Radio: Branded airwaves

Advertisers are turning to innovative methods to get their brands noticed on the radio. But promotions must be credible and relevant, Glen Mutel says.

When it comes to marketing, there are not many things worse than an ill-conceived radio promotion. Nothing is more likely to make potential customers cringe than a DJ who says the line: "... courtesy of our good friends at Coca-Cola."

At least, so says Christian O'Connell. The Xfm breakfast show host used a recent appearance at a Radio Advertising Bureau conference to savage lazy product tie-ins, arguing that no right-thinking listener would believe for a second that he or any DJ had "good friends at Coca-Cola".

Although O'Connell's tongue was firmly in his cheek, he hit upon an important point. If a radio promotion sounds unnatural and forced, then it needs to be seriously rethought.

Today, more companies than ever before are looking to non-traditional radio advertising. This is partly due to Ofcom regulations, which limit the amount of spot advertising a commercial radio station can carry to no more than12.5 minutes per hour.

Rather than attempt to squeeze their brands into this cluttered space, advertisers are turning instead to techniques such as sponsorship, on-air promotions and even advertiser-funded programming.

According to the RAB, £81.5 million was spent on non-traditional radio marketing in the 12 months to the second quarter of 2004. This is up 13 per cent on the same period last year and a massive 22 per cent on 2002.

In terms of sponsorship, the only area of a radio station's schedule that is off limits is its news reports. The first thing to consider when arranging a sponsorship deal is whether the brand fits with the radio station - Xbox, for example, probably does not need to bother with Classic FM.

The brand must also be compatible with the programme it is sponsoring.

Some tie-ins, such as Kellogg's sponsorship of Johnny Vaughan's Capital Breakfast Show, follow obvious logic. Arguably more impressive is Virgin Mobile's fit with Kiss 100's Bam Bam Breakfast Show, a deal which was signed in September. Bam Bam is in the shock-jock mould, and the style of the show fits snugly with the cheeky, irreverent - aggressive, even - tone of Virgin Mobile's advertising.

Other associations can be made relevant through subtler connections.

An example of this is Beechams' sponsorship, through MediaCom, of Independent Local Radio (ILR) seasonal traffic and travel updates. This tie-in worked on the double entendre that both the product and the programme helped to ease congestion.

"It has got to be relevant because consumers aren't stupid," Mark Helm, the director of media at Sound, explains. He believes it is easier to get consumers to appreciate the sponsor's role when the programme in question is informative. "I'm not saying you can only sponsor traffic and travel," he explains. "But it's all about interactivity. Consumers need something they can respond to and use, rather than just to be shouted at."

Ultimately, the most important challenge for any media agency is to keep its radio sponsorships fresh. Most deals last between six and 12 months.

MindShare's head of radio, Howard Bareham, recommends building promotions and research models into these sponsorship agreements to prevent them from becoming passive and inert.

On-air promotions are more intrusive than plain sponsorship, so there is an even greater need to get them right. Media buyers agree that credibility is the key to success, but a promotion will only sound credible if the DJ sounds willing.

Not every agency will get to work with promotion-friendly DJs such as Chris Tarrant. However, most DJs have distinct and hard-earned personas, which can be effect-ively leveraged.

Earlier this year the direct marketing agency Tullo Marshall Warren sent Radio 1's self-styled "new lad" Chris Moyles a Guinness-branded harmonica in the run-up to St Patrick's Day, knowing the DJ to be a fan of the product. Moyles was so charmed by the gift that he talked about it incessantly on air, giving the brand free publicity on the eve of its most important commercial event.

There are, of course, less speculative ways of getting a DJ on side.

The key is close co-operation with the radio station. "I'd like to see agencies working more closely with radio stations, getting them involved earlier," the Starcom Motive UK buying director, Steve Parker, explains.

"A communication should feel like it is part of the radio station and there's nothing better than getting a programme director talking to agencies about their brand."

"You can't be too strict about what you want read out or how you want your promotion presented," Bareham adds. "You have got to give the station some leeway."

In the past, some media buyers have been reluctant to overly involve programme directors, for fear that their promotions would be remoulded to reflect the station rather than the advertiser who was paying for it. A well-managed relationship is the key to avoiding such problems.

In the case of advertiser-funded programming, co-operation becomes even more crucial, as advertisers are essentially asking programme directors to give up parts of their schedule.The big advantage of AFP is that it is bespoke. An advertiser can create the programme and spin it how they choose. But, of course, it lacks the editorial integrity of independent programming, so it is key that the show's premise reflects brand values without seeming too contrived.

One exceptional example of an advertiser-funded radio programme is the 26-part Classic FM series Composer's Notes, which was entirely bankrolled by Prudential. The series, which was presented by the former newsreader John Suchet and implemented by Opus and Drum PHD, told the life stories of 26 famous composers to the backdrop of their music.

The stories paid particular attention to the composers' financial fortunes, subtly tying the importance of financial planning into the content, thus bolstering Prudential's brand message. The show played for an hour every Saturday at 8pm.

Examples this ambitious are rare. While it can be cheap, AFP demands time and commitment. Most clients need a lot of persuading, as do media owners, who are often reluctant to give up parts of their schedule to advertorial. "You will often be sitting there with the programmers, presenters and marketing managers, all of them saying 'I'm not having that'," Helm explains.

AFP stands a greater chance of being realised if it is short. One example is the Sound-produced - a Friday night mini-feature that played on stations such as Kiss and the Galaxy Network, in which members of the public reviewed local clubs and gave them ratings measured in diamonds.

Flexibility is also important. The mobile phone brand 3's Boot Room feature played on the fact that 3 users can access Premiership goals on their phones. The segments, presented by the football commentator Gary Newbon, chronicled the day's football highlights. While some stations bought the completed shows, others just purchased the scripts and had their own presenters read them out.

In the future, more radio advertisers will need to show this type of flexibility and imagination. As the take-up of digital radio grows, audiences are expected to thin out over a wider selection of stations. In this environment, radio marketing will have to work smarter and harder if it is to generate enough returns to justify itself.