Branded Content - Feature of the Week

In recent years, branded content has emerged as one of the most dynamic areas of the partnership marketing ecosystem. While not strictly speaking sponsorship (which typically involves the transference of rights), the two disciplines share some DNA – namely the desire to create powerful opportunities for engagement by affiliating brands with something that audiences are passionate about.

At a basic level, the distinction between the two is that sponsors skirt around the edge of properties to avoid giving an impression of interference, whereas branded content seeks to integrate the company’s brand into the heart of the action. It seeks to offset any potential annoyance this might cause among audiences by offering some kind of ‘added value’ dimension to the content – either entertainment, education/information or uplifting/aspirational.

In reality, of course, the line between sponsorship and branded content is blurred and often difficult to delineate. If, for example, James Bond wears an Omega watch in a 007 movie we think of it as product placement – one of the key manifestations of branded content. But if Liverpool FC players wear a Standard Chartered shirt during a football match, it’s sponsorship. Both, however are examples of brands shoehorning their way into content.

Conversely, advertiser-funded programmes (AFPs) are typically described as branded content – even if the brand financing the content has taken an active decision not to be present within the show itself. In such scenarios, brands get involved so that they can activate their investment via other channels. That doesn’t sound very different from the way a TV sponsor goes about its business.

Further confusing the issue is that sponsorship and branded content often come hand in hand. While it’s possible for a piece of branded content to exist in its own right, often it is at its most effective when it is a form of sponsorship activation. Samsung’s School of Rugby, for example, was so much more effective for being an adjunct of the tech brand’s relationship with England’s RFU.

For a long time, branded content was a modest affair – but that has changed for two reasons. Firstly, because of the incredible number of media channels now available. In the pre-digital age, it often proved challenging to come up with a TV-based concept that appealed to broadcasters, met the brand’s objectives and also passed muster with the regulators. All of that changed with the internet – which has enabled the form to flourish without worrying too much about gatekeepers. These days, the only real measures of a branded content strategy are a) does it meet brand objectives and b) does the target audience buy into it.

At the same time, the internet has transformed what “old media” brands are able to do in the branded content arena. No longer limited to sponsored supplements or audio inserts, newspapers and radio brands have been able to develop integrated campaigns that involve video, social, podcasts etc.

The second, slightly more ephemeral, reason is that brands in the 21st Century have learned how to position themselves as legitimate aspects of our lifestyle. We may get irritated if they are too pushy or invasive, but we don't really question the right of Coke, Nike, Apple, Audi, Tesco et al to engage with us. Even commodity brands have managed to create emotional connections by playing on their role as part of the family, or as an aspect of our shared cultural history. Bread, detergent, furniture, hotels and so on have all claimed a right to converse with us at an emotional level through the use of content marketing.

The increasing appeal of branded content has been evident in the growth of this category in the UK Sponsorship Awards. In recent years, the volume and diversity of branded content campaigns has underlined just how creative the sector has become. Here are a few examples of Finalists pre 2020/21:


Experience Amazing with Lexus EscapesSponsored by Lexus and entered by m/SIX, Experience Amazing with Lexus Escapes used branded content to connect Lexus with luxury travel company Secret Escapes’ 14-million strong UK membership. Central to the 10-week campaign was a Lexus Escapes microsite within the Secret Escapes website which provided long-distance road trip guides around Britain and details of hotels. The site also provided details of the RX self-charging hybrid SUV range, including the new seven-seat RX L, with links to download a brochure and book a test drive. Key take aways here include the usability of the content, the fact that Secret Escapes acted as the media channel, and the opportunity to showcase product. A highly-successful partnership, it delivered a 13% increase in purchase consideration and helped rebuild the Lexus database in a post-GDPR world.


FOX: Deep State: Sponsored by Fox Networks Group and entered by Mindshare UK, this campaign saw Fox promote its new drama series Deep State by funding Daily Mirror journalists to write exposés about what the Deep State is and how it functions in the UK. In doing so, it made the subject of deep state a talking point and drove audiences to the show. 37% of those exposed to the campaign tuned in to watch the first episode on Fox. Key take aways from this campaign include the fact that it was a newspaper-based activation – demonstrating that branded content is not all about the TV/online axis. It’s also a great example of how brands can trigger the creation of genuinely interesting content.


