Why 2021 is the year branded content will come into its own

Thought Leadership

Branded content reached new heights in 2020. Long seen as a valuable add-on to marketing campaigns, and particularly effective when combined with traditional paid-for models, we are at now seeing just how powerful the medium can be as a strategic brand-building tool.

With all the smartest marketers paying attention, I feel safe predicting that 2021 is going to be a memorable year for this highly creative marketing technique.

The pandemic has forced more people than ever to consume content digitally at home, which has let brand content come into its own in recent months. This shift can be put down to the crisis accelerating a number of important on-going trends, just as much as it can be attributed to brands having access to a more captive audience.

Pre-2020, consumer habits were already changing as a result of the ubiquity of smartphones with content available to read, watch, listen to and interact with via a great choice of applications and in a wider array of different contexts than ever before. Brands, meanwhile, were seeking ways to engage in the face of declining engagement by many viewers in live TV advertising – just one result of growing fatigue with traditional media.

Both of these drivers have been significantly uplifted by behavioural changes spurred by Covid-19. People’s digital activity increased significantly, resulting in more eyeballs coming into contact with more brands online. In turn, this has cemented the increasingly central role branded content is now playing in the advertising ecosystem – a role which – when you consider how peripheral it once was – has now changed significantly and irreversibly.

Here are three lessons learned from those brands who have used branded content most effectively in recent months point to how branded content can, and will, evolve further.

The first is a mindset shift to creating content from the get-go to thrive in a more organic, long-term way, irrespective of platform or format. Ben & Jerry’s is a great example of this. It recently launched ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’ – a podcast series comprising six 30-minute episodes about white supremacy in America, developed in partnership with Vox Media.

The SuperSimpleStuff app for Pfizer, which uses a series of microgames where players can fight coronavirus while finding out the best ways to prevent the virus spreading, is just another example of creative content execution. It’s also proof impactive brand content doesn’t just mean video. Elsewhere, Australian mobile network Circles.Life recently paraded a 1.2m sculpture of a hand giving 2020 the middle finger around Sydney as part of its ’Unfuck 2020’ campaign; showing how paid-for content can be funny, engaging and generate organic headlines of its own.

The second lesson for brands is to think and create like entertainers by embracing the rules of publishers and media companies, instead of simply working to a marketing playbook.

Publishers understand who their audiences are and create a product for them. To make effective branded content, CMOs must do the same. The best marketers understand what kind of brand they have and what needs to happen for it to grow.

The ambition here is to create campaigns on the same level as the entertainment people consume, as we did for Lavazza with Coffee Defenders: A Path from Coca to Coffee, which tells the story of a Colombian farmer from a region devastated by civil war who turns land formerly used to cultivate cocaine into a coffee plantation.

This 30-minute video documentary blends the sustainability and communities work championed by the Lavazza Foundation with top entertainment production values. And it was distributed through a carefully considered strategy built to extend brand reach beyond TV ad audiences by focusing on long-form content platforms.

The third, and final, lesson for brand content’s further evolution lies in the growing use of the ‘creative newsroom’ – an approach that allows a brand to blend brand marketing needs with what’s happening in the world and in pop culture.

For our film for Barilla, The Roof Top Match with Roger Federer, a creative newsroom approach informed the idea of bringing together Roger Federer with two girls from a Ligurian village whose rooftop tennis matches during lockdown had become a viral phenomenon. It also shaped a creative strategy that allowed what happened next to naturally unfold, rather than attempting to control it.

These last two examples of successful branded content, in particular, obeyed another publishing rule. For as well as helping to generate profits and hitting KPIs, both – like the best brand content – add real and tangible value to their audience.

While much of 2020 is best left behind us, this revitalised approach to branded content is something that marketers should embrace longer term.


This article was originally written for The Drum by our Co-Founder and CEO for Italy and Spain, Ottavio Nava