Our winter of dis-content

The content we produce has to be more provocative and culturally relevant than another avocado recipe if we really want people to pay attention

Larman...“We give challenging ideas more cultural value than those that just confirm what we already know”
Larman...“We give challenging ideas more cultural value than those that just confirm what we already know”

Brands and agencies need to cut the crap. Anyone and everyone is now making content. There has been a rush to declare it as the answer to all our marketing ills. But there’s a problem. Most of it isn’t very good. We’re being bombarded with meaningless content from brands that is largely ignored or, worse, actively avoided. Does anyone need to be subjected to a three-minute film from Costa about what makes British people happy? There is a very real danger of branded content becoming wallpaper like advertising before it. Content itself is no longer enough to cut through.

So what to do? The answer cannot lie in getting better at paying people to see it. We all have a duty to create content that doesn’t add to the noise. That doesn’t clog up people’s social streams. That rebalances the value brands give to consumers. From a rattling stick to an amuse bouche. Content that makes you pay attention, makes you feel something and makes you want to share. Content that matters. 

How do we do it? The relevance of a brand’s content subject matter and its context are clearly very important for success. But even the most hyper-relevant content without an element of surprise is, in the words of Roy Walker: "Good but not quite right." It’s content to glance at, not content that matters. We all click on stuff all the time. "Oh, let’s look what this brand posted on Facebook" – and we see another avocado recipe. We glance for two seconds, but are we going to share it? Has it produced any sort of emotional reaction or left a longer brand memory? Recent research would suggest it hasn’t.

Our content needs to have a stronger point of view to gain and hold attention. It needs to challenge and surprise as well as be relevant. Because we give strange ideas more value than those that support what we already know. As the sociologist Murray S Davis explains, all memorable theories attack the taken-for-granted: "If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, [the audience] will respond to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth." So challenging ideas not only stick with us, but we give them more cultural value than those that just confirm what we already know.

To do this, brands must tap into the changes that are pulling people, society and culture in different directions. They not only have the energy to reshape our lifestyles and how we define ourselves, but also to create the most interesting stories and meaningful ideas. Tensions like changing gender roles, the desire for authenticity in food and how we value our self-esteem are all examples of cultural fault lines ripe for brands to tackle. Brands such as Always, Chipotle and Dove have created the most successful content by shining a light on these cultural and social issues. And our agency recently created a YouTube channel for McDonald’s by tapping into a tension that British youth are struggling with. Despite being the most creatively empowered generation ever, they have the fewest opportunities to realise their
talents. The content for Channel Us aimed to redress that balance.

So if brands want to create content that matters, they need to stop the fire hose and think more carefully about the role it plays in people’s lives and their purchase journey. Otherwise, we’ll blow the opportunity to create meaningful stories and watch as consumers avoid us at all costs.

What story inspires you? Rodriguez’s amazing story in Searching For Sugarman.
If you could get anyone to write (or direct) your story, who would it be? I love everything Steve McQueen has done.
Which section of the bookshop do you find yourself browsing in? I’m a bit of a history geek.
What’s your favourite storytelling medium? Documentary.
Best storyline you’ve seen in recent years? Not sure if The Wire counts as recent years? Otherwise, The Night Manager.
What’s the most compelling brand narrative you’ve seen in your life? Dove’s "campaign for real beauty".
What story makes you cry? Cinema Paradiso.
Which fictional character would you hire? Steven Stelfox from Kill Your Friends.
Who would narrate your story? The king of voiceover, Sean Pertwee.