Branded Content: Watch before you buy

As ecommerce and branded-content strategies converge, are brands at risk of focusing on content at the expense of selling, asks Suzy Bashford.

Branded Content: Watch before you buy

The content sector has been one of the most buoyant in the marketing industry throughout the recession, but 'traditional' ad agencies have been noticeably absent from it - until now. Arguably one of the most creative and admired hot shops, Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, has recently showed that it, too, is serious about claiming this territory, which remains dominated by content-marketing agencies.

True to form, BBH demonstrated its commitment in style: it picked up a coveted Gold Lion award at Cannes this year for its 'shoppable' short film for fashion brand ASOS (see case study, page 38). It wasn't the only shoppable film that took home a Cannes Lion, either: Danish denim brand Only Jeans did, too.

So, what has changed? According to Jason Gonsalves, head of strategy at BBH, the missing link up until this point has been a clear, clickable path to purchase.

'The agencies that have so far been most active in the content space have operational expertise,' he says. 'Usually they're publishing people, like ex-journalists, who know how to write, or they are digital people who know how to code. But they don't understand brands and how to make brands commercially successful - and we should not forget, after all, that this is the point of marketing: to sell products.'

In Gonsalves' opinion, there has been far too great a focus on content for content's sake. 'Too much' of the past five years, he says, has been spent 'talking about engagement at the expense of selling'. When he asks 'How much of the work that these operational specialists have done is genuinely delightful?', the question is clearly meant to be rhetorical - although, no doubt, content-marketing agencies would have plenty to say in response.

With the emergence of technology that allows consumers to surf content and click-to-buy as they read an article or watch a video, the proposition has suddenly become much more interesting to ad agencies. Gonsalves predicts that from now on the market will see more shoppable content experiences that are 'magical'.

'We believe creativity sells. Engagement sells. If it doesn't, then it is a frivolous waste of time and money,' he says. 'While specialist agencies have enjoyed saying that the "big boys" don't "get" content, the truth is that this market has become really interesting to us only now that the two pillars of our work - creativity and commerce - have come together.'

Fashion brands are at the forefront of this 'dynamic content' trend. Their products lend themselves well to impulse buys after a consumer has seen garments being worn by aspirational characters. US supermarket chain Target has even hired Hollywood actors Kristen Bell and Zachary Abel to star in a fully shoppable, three-episode-long online romantic comedy called Falling for You (see case study, below).

Many commentators are hailing this approach as the 'future' of online fashion marketing. It is a path being trailblazed by Net-A-Porter.

As Gonsalves says: 'In the digital world it's about being a media brand that sells fashion garments. Mr Porter is an even better example of that than Net-A-Porter. It isn't a retailer with some content, it is a media brand that makes money by selling clothes.'

Certainly, shoppable content seems to fit best in sectors like fashion and beauty, where the decision-making process is relatively straightforward.

Louise Pearce, editorial director of content-marketing agency Forward Group, says the thought process goes as follows: 'Do I need or like this? Will it enhance my life? Will it make me feel better? The decision is largely an emotional one.'

She believes that it is not as easy for purchases in other sectors, such as banking, finance, automotive or leisure.

'Customers want and expect much more detailed information before they purchase,' says Pearce. 'Emotion is matched with rationale in the decision-making process. The real value of content marketing in these sectors lies in creating an honest and authentic relationship with the customer, using content to build trust and integrity, and then leading them, with openness and transparency, toward their purchasing decision. It's a more complex process and one that requires a different content-marketing strategy.'

Smart-TV opportunity

However, other retail experts argue that, once consumers get used to the technology, clicking on content for more information and to purchase will become an accepted, normal part of the buying process.

According to John Newbold, creative director at creative agency 383, this acceptance will be kick-started when the technology moves to smart TVs. He goes as far as to say that click-to-buy technology will 'breathe new life' into the traditional 30-second ad spot as people become used to smart TVs and their extra functionality.

'Dynamic content becomes really interesting when you integrate it with broadcast content on your TV,' says Newbold. 'Imagine, you could be watching a DIY programme sponsored by B&Q and could easily click to buy tools; or you could be watching Jamie Oliver cooking, sponsored by Ocado, and by one click of a button order the entire recipe (ingredients) list.'

Before smart TVs take hold, however, the biggest game-changer in this market is the tablet device. The challenge for marketers has always been that ecommerce has been associated with PCs and a 'lean forward' mindset, whereas entertainment has been the domain of TV and a more relaxed 'lean back' attitude. The tablet bridges the gap between the two and, for the first time, creates an enjoyable browsing and buying experience.

'The tablet gives the consumer the confidence of bigger-screen devices when they're thinking about purchasing, but also the mobility and convenience of a mobile device. It's a much more pleasant, richer experience than sitting in front of a PC,' says Alex Marks, strategy director at content agency The River Group.

