Connecting With Content

JetBlue GetawaysBrands are finding ways — new and old — to woo consumers.

Tasked with creating an engaging vehicle to highlight JetBlue Getaways packages — which combine flights, hotels, ground transportation and more — the airline’s senior vice president of marketing and commercial, Marty St. George, and his team decided to put a Millennial spin on a tried-and-true media trope: the game show.

According to St. George, the “big-vacation-to-wherever”-type prizes described in breathless fashion on vintage programs like The Price Is Right served as his primary inspiration.

St. George laughs recalling the “B-reel” footage of folks frolicking on exotic beaches and partying in far-flung locales that would invariably flash on air to illustrate travel prizes.

Crafting the online competition “spiraled from that,” he says, and seemed consistent with the brand’s image and message, especially as the airline’s actual vacation packages could be awarded to winning contestants who correctly answered questions on various topics via Skype.

Dubbed “Get Away With It,” the branded content play ran live for 15 minutes daily from June 18-22. The effort was broadcast from a glitzy game-show set in Manhattan. It featured a wacky mustachioed host (who could have stepped off the set of almost any Game Show Network rerun) and more than 100 contestants. Winners’ gaping grins and losers’ disappointed pouts — displayed on studio screens in real-time.

St. George says the results — 13,000 contestant sign-ups; 10 minutes average viewing time; and a 117 percent boost in Getaways awareness — surpassed all expectations.

By going “back to the future” — using familiar concepts (a game show) in a novel format (the real-time Web) driven by the latest technology (Skype)—  “Get Away With It” provides a blueprint for the future of innovative advertising campaigns.

Agency, client and media executives agree that the future of advertising has already arrived. It’s all around us, highly tech-driven (of course), and borrows strategies that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in 1955, 1965 or 1980.

“We’ve over-talked it,” says Sean Corcoran, senior vice president and director of digital media and social influence at ad shop Mullen, which helped develop JetBlue’s game show. “We all know what’s here and what’s coming.”

It’s a no-brainer to extrapolate from current trends and predict that brands will, as they have for more than a decade, continue to shift their attention and funds into digital platforms. We’ll see a swift acceleration of a five-year trek toward heightened sociability, mobility, consumer sharing, laser-sharp targeting and constantly improving measurability.

“None of that is new,” says Corcoran, and the time for navel gazing about apps versus the open Web and tablets versus conventional tvs (interactive, addressable or otherwise) has long passed.

It’s also clear that campaigns must be keenly targeted and served to the proper screens in ways that ensure maximum acceptance. Measurement tools abound, and quantifiable results, tied more closely than ever to sales, are required.

The what (compelling, targeted creative) and the why (to drive demand and spur sales) are readily understood variables.

The key to the equation is how the high level of engagement demanded by brands can best be facilitated.

“It’s about technology enabling the brilliant execution of ideas, facilitating more immediate and exciting interactions,” says Judy Austin, a longtime agency creative director who now serves as an associate professor in Boston University’s advertising, marketing and pr program. “What hasn’t changed is trying to be relevant and doing something meaningful with your brand.”

“The key to great campaigns today is the same as what it was yesterday: outthink your competitors, outthink people’s expectations,” says Angela Natividad, digital strategist at cb’a, and high-profile industry blogger. “Think of Lowe Roche Toronto shaking up direct mail by parking a Porsche in the target’s driveway and producing a creepy but compulsively keepable ad for every home.” (The agency snuck brand-new Porsches into affluent neighborhood driveways and photographed them — then made the snapshots into ads left at the homes where they were taken. “It’s closer than you think,” read the copy. According to the agency, 32 percent of recipients — astronomical in direct-mail terms — visited the dealership’s Web site to schedule test drives.)

Specific delivery systems (desktops, smartphones, ooh installations and even potential buyers’ driveways) are, to some extent, secondary concerns. Providing entertainment and utility are paramount.

Increasingly, agency, client and media execs blazing new trails (in essence, creating advertising’s future every day) are discovering that they must fashion content that delights, informs and, most importantly, plays a vital organic role in consumers’ daily lives.

“Branded content is going to be a centerpiece of marketing communication in this decade,” says Corcoran. “This is happening because of all of the available touch points brands have — from their Web site to their mobile apps, from their Facebook page to their Twitter account and Pinterest board, etc. This is a great opportunity for brands because it offers up direct relationships with customers beyond traditional advertising, email and direct mail, packaging and shelf space.”

Some might claim how to go about achieving all these exciting interactions is the toughest value to deduce — and tougher still to execute in captivating ways.

Consider the phrase “commercial interruption.” Who likes being interrupted (especially during one’s favorite program) by brand mascots selling soap, cookies, cars or whatnot?

But … what if those characters had their own channels you could access at any time and on a device? And their shtick was catchy and provided information you actually wanted, even needed? Maybe you’d spend daily time with them … and even share their antics with friends and family.

In surprisingly short order, you’d feel kindly toward the folks who brought you those icons. Maybe you’d even choose to buy their products.

Everything Old Is New Again

From the golden age of tv in the 1950s until roughly 1990, the sheer scale of mass media and the homogeneity of its audience made consumer connection relatively easy. Everyone watched the same shows and saw the same commercials. (This was true even in print, which was more highly targeted, because the same car ads that ran in Vanity Fair and Time would also appear in Sports Illustrated and Family Circle.)

In that era, brands could use relatively few long-lasting and ubiquitous campaigns to forge and reinforce their relationships with consumers.
With the media world now fragmented — and consumers able to change “channels” on any device in an instant — we see a logical inversion: Brands feel they have to “connect” on a one-to-one basis (through games, social media, etc.) to achieve the same intimacy they once had with a single commercial buy.