The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds on Holiday With Thomas Cook on Channel 4Sponsored by Thomas Cook and entered by Channel 4, this branded content campaign was a response by the travel brand to disruption in the package holiday market. Working with The Story Lab and producer RDF, C4 and Thomas Cook created a special ‘holiday edition’ AFP that built on the popular C4 series The Secret Life of 4/5 Year Olds. 6 mini episodes were created for All4 and were also distributed across Thomas Cook’s digital, social and owned platforms. These were then re-edited into a 30-minute show for linear broadcast on Channel 4. Channel 4 says: “This carried product placement at scale and reached an audience of over 2m in Thomas Cook’s key trading period…Thomas Cook consideration rose to 79% against a benchmark of 45%.” Key take aways include the fact that AFPs can work well if a) the editorial idea is great and b) the fit is right. It was particularly shrewd to work with an existing franchise. Aviva-backed Driven to Distraction and Suzuki-backed All Star Driving School are other examples of successful branded content strategies facilitated by Channel 4.


Standard Chartered Celebrates The Power of NumbersSponsored by Standard Chartered Bank (SCB) and entered by Octagon, this partnership was rooted in the 125th anniversary of Liverpool FC (LFC). To mark the occasion, Standard Chartered created the Power of Numbers branded content campaign to connect millions of LFC fans across the world. Across the year, 240 pieces of bespoke content in different forms were created featuring players, managers and fans. From documentary films to a hardcover children’s book, the campaign sought to push the bounds of entertainment. Standard Chartered even managed to link the campaign to Seeing is Believing, its global community initiative tackling avoidable blindness. On World Sight Day, it launched an audio recording of The Kop in full song. Using LFC and SCB owned social media, as well as third party channels, the campaign content generated over 70 million views. Including offline activity, it reached more than 80.5 million LFC fans and bank customers. Key take aways include the power of creating a diverse array of content – leveraging a range of assets that included players, legends, fans and venue.


Evian Wimbledon 2018Sponsored by Evian and entered by Wavemaker, this 2018 UKSA entry saw Evian bring together its long-running Wimbledon sponsorship with the brand’s Live Young strapline. Provided with unrivalled access around the match grounds, the brand created daily digital content that drove a significant increase in the awareness, also boosting brand preference and propensity to purchase. The content, designed to give audiences an up close and personal view of the event, performed well on social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube. Key take aways include branded content’s ability to bring brand straplines to life. At the same time, it can also have a positive impact on the image of the rights holder’s assets. This strategy built on work Evian had already done with #Wimblewatch, a daily Gogglebox style video series featuring celebrities watching and reacting to Wimbledon highlights.


Bridgestone Chase Your Dream, No Matter WhatSponsored by Bridgestone and entered by WeAreFearless, Chase Your Dream, No Matter What was a content-led brand campaign that featured inspiring athletes, with content running across digital, social, PR and events. Rooted in the brand’s Olympic association, the campaign generated 1000 pieces of content, including 200 videos in six languages. This translated into 50 million video views and 725,000 social engagements. Key take aways include the fact that branded content can help brands become relevant and distinctive in a low interest category (tyres).


Colgate Max White and Britain’s Next Top Model (BNTM)Sponsored by Colgate Max White and entered by Wavemaker, this partnership with Sky Media positioned the Max White Toothbrush Plus Whitening Pen as a fashion and beauty accessory rather than an oral care product. The campaign kicked-off with a Colgate branded BNTM launch party on the evening of the premiere episode, attended by judges and models for maximum PR. This was streamed live, encouraging viewers to engage socially through competitions. The product featured in sponsorship idents and was integrated into the show environment by challenging the models to create a television commercial for the Whitening Pen as their weekly task. This provided Colgate with an opportunity to demonstrate the product and its benefits. The winning model from the Colgate challenge later became one of the faces of the product, providing longevity for Colgate beyond the partnership. Sky Media also produced bespoke content which drove conversation on digital platforms after the episode had aired. In terms of results, 80% of viewers were aware of the sponsorship. Purchase intent increased from 28% (non-viewers) to 84% (viewers). Key take aways include the strength of branded content as part of an integrated sponsorship strategy.


EE Wembley Cup 2016Sponsored by EE and entered by Havas Sports & Entertainment Cake, this partnership saw YouTube stars and FIFA legends play a charity football match at Wembley Stadium. The campaign, which sought to make EE the preferred operator for young consumers, had a significant impact on EE’s appeal among 16-24 year-olds, compared to rivals. The Wembley Cup ran for four years in total and was backed every time by EE, which is also sponsor of Wembley Stadium. Content was streamed via Spencer FC YouTube channel. Key take aways include the power of creating a hybrid event that appeals to gaming and sports fan. For EE, the event worked well as an adjunct to its existing sponsorship. There’s a potential lesson here for any naming rights sponsor.


The winners of the 2020/2021 UKSA Branded Content categories will be unveiled on March 23, 2021. To see this year’s shortlists, go here.


View the 2022 Winners

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