This is the third post in a series based upon our submission to Wharton’s Advertising 2020 initiative. The structure we’re loosely following here: 8 years, 8 potential future opportunities, 8 things to do now.

Previous instalments in the series are available here: Part 1 and Part 2.

The final instalment will follow tomorrow.


#5 Content Marketing: brands as content owners & partners

By 2020, the difference in value between access to basic information (demands to be free) versus knowledge (“okay, that’s valuable, I may pay for it”) will have been worked through. Mainstream audiences won’t respect old media owner boundaries. A younger audience today already feel that way:

“It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form…”

“One more thing: we do not want to pay for our memories. The films that remind us of our childhood, the music that accompanied us ten years ago: in the external memory network these are simply memories. Remembering them, exchanging them, and developing them is to us something as natural as the memory of ‘Casablanca’ is to you. We find online the films that we watched as children and we show them to our children, just as you told us the story about the Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Can you imagine that someone could accuse you of breaking the law in this way? We cannot, either.”

“We, the web kids”, Piotr Czerski, writing in 2012

When information flows freely, traditional ‘middlemen’ relationships get disrupted, even collapse. Will this lead to the eventual or partial disintermediation of the media owner? Sure, some traditional media owners will make a full digital transition to expert curators, aggregators and creators in their fields of entertainment (music, games, film etc), information and news. Elsewhere, social platforms are connecting owners of great content to their own audiences, allowing their content to be found, searched, shared and watched together easily. Even in 2012, as Brian Norgard at Chill puts it, “Social is emerging as a starting distribution point for content.” Assuming this happens to some degree, it follows that aside from paid-for advertising, more and more successful brands will have:

a) formed partnerships with content owners directly, and/or
b) become bona fide content owners themselves.

With (a), the opportunity is to face the issue together. Brands play a legitimate role, funding the distribution of valuable knowledge or content to savvy audiences who know their attention is valuable too. Think partner, not sponsor. It’s a transparent, transactional relationship with 3 parties: the end user gets high value content and experiences for free or subsidised; the brand earns awareness, earned word of mouth and even purchase in return; the producer gets funding, reach and publicity:

The 3-Party Market (Chris Anderson, "Free" 2009) adapted by BBH Labs here

With (b), brands act as publishers and content owners in their own right, distributing their own content via their own networks, building their own audience databases… rinse and repeat. What content can a brand credibly create that people will want to seek out, share and make their own? Already, brands like Red Bull, Ford, Coke et al are pouring budget into content, eschewing traditional bought media and distributing instead via seeding, PR and the social web. It’s an all or nothing strategy, your content needs to be nothing short of extraordinary. By way of example, DC Shoes’ 9 minute epic featuring Ken Block treating San Francisco as his personal gymkhana playground. It has 27m 35m views and counting.

One thing to do now: act ‘Super Bowl, Super Social’

In the immediate future, if the budget is there, bought media still remains a proven route to reach audiences fast, effectively and at scale. However, there is a brutally simple opportunity cost in creating less than original, exceptional content, which is this: why pay over the odds for a traditional frequency-based media buying model, when great content can earn that media for a brand?

Instead, let’s treat bought media as rocket fuel to kickstart an ongoing, two-way conversation elsewhere. Think about creating maximum impact (“Super Bowl”) in bought media by concentrating our media spend into fewer, higher impact sites and spots. ‘Less, but better’ media buying, to borrow from Dieter Rams. And, crucially, making sure we’re saying something so show-stoppingly useful or entertaining that people will want to talk about it in the first place.

Equally important is the “Super Social” side of the equation. These days we know it isn’t rocket science: it’s about making sure our audiences can find and share our content, potentially remix it and make it their own; it’s about being present where they are, listening to what they’re saying and responding fast and well. Wanting to know deep in our own organisation’s bones what our customers really think and want. We also know the environment is in flux and platforms rise and fall, even seemingly indomitable ones, so let’s not hang our strategies on one platform: concentrate on our users’ motivations and behaviours instead.

As Tom Uglow puts it: “media platforms and devices will iterate, so focus on your data/content and how to optimise and adapt, not the touchpoints”.

#6 Win-Win-Win Platforms

‘Win-win-win’ platforms are a simple shorthand we use to describe when a brand, its users and a benevolent, culturally important party or cause are connected by a campaign and everyone wins. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. In the future, it seems to us these ‘three-way’ campaigns will become more frequent, not less.

We’ve all heard the case studies for Amex Small Business Saturdays and Google’s It Gets Better: changing behaviour and brand perception as they go. There’s little not to love here. In Amex’s case, the customer gets a bargain and feels good about the purchase (they want to support local businesses, but perhaps lack the nudge to leave the mall). The small business gets an uptick in footfall and sales. The brand earns media, revenue and the good will for taking the initiative.

The web accelerates virtuous circles like these and, as both a distribution channel, facilitator of information sharing and enabler of word of mouth, is already taking things further: into collaborative consumption and the championing of access over ownership.

Even if the rise of collaborative consumption may not feel immediately appropriate to every product category, the economic and environmental pressure to consume less felt in developed markets should give us pause for thought. Again, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts here: aside from the smart sharing of resources, we’d wager the lower costs, greater convenience and choice associated with these services – not to mention the new habits formed in an economic downturn – are what will make them irresistible in future. Witness Spotify, Netflix, LivingSocial, Airbnb and Zipcar. At the very least, it seems inevitable that we’ll see multiple sectors go the way of music, where a growing majority are comfortable paying for digital access and putting our dusty CD collections into storage.

One thing to do now: radically re-imagine brand partnerships & product lifecycles

Let’s consider now how to extend or change our product’s lifecycle with the emphasis on recycling, reusing, sharing.. and imagining the new services or promotions that might spring up around this. For example, car brands like Audi recognise they’re in the business of mobility, versus automobile manufacturing alone. Should a car brand spend a proportion of their marketing dollars promoting their partnerships with car sharing services and fight for frequency of usage over ownership? And which brands will start offering the (paid-for) services that eschews selling the product for a moment and helps users share or loan effectively instead? For sure, the sharing economy is breaking business models, or at least offering credible new alternatives.

To follow tomorrow: Part 4 (final instalment in the series)

#7 Big Data, Big Patterns
#8 Expect a Creative Renaissance