Meet the content disruptors

Brands are looking to shake up traditional advertising techniques and market sectors with content marketing strategies that overturn conventions and create new business opportunities.

Disruption has become a popular marketing buzzword in recent years, used primarily to refer to innovative businesses such as Airbnb and Uber that have turned traditional industries like the hotel and transport sectors upside-down.

Yet as these companies have grown at a rapid rate, disruption has also become the goal of more established brands as they look to keep pace with advances in technology and changing consumer behaviours.

Content marketing is becoming a vital tool in brands’ quest to be disruptive. Creating content allows marketers to be experimental and flexible in how they represent their brand and communicate with consumers. Unlike straightforward advertising, in which brands need to have a simple, consistent message across all channels, content marketing facilitates deeper levels of storytelling and widens the scope for new approaches.

Car marque Nissan, for example, is seeking to innovate through a new content project called Project Controller that is based on its sponsorship of the UEFA Champions League. The company is building a Nissan car that connects with a PlayStation and enables people to use the steering wheel as a controller for the football game Pro Evolution Soccer 2016.

Developed with creative agency TBWA\Helsinki, the idea is to highlight a possible new use for cars in the future if self-driving vehicles become a reality. This, in turn, enables Nissan to present itself as a disruptive and forward-thinking brand within the automotive sector.

“Project Controller was created from an ambition to push the envelope in terms of how people experience the Nissan brand and products,” explains Pia Porko, marketing communications and brand deployment manager at Nissan Nordic Europe.

“Today brands don’t have the luxury of just communicating their products and then being passive.”

Nissan is using the idea to speak to a wide cross-section of people, including those who have an interest in cars, gaming, tech and sports. Research released recently by video analytics firm Tubular Labs shows that football-related video content now receives more than 100 million views per day and that the highest proportion of that content (40%) is of ‘football gamers’, meaning content shared online by fans playing football video games.

Nissan has created a microsite to provide updates on the project and is sharing video content of the car’s development on social media. The finished car controller will be unveiled during a fan event in Sweden, to coincide with the Champions League matches on 25 November.

Porko says Nissan will measure the success of the project by looking at its impact on sentiment towards the brand across its target segments. This includes using real-time dashboards to measure how gaming or automotive enthusiasts are reacting. It will also monitor whether it increases awareness of Nissan’s partnership with the Champions League.

“The automotive industry is all about innovation and those who stay ahead of the curve and create conversation around the brand will win the game,” claims Porko. “The challenge is how to remain interesting yet believable in the eyes of the people.”

YouTube vlogger Steve Booker created one minute videos of his cashless world travels to illustrate the global accessibility of Paypal’s technology

New content opportunities

Brands are also having a disruptive impact within their industries by finding innovative routes to content creation. Last month, Celebrity Cruises launched new video content across its social channels and a 90-second TV advert after using crowd-sourced video production platform Genero.

The platform allows brands to upload a brief of the type of video content they need, to which any member of the creative community can respond with a pitch. This enables brands to turn video projects around relatively quickly, while also gaining access to interesting, independent directors and producers who are using the platform.

Celebrity Cruises marketing and PR director Toby Shaw says that using Genero allowed the brand to create stand-out work with greater flexibility and for less money than it would cost via the normal agency route. Director James Morgan shot a film called A Different View, which features a point-of-view take on the cruise experience.

In addition to using short segments of the film on social media, Celebrity Cruises used the full version for a TV ad that ran during the first episode of Homeland’s fifth series on Channel 4 last month. This resulted in a 400% uplift in visits to the Celebrity Cruises website that night, and a 100% increase in brochure requests, Shaw reports.

“We’re the first cruise liner to do this, which is important. As a brand, we want to be innovative,” he says. “In our industry, a lot of advertising feels quite prescribed. We wanted a platform and a way of working with a filmmaker that was more organic.”

Recent research from the Content Marketing Association shows that more than half (55%) of marketers believe brands are not experimenting enough with their social media strategies, while 56% think they are not authentic enough on social platforms.

Bucking this trend, PayPal turned to a new source of online content for a campaign that launched last month. The payment processing brand hired YouTube travel vlogger Steve Booker and challenged him to travel pole-to-pole across the world on a completely cashless journey.

