When content turns to discontent

From the Nokia Woods, which never took root, to Barclays' bike hire, branded content is no walk in the park (or ride in the woods), says Will Harris.

The very clever and devilishly handsome Julian Mack Of Threshold Sports, once brought me an astonishing idea back in my Nokia days. 

Despite hopping on a Boris Bike twice a day, I feel no closer to the Barclays brand

How would Nokia feel, he asked, about taking a long lease on a huge area of remote woodland, and turning it into a sort of Finland at large? We would fill it with bikes, trails, walkers and runners. Everything would be wireless and mobile, booked, provisioned and accessed through your (Nokia) smartphone. 

Nokia woods

In the summer, it would be home to the festivals that Nokia habitually sponsored. In the winter, campers and people sleeping overnight in the eco-lodges would brave the saunas and then plunge into the freshwater lake afterwards to cool off.

We modelled the number of visitors, what they would spend, the sponsorship that we would attract from other partners wanting to be part of this Scandinavian ideal, and worked out that, over three years, the whole thing would have cost the price of one half-decent national TV campaign.

Better still, in year four, it would start to make money for the brand; the relatively modest stream of visitors we would have needed to make the place work would have more than covered the sunk costs of lodges and saunas. We even had a name: Nokia Woods.

Sadly, before we could close the deal on the land we had found, the curse of the iPhone struck, and Nokia’s long retreat from global supremacy began.

I was reminded of Nokia Woods this week as we officially launched our rights business. The inaugural meeting was with a gentleman who owns several huge public events in this country. These properties attract hundreds of thousands of people, and are the cream of their particular crop. We’re exploring whether we can take them to Asia, and recreate similar success in a new part of the world, an area hungry for certain parts of the British heritage.

In truth, we do this quite a bit for clients, but like many innovative new business models, the trick is spotting something that’s already going on under your nose, and breaking it out into its own space.

Rights businesses and innovative concepts like Nokia Woods are gaining in popularity these days, as creative marketers seek new and interesting ways of expressing themselves. Many find the current rush toward mechanisation in marketing slightly chilling, although, like most, I’m reluctant to stand in the way of progress. 

There is no argument that for advertisers, being able to bid in real time for consumers in a highly targeted way is incredibly sensible. It’s just pretty dull, and not why most people came into this business.

I’m left thinking that rather than join the machine-breakers, we’re better off letting the computers do their work and focusing on the other end of the extreme. 

The blurred line that once upon a time used to delineate CSR from marketing now seems to have been washed away, and the two are all but indistinguishable

Second hand sponsorships

The blurred line that once upon a time used to delineate CSR from marketing now seems to have been washed away, and the two are all but indistinguishable.

Whoever takes over from Barclays as the lead sponsor of the ‘Boris Bikes’ scheme in London will experience this first-hand. The competitive tender closed in October, and the successful brand may well be announced by the time this edition of Marketing is published, but that original Barclays deal was struck in another era. 

Back in 2010 when Barclays took on the sponsorship, it was a corporate badge displayed with pride in the capital by an organisation ill at ease with itself. Despite hopping on a Boris Bike on average twice a day, I feel no closer to the Barclays brand. The scheme and the brand are quite independent of one another. It was classic CSR. (Someone I used to work with once described CSR as pissing in a wetsuit; it makes you feel lovely and warm, but no one ever notices.)

Whichever brand adorns the bikes next will surely knit the two together, and turn them into a true brand platform, the apogee of branded content. So, too, will the new sponsors of the London Eye, soon to be freed of its desultory EDF sponsorship. When I visited it last year, it bore the hallmarks of an unloved child, someone else’s sponsorship deal from an ancien regime now no more. 

As a brand experience, it was literally as exciting as paying my electricity bill. But, with hindsight, I suppose that counts as success from an electricity company. Let’s see how it fares in the hands of the Coca-Cola Company, but I’d say the prospects are better. 

There is an interesting footnote to all this, which is: in the traditional marketing world, today’s campaign is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper or neglected Sky+ archive. The communications have little or no duty beyond themselves; they are designed to tell a story or impart a message, and with that duty discharged, they have served their purpose.

The branded content world is different. When you play in that world, you live or die by the worth of the vehicle to which you are attaching your message. You can do your bit perfectly, integrating your brand seamlessly into whatever commercial opportunity presents itself, but… a poor novel, a crap film, a dud music track or a wildly optimistic Scandinavian theme park, and your message is toast. 

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