and art book shop, the legendary five star hotel – whose recent renaissance was engineered by Alexandre Allard and Philippe Starck – is aiming to become a mecca of contemporary creation. With this in mind, it needed a medium to reveal not only the artistic happenings within the hotel, but also those happening in the French capital at large and, through this, to impose its vision,” she adds.

Kamel Ouadi, who serves as both the digital EVP for and global digital media director Louis Vuitton, has suggested that one motivation behind LVMH’s decision to use content was that Nowness gives LVMH’s portfolio of brands a space to promote aspects of their brand stories which wouldn’t be suitable to feature on the brands’ dedicated websites.

Talking to around the time of the Nowness launch, Ouadi said: “Luxury is a culture, so you have to be in the know, to get backstage, behind the scenes. I think it will provide unexpected stories that are fresh, pure, emotional and beautiful… It’s the right space to connect with luxury, the best of the best of the industry.”

An Essential Part of the Marketing Mix

In terms of positive brand equity, the incentives for offering good digital content are obvious enough but to view content as an add-on is misguided, as one marketing expert suggested a few months ago when he identified branded content as an essential part of the ‘pull’ side of marketing’s ‘push-pull’ system.

“Today marketers are using content as a means of engaging with consumers,” wrote Michael Barnett of Marketing Weekly. “It is no longer enough to push the product towards the market; the product has to pull the market in through channels such as social media.”

Coach’s campaign, The Poppy Project, was a recent example of this with a game that not only promoted a particular range of products through Facebook but also took a step in the direction of user-generated content by enabling users to grow poppies on their own blogs.

“ Brand content also gives brands a new opportunity to control their image in a positive way ”

Patrizio Miceli, CEO, Al Dente

At a time when marketing messages have become interactive instead of broadcasted and when the future of advertising is about being integrated rather than interruptive, consumers have come to expect brands of all kinds to create content of their own.

It is this fact which has prompted leading figures in luxury’s digital space to make such bold statements as the one that Burberry’s chief creative officer Christopher Bailey famously uttered during London Fashion Week in September. "We are now as much a media-content company as we are a design company because it’s all part of the overall experience,” he said.

According to digital marketing specialists operating in the luxury industry, there are several other benefits that branded content can offer.

“Brand content also gives brands a new opportunity to control their image in a positive way,” says Al Dente’s Miceli. “The current diversity of media available – Facebook fan pages, blogs, dedicated sites, Youtube – allows them to deal directly with their audience and provide content corresponding with their interests and aspirations.”

Shenan Reed of Morpheus Media, believes that there are at least two segments of the luxury market for which branded content can be customized for maximize impact or which can be especially popular – the UHNWI and Generation Y.

“Gen Y’s are content-focused, rather than brand-focused. So the way for forward-thinking brands to reach them is to become digital and content-focused, too,” says the co-founder of the New York agency whose client list includes Bergdorf Goodman, Vichy and Michael Kors. When targeting exceptionally wealthy ‘ultra high net worth individual’, Reed suggests that exclusive, tailor-made branded content can help them “feel that marketers are giving them an experience that’s ‘separate’ or ‘above’ the rest.”

For Jim Boulton, a London-based partner at Story Worldwide, an international ‘content agency’ working with brands like Agent Provocateur and Lexus, content is also a matter of good value for money.

“By providing regularly updated content, a brand increases the number of re-visits and also increases dwell time, which in turn improves conversion. So regularly updated content means improved search results, more links, more visitors, more customers and the incremental cost diminishing to almost zero,” he says

A Labyrinth of Applications & Devices

Because of the growing diversity of outlets for digital content such as PCs, tablets, mobile phones and still others, Morpheus Media’s Reed is adamant that each content experience needs to be specifically designed for the device it is used on; maximize the particular assets of that device; and have a clear purpose.

“Luxury marketers need to captivate at any and every single touch point. When you can do that, users look forward to the next incarnation of the brand and are far more open and receptive. A number of marketers make the mistake of taking one type of interaction, believing they can repurpose it on another platform,” she says.

“[However] luxury marketers can create ‘spread-able’ content, if they’re focused on the purpose of the content and are clear about the audience it’s created for,” explains Reed, advising brands to consider creating a “trans-media experience” which can transcend individual platforms yet still be specific to each device in some ways.

BMW & Mercedes Benz iPad magazines

In the auto sector in particular, the iPad has become the favourite outlet to reinterpret existing branded customer magazines. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Bentley are among the many luxury automakers which have each recently released or updated rich media versions of their flagship publications for the tablet device. Although some have done so better than others, their iPad apps all offer the potential to expand a brand’s content offering beyond the printed magazine and beyond a glorified digital catalogue.