PayPal, which claims the challenge is “a world first”, hopes the content created by Booker will showcase the global scale of its technology. Head of communications for EMEA Amanda Groty doubts whether the project is “disruptive”, but argues it is “unexpected, surprising and fun”.

Booker, who has over 170,000 YouTube subscribers, created one minute videos from each of the cities he visited on the trip, including Moscow, Paris, and Cape Town. During each stop, he demonstrated the different experiences that PayPal enables, from using Airbnb or Expedia to book accommodation to more adventurous, niche activities. This included using PayPal to pay a local tour operator for a dog-sledding expedition on Svalbard near the North Pole.

In addition, Booker shared images from the trip on other social platforms where he has a large following, including Facebook and Instagram. Groty says: “We wanted to demonstrate the vast array of experiences PayPal makes possible in a creative and compelling manner for a ‘mobile mover’ audience, who want real stories from real people.

“Through partnering with a gifted content creator like Steve Booker, we were able to develop highly shareable, relevant and timely content throughout the journey.”

Starting with content

Publishers, too, are increasingly using their wealth of content to launch new services and retail businesses that disrupt established industries. Last year, for example, the Guardian relaunched its online bookshop – a retail site that benefits hugely from hyperlinks from the main Guardian site. This includes links to buy a book featured in a book review article, or to buy a book written by one of the Guardian’s regular columnists.

This appears to be a familiar pattern as media brands seek to diversify their offering and generate new revenue streams. This month High50, an online lifestyle publication for those 50 and over, is launching a new travel site that aims to curate a selection of the best holiday deals.

Chris Woodbridge-Cox, managing director of High50 Travel, says by tapping the content resources of its sister brand, High50 Travel can have a disruptive impact on the established travel market. Again, this will include providing links to travel deals via articles published on the  High50 site.

“We’re unique in that the site was built with content before it [began trading in the travel sector],” he says. “If you look at any other travel site, the one thing they usually struggle for is content.”

Woodbridge-Cox adds that due to the editorial brand’s relationship with its readership, the travel business can position itself as a trusted guide that can make suggestions about the best places to go. “We can be slightly irreverent, thought-provoking and assertive,” he notes.

He claims that “almost any article” on the High50 site could feature a link to a travel deal. Beyond travel, this could include articles about health, lifestyle or food and drink, with the latter presenting opportunities to sell deals on wine or restaurant tours in holiday destinations.

There is awareness, though, that High50 must strike the right balance between useful editorial and its travel business to ensure the readership is not bombarded with offers or over commercialised content. Any brand seeking to have a disruptive impact through content must similarly keep the needs and outlook of their audience in mind.

“We’ve got a potentially massive inventory [of offers], but that means we have to curate it, filter it and only bring forward the things that we as a brand want to stand behind,” says Woodbridge-Cox.

All sectors are being disrupted by organisations that have challenged the rules of the category. Whether it is Airbnb in travel or Uber in transport, it is clear these industries will never be the same again. Not content with tweaking the old model to improve it, they have thrown it out and dared to dream of what is possible; we should be applying this approach to our marketing models too.

With advances in digital, social and mobile, our audiences are already drawn to relevant, useful, timely and engaging content, and will just ignore or block anything that isn’t created for them. ‘Audience first’ is no longer just a marketing model; it’s a business model. It reframes how we communicate our brand messages and how we structure our marketing spend, opening up a huge opportunity.

Thinking about consumers as an audience and understanding what makes their world go round, we can find spaces where brands can credibly join the conversation and, by being useful or entertaining, we can provide genuine utility – driving a relevance that can result in significant commercial advantage. A great example of this is Chipotle’s Farmed and Dangerous, a marketing model with a comedy series at the core, communicating the brand messages in an innovative way, which is then used across advertising, PR, social and in store.

Brands and agencies can no longer have channel agendas if they hope to deliver creative business solutions. Collaboration is essential if we’re to ensure that ideas find their audience – whether that’s with other brands, other agencies, tech partners or editorial platforms. We can learn so much from each other.

Of course at the heart of it all there need to be great ideas. The quality of the creative thinking is fundamental and as the transition accelerates towards audience-first thinking, there are exciting times ahead.

The combination of this level of creativity with these principles of content marketing is a very powerful one; we’re building our business and team around it. We’re looking forward to seeing how things continue to evolve and to being part of the change. Imagine if every single piece of brand communication had genuine utility for its audience. The world of marketing would be a very different place.

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