Branding in the Age of Social Media – Harvard Business Review cont’d
September 28, 2020
Beyond Branded Content
While companies have put their faith in branded content for the past decade, brute empirical evidence is now forcing them to reconsider. In YouTube or Instagram rankings of channels by number of subscribers, corporate brands barely appear. Only three have cracked the YouTube Top 500. Instead you’ll find entertainers you’ve never heard of, appearing as if from nowhere.
YouTube’s greatest success by far is PewDiePie, a Swede who posts barely edited films with snarky voice-over commentary on the video games he plays. By January 2016 he had racked up nearly 11 billion views, and his YouTube channel had more than 41 million subscribers.
How did this happen? The story begins with the youth subcultures that formed around video games. When they landed on social media, they became a force. The once-oddball video-gaming-as-entertainment subculture of South Korea went global, producing a massive spectator sport, now known as E-Sports, with a fan base approaching 100 million people. (Amazon recently bought the E-Sports network Twitch for $970 million.)
In E-Sports, broadcasters provide play-by-play narration of video games. PewDiePie and his comrades riffed on this commentary, turning it into a potty-mouthed new form of sophomoric comedy. Other gamers who film themselves, such as VanossGaming (YouTube rank #19, 15.6 million subscribers), elrubiusOMG (#20, 15.6 million), CaptainSparklez (#60, 9 million), and Ali-A (#94, 7.4 million), are also influential members of this tribe. The crowdculture was initially organized by specialized media platforms that disseminated this content and by insider fans who gathered around and critiqued it, hyping some efforts and dissing others. PewDiePie became the star of this digital art world—just as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Patti Smith had done in urban art worlds back in the analog days. The main difference is that the power of crowdculture propelled him to global fame and influence in record time.
Gaming comedy is just one of hundreds of new genres that crowdculture has created. Those genres fill every imaginable entertainment gap in popular culture, from girls’ fashion advice to gross-out indulgent foods to fanboy sports criticism. Brands can’t compete, despite their investments. Compare PewDiePie, who cranks out inexpensive videos in his house, to McDonald’s, one of the world’s biggest spenders on social media. The McDonald’s channel (#9,414) has 204,000 YouTube subscribers. PewDiePie is 200 times as popular, for a minuscule fraction of the cost.
Or consider Red Bull, the most lauded branded-content success story. It has become a new-media hub producing extreme- and alternative-sports content. While Red Bull spends much of its $2 billion annual marketing budget on branded content, its YouTube channel (rank #184, 4.9 million subscribers) is lapped by dozens of crowdculture start-ups with production budgets under $100,000. Indeed, Dude Perfect (#81, 8 million subscribers), the brainchild of five college jocks from Texas who make videos of trick shots and goofy improvised athletic feats, does far better.
Coca-Cola offers another cautionary tale. In 2011 the company announced a new marketing strategy—called Liquid & Linked—with great fanfare. Going all in, it shifted its emphasis from “creative excellence” (the old mass-media approach) to “content excellence” (branded content in social media). Coke’s Jonathan Mildenhall claimed that Coke would continually produce “the world’s most compelling content,” which would capture “a disproportionate share of popular culture,” doubling sales by 2020.
The following year, Coca-Cola launched its first big bet, transforming the static corporate website into a digital magazine, Coca-Cola Journey. It runs stories on virtually every pop culture topic—from sports and food to sustainability and travel. It’s the epitome of a branded-content strategy.
Journey has now been live for over three years, and it barely registers views. It hasn’t cracked the top 10,000 sites in the United States or the top 20,000 worldwide. Likewise, the company’s YouTube channel (ranked #2,749) has only 676,000 subscribers.
It turns out that consumers have little interest in the content that brands churn out. Very few people want it in their feed. Most view it as clutter—as brand spam. When Facebook realized this, it began charging companies to get “sponsored” content into the feeds of people who were supposed to be their fans.
On social media, what works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox.
