Hard-sell is increasingly hard to sell. Companies around the world are toning down on overt branding in content marketing, and the trend is spreading swiftly across Asia-Pacific as well.
Earlier this year, McDonald’s Hong Kong teamed up with celebrity chef Gabriel Choy and used unbranded food trucks and teaser videos to create buzz over its new burgers. Around the same time, an app listing bartenders, mixologist and trendy bars in Hong Kong surfaced — the brand behind it, Pernod Ricard, is barely detectable.
These are hardly trailblazers. Back in 2013, Gillette concocted an unbranded scandal surrounding Chinese starlet Gao Yuanyuan to promote its wet-shaving products. The staged ‘leaked video’ accrued tens of thousands of reposts on Weibo, while 20 news sites covered the story.
The following year, a short film followed a tourist’s journey from complaining about Thailand after his bag was stolen, to meeting helpful Thais who awakened his love for the country. The (admittedly controversial) video, which clocked up 1.8 million views on YouTube in two weeks, did not reveal its creator, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
This type of barely-branded or unbranded content, some believe, is the future. It seems to attract eyeballs and keen clicks in an age where savvy consumers are allergic to hard-sell and have ad filters installed. If the audience like it enough, they will even distribute it for brands.
But while some brands have taken the lead in subtler forms of advertising, many others in Asia-Pacific are only starting to grasp native marketing. Going unbranded is another giant leap altogether.
Let it go?
“I think it’s safe to say that no brand in Asia-Pacific now would let go of branding entirely when it comes to creating content,” says Andrew Trimboli, director of content strategy in Southeast Asia at SapientNitro.
Dabur seems keen. The Indian brand’s head of digital marketing, Archan Banerjee, recently announced that rather than branded content, “we do unbranded content”. But while its ‘#AmPrettyTough’ and ‘Brave and beautiful’ videos took a subtle approach to selling, both ended with lingering shots of its products and logo.
Trimboli observes that some clients, especially those of consumable goods brands, start out thinking “they are requesting for unbranded [content], but by the time you get to actually publishing it, things change”.
According to Michael O’Neill, Weber Shandwick’s SVP and head of editorial in Asia-Pacific, clients in the region are divided about the idea of going unbranded: while many are open to the concept, others remain resistant, and often with good reason.
“It is obvious that any brand — whether in Asia or not — would be nervous about creating content absent of obvious branding,” O’Neill says. “In most cases, it is a departure from what they are used to. But the counter argument to this is that the presence of a physical logo is irrelevant if your themes and topics are still tied closely to what your brand stands for.”
The region’s investment in content — branded or unbranded — is also stunted by other factors.
O’Neill points out that brands here often face more obstacles than they would in, say, the US. These can be anything from straightforward budget constraints to difficulties in getting approval from global headquarters, or a lack of content-specific resources — both internally and among external partners.
But if appetite for subtle campaigns is going to change, Trimboli believes it may start with home-grown brands in Asia.
He reasons that, contrary to popular assumption, local brands are not inherently more cautious. In fact, due to their small marketing budgets, “they tend to want more bang for their bucks, and that bang often comes in the form of taking risks”.
“We’ve worked with a lot of local brands who don’t have a lot of budget to mess around, and we find that they are less weighed down by processes in fighting against the big machines, and that’s when really cool unbranded content can be made,” he explains.
Juggling consumer trust and corporate interests
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) is one home-grown conglomerate that has embraced subtlety. Its fully-English technology content platform, Spectra, is minimally-branded. The site is meant to help the Japanese group reach markets beyond Japan.
Daniel Lochmann, PR director of MHI, calls the platform “semi-independent”. The articles are written by external journalists, but vetted by MHI before publication.
“Spectra is branded MHI so we are accountable for it,” says Lochmann. “But we don’t want to fill the website with corporate communications material … so we made a conscious decision to make sure that it is written in the way that readers would find interesting.”
As Keisuke Saito, senior GM of MHI’s corporate communication department told Campaign in August that Spectra was “meant to be useful and objective content.”
But Spectra has yet to cover any of MHI’s competitors’ products. This is a quandary that brands doing publishing often stew in — how can content be objective and truly useful to the audience if it is biased to the one that paid for it?
In the recent interview with Campaign, Lochmann admits that balancing objectivity and a corporate agenda is a challenge that his team is still trying to solve. For now, he tries to maintain a 50-50 split between industry news and MHI-focused messages in the articles.
“The goal is to get higher awareness about MHI and its key areas [of expertise],” says Lochmann, adding that this year the group is trying to push into the US market.
To him, having clear branding is a way to build up trust for MHI.
Trust would be one valid reason to maintain a sliver of branding. Target audiences often feel duped when a brand is exposed to be behind a content it did not claim ownership of initially. This failure to come clean may unravel whatever the content has achieved.
My experience of Asian consumers is that they … can sniff out disingenuousness when it comes to unbranded content —Andrew Trimboli, SapientNitro
For example, the ‘I hate Thailand’ short film, which many took to be user-generated, evoked backlash when it was unmasked as a tourism campaign — TAT only admitted to funding it after the uproar started.
“My experience of Asian consumers is that they … can sniff out disingenuousness when it comes to unbranded content,” says Trimboli. “[Brands] have to make a decision, very early on, if [they are] willing to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘We own this content’ or, ‘We don’t own this’.”
What works — and what doesn’t
Does unbranded marketing translate to dollar returns? Not really, according to a study that IPG Media Lab and Google released last year.
The study, which included Malaysian and Thai respondents, found that branded videos registered higher overall favourability, purchase intent and recommendation intent among consumers compared with videos that did not mention brands.
For costlier products, content selling its brand harder recorded 13 percent of purchase intent, compared with the 3 percent that subtly-branded content got. The effect is reversed when it comes to inexpensive products, but even so, subtly-branded content only scored a single point higher than highly-branded ones. It appears that the quieter the branding message, the bigger the gamble the brand takes with recall and association.
“Unbranded content is not a replacement to branded content,” says Justin Peyton, chief strategy officer for APAC at DigitasLBI. “Instead, it needs to be seen as a complement that can broaden the ways in which brands reach their audiences.”
Take Gillette’s stunt in China. The brand was quick to reveal itself to have concocted Gao’s scandal, and heavily leveraged the publicity with the usual intrigue amplifiers: events, contests and traditional ads. As a result, its wet-shaving products recorded the highest sales in the brand’s history for two consecutive months.
One common problem with content marketing is that it indulges in the impression that the brand is “more interesting to the consumers than their own lives” instead of how the brand can assist them, according to Irene Lin, vice-president of digital, loyalty and portfolio marketing, Asia-Pacific, at Marriott International.
Lin’s team publishes Momentum, a barely-branded digital travel magazine by the former Starwood Hotels and Resorts (now Marriott International since the merger), which aims to focus instead on producing high-quality journalism that “puts users first and [is] genuinely worthwhile”. But the stories do weave in brands and businesses under the hotel chain, and Lin explains that this allows a brand to introduce itself to readers without having to take on a “brand voice”.
However, Trimboli argues that whether content is branded or not, is not the key point: consumers are not tuning out because they see a brand appears; they are “tuning out because the content is crap”.
O’Neill points out that there are many successful examples of overtly branded content. “It is about finding the sweet spot between what you want to say as a brand and what your target audience wants to hear. Be useful for your audience, but don’t lose track of who you are as a brand and what your content purpose and objectives are,” he suggests.