They are crafting increasingly brand-centric, brand-identifiable content … but that’s actually a return to a ’50s model of Lucy stepping out of character to do a cigarette ad during her eponymous sitcom.

“Contextual” or “native” ads — so called because they blend into their surroundings — are hardly new. They’re “like Route 66 using a Chevy Corvette as the third star of the show on cbs. Like Gracie Allen palavering with Harry von Zell in her kitchen about the wonders of Carnation evaporated milk,” says Tom Messner, a legendary ad executive whose career began during the Mad Men era. Ads are as integrated into their settings as ever.

Take the brilliant lunacy Stephen Colbert brought to a little ol’ cracker this year — one popular, in fact, in the ’70s: What Colbert provided for Wheat Thins on the February 23 Colbert Report is still talked about in ad circles and beyond — undoubtedly because the content had more to do with the popular tv host’s personality than the cracker’s charms: Colbert turned his famous satiric wit full-force toward the product and its pr — and garnered more than 5,000 social mentions, 6,000 new Facebook fans and 2,000 Twitter followers, plus a Cannes Gold Lion. (According to MediaVest, the segment has been viewed more than 750,000 times to date.)

Brian Terkelsen, then global president of LiquidThread, Starcom MediaVest Group’s digitally led content creation unit (and now ceo of MediaVest usa), says of the collaboration, “A certain amount of courage was called for to work in such fashion with Colbert. Even though the general thrust was worked out in partnership with the show’s producer, Viacom, ‘You agree you’ll yield control to him.’ ”

Of course, Terkelsen knew that Colbert would make merciless fun of the product. He didn’t necessarily realize, however, the wildfire success the segment would enjoy. The effort proved so popular, Terkelsen jokes, “it’s become the gold standard for such social media integrations.” As its big win in the south of France attests.

Terkelsen’s risk was richly rewarded. As Natividad puts it, “Right now, everybody’s making an effort to be more ‘personal,’ with varying tolerances for risk. The degrees to which they succeed depend on how far they’re willing to go.”

Andrew Essex, CEO of Droga5, seems to agree: “Content is king, but context is kingdom. You can’t just have the hubris of the big idea. It’s critical to think about the receptivity of the work.”

(Essex’s agency has long been in the forefront of branded content. To promote Bing maps, Droga5 created a sweeping treasure hunt in tandem with the release of rapper Jay-Z’s autobiography, Decoded. The effort was one of the largest-scale pieces of branded entertainment yet attempted, and won an Outdoor Grand Prix at Cannes in 2011.)

11 Things No One Wants to See

Today, the brands themselves “break character” and become the educators and entertainers — and this is a truly media-agnostic trend, as true for old-school tv ads as it is for branded communications on Web sites and apps.

Even online advertising echoes certain print ads from long ago: Long-form ads like those written by David Ogilvy in the 1950s were info-rich and, at the time, considered as fun to read as the copy around them. In today’s jargon, they would count as contextual advertising. For example, an Ogilvy ad for British tourism that ran in The New Yorker would mirror that magazine’s highbrow style, while an ad for cookware in a woman’s magazine would speak to consumers in the tone and parlance of the publication’s audience. In each case, long-form print ads included lots of product information and would almost serve as mini-handbooks. By and large, the public responded positively.

It still does. Buzzfeed ad-article hybrids such as Virgin Mobile’s much ballyhooed “11 Things No One Wants to See You Instagram” drew 329,676 total engagements and more than 2,000 Facebook likes — and an enduring place in viewers’ affections.

“The type of customer we look for at Virgin Mobile embraces unlimited data,” says Ron Faris, the company’s cmo. “They’re a hyperconnected set who value their social communities above everything else. To fuel conversation in these communities, a brand must build an authentic voice and express its pov often, no differently than your more dialed-in friend on Facebook.”

“BuzzFeed helped us define a voice that could earn the right to go viral. Virgin Mobile publishes content four times a day now, and BuzzFeed was integral in helping define for us the difference between funny and shareable content,” Faris says.

“This is what all the brands want. People like it,” says Jon Steinberg, BuzzFeed’s president and coo.

Faris says Virgin Mobile is the most successful brand on the BuzzFeed platform, averaging one million unique views per month across 200,000 viral sharers on Facebook and StumbleUpon.

The key, according to St. George, Corcoran and other industry execs, lies in crafting entertaining communications that straddle multiple platforms and spur engagement on numerous levels, building overall image while giving consumers helpful information — and not just a sales pitch — about specific products and offers they can use right away.

“You’re still trying to be relevant and meaningful with your brand,” says bu’s Austin, who stresses that service has become a paramount concern. “Today, brands should say, ‘We’re here to help you.’ ”

Earlier this year, Swedish furniture chain ikea offered visitors to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris a huge, adorably appointed space in which to rest.

And, of course, mobile phones’ portability makes them perfect vessels for interactive creativity. Charmin’s SitOrSquat app, which debuted in 2009, helps travelers locate and rate public bathrooms. The company reports 120,000 downloads in the four months since its most recent version (out of 840,000 total downloads). “What a wonderful thing to give your audience,” enthuses Austin. “It really cements a relationship.”

Where ’50s shoppers might have watched in-store demonstrations, today’s consumer gets up close and personal. In return, brands that make our lives easier (or just more fun) can receive the kind of loyalty that pundits said went out by the ’80s.

“The future of advertising is a return to the 1950s,” Steinberg says. “Today’s shared content is driven by word-of-mouth — also a vintage thing — and powered by social media.”

“It’s a matter of making better advertising,” Essex says. “The future of advertising is this: Be good or face the consequences.”

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