The problem companies face is structural, not creative. Big companies organize their marketing efforts as the antithesis of art worlds, in what I have termed brand bureaucracies. They excel at coordinating and executing complex marketing programs across multiple markets around the world. But this organizational model leads to mediocrity when it comes to cultural innovation.
Brand Sponsors Are Disintermediated
Entertainment “properties”—performers, athletes, sports teams, films, television programs, and video games—are also hugely popular on social media. Across all the big platforms you’ll find the usual A-list of celebrities dominating. On YouTube musicians Rihanna, One Direction, Katy Perry, Eminem, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift have built massive audiences. On Twitter you’ll find a similar cast of singers, along with media stars like Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Fallon, Oprah, Bill Gates, and the pope. Fans gather around the tweets of sports stars Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James, Neymar, and Kaká, and teams such as FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (which are far more popular than the two dominant sports brands, Nike and Adidas). On Instagram you’ll find more of the same.
These celebrities are all garnering the superengaged community that pundits have long promised social media would deliver. But it’s not available to companies and their branded goods and services. In retrospect, that shouldn’t be surprising: Interacting with a favored entertainer is different from interacting with a brand of rental car or orange juice. What works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox. The idea that consumers could possibly want to talk about Corona or Coors in the same way that they debate the talents of Ronaldo and Messi is silly.
How One Brand Uses Celebrities to Break Through
Under Armour’s recent campaign “I Will What I Want” shows how to combine celebrity sponsorships and cultural branding to create content with impact.
Under Armour originally became an iconic brand by swiping Nike’s cultural strategy—then doing it one better.
Nike’s approach, launched in the 1970s and perfected in the 1990s, was to tell stories of athletes who overcame societal barriers through sheer willpower. But a decade ago Nike abandoned its competitive-underdog ideology to go all in on branded content, using famous athletes to make entertaining sports films. Under Armour stepped into the void, producing arresting new ads, such as “Protect This House,” that championed the same ideology and took off on social media.
Under Armour also followed Nike in dramatizing how übercompetitiveness, traditionally associated with masculinity, applied equally to women, broadcasting spots that showcased female athletes. The latest effort, “I Will What I Want,” pushed gender boundaries even further, challenging conventions in arenas where traditional ideals of femininity still reign.
Ballet star Misty Copeland—who grew up in poverty with a single parent—is an athletic, muscular dancer in a profession that celebrates waifish, reed-thin women. Under Armour made a video about how she rose above adversity (the voice-over is from a rejection letter saying that her body was completely wrong for ballet), showing her dancing in a formfitting sports bra and pants that reveal her curvier physique.
A Gisele Bündchen film followed the same convention-breaking formula but mashed up incongruous crowdcultures to provoke a social media response. The former Victoria’s Secret star is usually portrayed within the glamorous world of runways and celebrity hobnobbing. Under Armour broke the frame by placing her in what was essentially an old Nike ad: a backstage video of Gisele in an intense kickboxing workout. The company announced the partnership ahead of filming. It immediately stirred up the crowdculture: Sports fans were cynical, Gisele fans were curious, fashionistas were puzzled, and feminists simply loved it. Under Armour’s agency scraped all this commentary from the web and projected quotes from the digital discussion on the walls behind her. The resulting video shows Gisele sweating and kicking the bag, ignoring the litany of digs surrounding her: “Is posing now a sport?” “She’s not even pretty.” “What’s her sport, smiling?” “Stick to modeling, sweetie.”
Under Armour succeeded because it innovated with ideology—using female celebrities to provocatively push against gender norms. The company aimed its communiqués directly at the crowdcultures that held those norms, which set off a firestorm of debate.
Social media allows fans to create rich communities around entertainers, who interact directly with them in a barrage of tweets, pins, and posts. Sports teams now hire social media ambassadors to reach out to fans in real time during games, and once the game is over, the players send along insider photos and hold locker-room chats. Beyond the major platforms, new media sites like Vevo, SoundCloud, and Apple Music are spurring even more direct digital connections.
Of course, entertainers are still more than happy to take sponsors’ money, but the cultural value that’s supposed to rub off on the brand is fading.
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….to be continued
Source: Harvard Business Review
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