Special Report: Pan-Asian Media - The rise of branded content

Loosely regulated and developing fast, Asia is fertile ground for branded content.

Unilever's cosmetics brand Lakme is the title sponsor of a new Mumbai-based reality TV show. From February 2005, Star's new entertainment channel, Star One, will broadcast Fashion House, a reality show where up-and-coming designers compete for their own catwalk show.

Nokia sponsored the European version of Fashion House, which was set in Rome and screened in the UK on Channel 4. For broadcast on Star One, the format has been tweaked to make it more appropriate for an Indian audience. One of the challenges facing the contestants, for instance, will be to create a stunning wedding gown for a traditional Indian ceremony.

According to FBC, the branded entertainment company behind the show, the house will be located close to the heart of "Bollywood", the capital of India's thriving film industry.

The location is significant. India is one of the main markets in Asia where branded entertainment is beginning to gather momentum. "The Indian media world is more open to experimentation because it's a developing economy. That can create more flexibility," Alan Friedman, the chairman and chief executive of FBC, which has opened an Indian office, says.

Allan Medforth, the regional director of Universal McCann in Asia, echoes Friedman's opinion. His agency created Indian TV content for Van Heusen shirts. To reinforce the connection between the men's apparel brand and successful movers and shakers from the corporate world, the CNBC Asia TV show involved India's business schools in a general-knowledge contest: think The Apprentice meets University Challenge.

Universal McCann has also created bespoke primetime TV content for L'Oreal in New Zealand and a quiz show for Globe Telecom in the Philippines, where viewers participate by text. Medforth says: "I think branded content is flavour of the month at the moment, and, where there's interest, there's opportunity. But you've got to have a client who's open to understanding the value of talking to consumers in non-traditional ways."

He also makes the point that branded content is at different stages of development across Asia, with India, China, New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines leading the pack.

Philippine TV recently aired an "infotainment" show, courtesy of Kimberly-Clark and MindShare's BroadMind division. As well as Pepsi, Kraft and Kodak, BroadMind has worked with local clients to create bespoke content. The managing partner, Stephanie Bell, makes the point that deregulation has helped branded content solutions get off the ground in the region. "Regulations in this part of the world are less rigid than in Europe and advertisers are able to do more with their investment," she says. "However, there is a certain amount of self-regulation, as the final product still has to draw viewers for the media owner to keep it in its schedule."

Kevin Razvi, the vice-president of CNN International ad sales, agrees.

He acknowledges that branded content has got to deliver something desired by the audience: if their feelings are ignored, branded solutions can damage both brand and medium. He reflects that, despite carrying more branded content over the past few years, CNN in Asia has also turned down a number of proposals because they were "editorially unconvincing".

So CNN has been involving the advertisers earlier on. "We used to come up with an idea and then find a sponsor. Now we talk with editorial staff and advertisers at a much earlier stage to see if we can find common ground," Razvi says. CNN took this approach with Samsung, which sponsors Real Time Checks. Viewers can check the time in different cities, which reinforces Samsung's brand message: "In your life, on your time."

Some brands also seek the cachet of being associated with an established media brand. The Financial Times Asia, which launched in September 2003, attracted some heavy-hitting clients when it repackaged existing editorial as a series of special reports. To date, six have been published, including China's Financial Future, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, Asia's Impact, sponsored by JP Morgan, and India Awakes, sponsored by Tata and the Indian government.

India Awakes gained further reach when 1,000 reprints were distributed at Davos as a briefing document.

Su-Mei Thompson, the regional managing director of the FT Asia, says: "We initially saw the reports as something to add reader value. But now banks, law firms and consultancies come to us with ideas."

She adds: "Lots of titles push out sponsored advertorial supplements, and a light always goes off in your head thinking 'this is a puff piece' because the content has been written with commercial considerations in mind. So now advertisers are looking for durable environments. They want something more than an ad which is here one day and gone the next."

This sentiment is only too familiar to Nick Marrett. Formerly the chief executive of Batey in Singapore, Marrett left the company in August to start up the branded entertainment company Octtane with Lesley Campbell, a former Discovery Networks marketing supremo. WPP has taken a 10 per cent stake in the Singapore-based company.

Marrett says: "Advertisers are spending more money to reach fewer people, so big brands are saying 'if I'm spending $40 million, I've got to know it's making a difference'."

One Octtane client is a digital brand with cable TV, mobile and broadband capabilities. According to Octtane, the client felt it wouldn't be able to communicate adequately through an ad campaign. So Octtane created a 22-part interactive soap opera instead.

Another client is the Singapore government, which turned to the branded entertainment company with a brief "to make Singapore a global city of significance". Octtane's answer certainly exemplifies novel thinking: it came up with the idea to make Singapore into a spaceport.

"We said to the Singapore government, 'you've been a marine port and an airport. The next big leap is a space- port'. That's much more meaningful than an ad campaign," Marrett says.

He adds: "Media trends are going in such a way that they're supporting the growth of branded entertainment. And clients are now looking for very different solutions. Advertising is not always the answer."

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