'I can be sitting on my sofa reading BBC Good Food magazine and just click a button to buy all the ingredients. It joins the dots between content and shopping,' he adds.

Marks argues that, until the tablet entered the market, the online-buying experience has been uninspiring and 'flat'. In fact, it's not even 'an experience', he says, but 'a function built on convenience'.

Dynamic environments online, hand-in-hand with content personalised to individual consumers, are, says Marks, adding some of the high street's personality and excitement to virtual stores.

Nonetheless, while undoubtedly opening up new opportunities to marketers, these developments also necessitate a new way of working. Until now, brands have been looking at their content and ecommerce strategies separately. With dynamic content technology moving onto devices like the iPad, ecommerce and content strategies now need to be considered together. This trend is only set to continue as technology improves and tablet technology moves further into the mainstream.

Rather than strategising about how to get consumers to the purchasing page, brands need to view every page visited as a potential buy-page. This will inevitably cause integration headaches.

'Consumers increasingly expect to be able to shop whenever and wherever they see something that appeals, be that on a Facebook page, in a magazine or a friend's Tumblr feed,' says Patricia McDonald, executive planning director, glue Isobar. 'The challenge for brands, therefore, will be two-fold: to create content that users want to distribute, and to make that content shoppable.'

As McDonald says, consumers are spending much more time on social networks than brands' sites. Smart brands will integrate 'an element of social reward (in) the process' of sharing content, rewarding brand advocates who create sales.

'There are a number of hugely interesting start-ups in this space, from Stipple to Kiosked to Shopinterest, all of whom have taken on the challenge of making any image shoppable, wherever it is distributed,' she says. 'Given that social media accounts for more than 20% of all time spent online and is only set to increase, shoppable, shareable, social content will be key in uniting commercial return and social engagement.'



ASOS: Urban Tour to promote the Autumn/Winter 2011 Collection for men

When ASOS set out to attract more men, BBH's research showed that men, unlike women, did not take their fashion cues from magazines or the catwalk: they preferred to emulate stars of music, sport and art. So the brand created a series of short films, through BBH, shot in cultural capitals from New York to Shanghai and called them the 'Urban Tour'. They featured artists, such as street dancers, wearing ASOS garments. At any point in the film, a viewer could freeze the frame and click on a performer, who would then show off and give more information on his clothes. By building-in ecommerce, viewers could buy directly from the film. The tour was watched by 7.36m viewers in the first eight weeks; 47% of these visitors were new to ASOS.

Target: Falling for You

The idea for this three-episode-long romcom came from an internal meeting at Target at which marketers discussed the frustration of spotting clothes in a film that you want, but not knowing where to buy them. As viewers watch, items being worn by the actors appear in a scrolling sidebar and users can click to bookmark them and review or buy them at the end. In addition to fashion, the items include home furniture, accessories and beauty products. The films comprise about 12 minutes of content and feature more than 100 products.

Topshop: shopping the runway

When Justin Cooke joined Top Shop from Burberry as chief marketing officer, he quickly made his mark by using his digital experience to create what he calls 'social entertainment'. Following Burberry's example, Top Shop live-streamed its 'Unique' fashion show on Topshop.com and allowed fans to buy as they watched. At the time, Cooke said: 'It's social, it's commerce and it's entertainment all rolled into one.' The content reached 200m people globally, leading to clicks on the site from 120 countries; some items sold out within an hour.

Marks & Spencer's M&S Home commerce-enabled iPad catalogue

The M&S Home app, which went live on 10 September and by 17 September was top of the iPad free download charts, allows users to intuitively navigate around the retailer's products and view images of items in situ, before clicking on them to see them in more detail and experiment with different colourways or designs. It is also offers users the ability to share the products' details on Facebook, Twitter, G+ and email and has a full help function linked directly to the M&S website.

A banner at the bottom of the screen shows a thumbnail view of all pages so that customers can move easily from one room to the next while keeping track of where they are within the app, while the bookmarking feature means users can build up a catalogue of ideas that suit their tastes. Unlike most apps, M&S Home allows customers to buy products without losing their place in the app - they are able to easily return to the page they were browsing once they have made their purchase.

To create the app, M&S' printed Home catalogue content was optimised for the iPad, before adding hotspots on the products and plugging it straight into the retailer's ecommerce systems.

The company faced several technical challenges along the way, including developing an app framework that was consistent with and fully integrated into the M&S ecommerce platform.


Rachel Arthur, media and marketing editor at trend-analysis and research service WGSN, is yet to be seduced by shoppable advertising

Click-to-buy videos have grabbed the headlines as the industry tries to cash in on the growing appetite for highly creative and beautiful films, but I am unconvinced.

Most consumers do not want to watch a video, especially those any longer than 30-60 seconds, if they are trying to get something out of it. There's a disconnection between viewing for entertainment and for purpose.