Hoteliers and hospitality operators, by contrast, have been more focused recently on the iPhone and other mobile devices for consumer-facing content off the hotel premises. While many luxury hotel apps, like the Mandarin Oriental’s, are still little more than extensions of the core hospitality services of booking reservations, making itineraries and checking-in, others like Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’s are being designed with destination guides and other extra content.

Branded content is more than just the added convenience of being able to access existing content remotely or in a new medium. It is the proposition of a bonus to the user or consumer which passes on valuable knowledge, interesting experiences or entertainment. This type of content is most often created with mobile devices in mind – as some of the popular examples recently released by fine jewellery and luxury timepiece brands demonstrate.

One such content feature in Tiffany & Co’s m-commerce app is an accurate ring sizer, which claims to be the first mobile tool of its kind from a jeweller and lets users determine their size by scanning the size of a ring that they already have as it is placed on the iPhone’s screen. Similarly, in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s app, interspersed between a gallery of 60 or so watch models, there is a dictionary of horology (watchmaking terms) and virtual watchmaking classes to help users understand more about these specialty products.

Another type of mobile app which can be considered content has been dubbed ‘advertainment’ – such as games – although many of those launched by luxury brands so far have been widely criticised as either primitive, boring or as poorly disguised advertising.

Content’s Many Challenges & Caveats

In the rush to enter the smartphone and tablet markets, many of these self-styled content apps failed because they didn’t have enough substance. In other words, they were launched on the market just for the sake of it or ‘because everyone else was doing it’. Others disappointed users because the app developers were either not well matched with the luxury brand or the app’s particular objectives. Developers who might be good at optimising m-commerce into an app, for instance, may not be the most talented at captivating a finicky audience with a game app.

And there is another challenging HR aspect to branded digital content for companies like luxury brands which are not selling digital content as their core product. No single department or individual is clearly in charge of branded content because it is still in the early stages of its evolution and because it requires an overlapping subset of skills from several business divisions. Just as the social media role has yet to be definitively delegated to one department, staff who oversee branded content also fall somewhere between PR, marketing, advertising and newly forming digital divisions.

The overwhelming reasons for failure, however, are quite simply that branded content has been poorly conceived or poorly executed or both. Insight into such failures can be garnered by looking outside the luxury industry, where many FMCG brands have had longer to experiment with various content models.

“ It’s also extremely important that the brand be integrated into the content without becoming the story ”

Shenan Reed, Managing Director, Morpheus Media

Three years ago, American beer brand Budweiser established, an online television channel broadcasting original drama, comedy and sport programming. Despite heavy early investment in many major Hollywood actors, TV talent and the buying of prime time advertising slots during sporting events, visitor numbers to Budweiser’s branded content site were an unmitigated disaster – prompting the firm to pull the plug less than two years after its launch.

Marketing Weekly’s Barnett suggested that the site’s demise was blamed on, “a complex age-verification system and an inability to produce the volume of content required with the resources available.” It is interesting to note that at least one of the obstacles might have been avoided through better development.

There are several other common mistakes luxury brands can make, according to Morpheus Media’s Reed. Often, she says, they fail to make their content shareable beyond the biggest social media sites of Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and Youtube. “There are a host of others too for a variety of groups and special interests,” she points out.

Reed also says some luxury brands are overly cautious or precious about digital content. “Be Brave. Then be braver,” she counsels. “Agencies are only as creative as their clients are brave. [But] not everything needs to be slickly produced because simple ideas from the outside can be the most impactful.”

“It’s also extremely important that the brand be integrated into the content without becoming the story. Consumers don’t want brands thrown in their face but get the message when the brand is part of the content’s storyline.”

Organically Conceived & Subtly Inspired

Borrowing another case study from the mass market, Reed suggests that some of the best examples happen somewhat organically. If this is indeed the case, then meticulous strategy and execution are only two pieces in the puzzle. One of the most valuable things for luxury brands to do then may be as simple as nurturing strong relationships and keeping a running dialogue with the relevant arbiters and creators in areas of culture which brands have identified as a good match.

“One of my favourite cases is ‘Walk Across America’ – a group of people were going to make a short film about someone walking across the entire country. Then Levi’s got wind of it”, Reed explains. “They told the filmmakers that Levi’s would fund it if the person walking wore Levi’s throughout the shoot. But rather than make the short film be an entire Levi’s commercial, they did it right. The only branding done is the last ten seconds…Levi’s got to repurpose it, but first they let it create a natural discussion. They respected the content while supporting an artist and his vision.”

Although branded content may seem like yet another wild and unfamiliar frontier for luxury brands to conquer, the concept has in fact been around in other business sectors for many decades. In many ways, the only thing new about it is the digital medium it inhabits.

“Remember those early brands in the food industry that put recipes on the back of their products?” urges Al Dente’s Miceli. “The goal was simple. Give the clients that extra content and forge a special relationship with them all while extending the brand identity beyond the product itself.”

Arts | Hospitality | Social Media