Shoppable content aims to capture consumers at the point of inspiration and the moment of intent, but to do so, it has to work - and easily.

This is not always the case, as one luxury brand learned last year when its shoppable ad simply didn't work - there was not enough time for the user to move the cursor to click on the item being advertised before the frame changed.

Perhaps Target's short-film series, Falling for You, (see case studies, previous page) provides a better example of where this trend is going to go. Its column running alongside the content featuring items from its collection is like a digital update on product placement.

The concept of the shoppable film is novel, but to work in the long run, it has to be fast, seamless and closer to the nature of online behaviour to have true and lasting cut-through.



Mark Boyd, co-founder of content-creation company Gravity Road, says marketers should not become obsessed with click-to-buy

You can enable click-to-buy technology all over the place but, if people don't want to engage with your content, it is not destined to work. Of course, making that final link, where a consumer clicks to buy, is very important, particularly for ad agencies trying to square that loop. We will probably see a lot more of this kind of content. But not everything should be click-to-buy - it's just one tool. Sometimes people still want to just lean back and be entertained.

We have created a YouTube fashion channel, FASH#TAG, because we identified that many fashion-conscious consumers aren't getting what they want from existing content. Online shopping is now an entertainment pastime, evidenced by new-generation media brands like ASOS, but the amount of quality original video focused on this area is small. These fashion fans want fast, original and entertaining video that is shareable, rather than necessarily videos that are shoppable.

The ad industry is still obsessed with short-term campaigns and shortform executions. But FASH#TAG is about consumers feeling a sense of membership and advertisers having a much deeper, longer-term partnership.



It's an age-old quandary: are marketers more excited about any given new technology than consumers; and, if so, will their excitement ever translate to a similar excitement among their target market? asks Nicola Kemp.

In the case of shoppable content, marketers would be forgiven for thinking it is yet to live up to the hype. Like heavy-handed product placement before it, most shoppable content to date has been both aesthetically weak and interruptive, rather than adding to the entertainment experience and brands' bottom line.

We were promised that consumers would be shopping from their favourite programmes via their remote, yet very little has materialised.

Vikki Chowney, head of community at creative influence agency TMW, notes that the medium is still in its infancy. 'Like most new technology, not all consumers will respond to it. There is no doubt that the idea of an interactive hot spot is more exciting to marketers than consumers,' she adds.

Spyro Korsanos, chief executive of digital ad specialist Mediasyndicator, warns that marketers must also remember that consumers have distinct mindsets - they either want to shop or are in a frame of mind for content consumption. 'The probability of consumers wanting to purchase products straightaway while watching shoppable ads is questionable, so, emphasis needs to be placed on branding and encouraging user engagement in an ad context. This ensures that these types of ads make a long-standing impact after initial exposure, by being relevant to the consumer at every stage of their buying cycle', he adds.

This is not to say that there are not substantial success stories already. Fashion brand Jaeger enabled consumers to 'shop the catwalk' with fully shoppable videos. Jaeger claims these had a click-through rate of 13% and drove a 300% increase in basket size.

Could this translate to an FMCG brand? 'The excitement for a consumer spending £1.50 on an FMCG product isn't the same as the high-ticket items at Burberry or Jaeger,' admits Chowney. However, she points to the role of coupons or incentives as an engagement driver.

The age of convenience

As consumers demand products faster and more efficiently, enabling them to shop in their own environments is key. Clare Cryer, managing director of Integer London, the promotional, retail and shopper marketing arm of TBWA\UK, says that, as it develops, shoppable content will become far more intuitive. 'Amazon has become a top five retailer because of convenience and the fact it is trusted,'she says.

Cryer believes that in the long term, brands' bricks-and-mortar stores could, in effect, become 'dark stores' existing only to fulfil online orders. 'Currently only 6% of Tesco's sales come from Tesco.com, but that is increasing 20% year on year, which is why it is so focused on it,' she adds. In short, business models are changing irrevocably.

The long game

The phenomenal growth of mobile is beginning to make its mark on retail purchase patterns. Just as McDonald's enjoys its infamous 'fourth meal opportunity' (when post-pub consumers pile in for some additional calories), online retailers are reporting shopping spikes at unusual hours. Armed with their smartphones, consumers are no longer at the mercy of shops' opening hours.

Does the notion of shopping within content, whether music videos, online content or TV, fulfil a natural human desire, or even fit within existing consumer behaviour, though? The growth of 'second screening', where more people use their mobiles and tablets to shop for what they see on screen, suggests there is consumer demand.

'If 10 years ago you saw that brands were investing millions in social messaging, you might have questioned whether that level of sharing via social networks was natural behaviour,' explains Chowney. 'There is so much focus on content marketing by brands it is inevitable that shoppable content will continue to be a focus, but it will be at least five years before it becomes a natural consumer behaviour,' she adds.

It will be interesting to see which brands have the nerve required to invest in the long game.