Helen Roxburgh
Feb 4, 2016

Unbranded content: Genius strategy or dishonest desperation?

Consumer sophistication and ad filters have brands learning to steer conversations by funding unbranded content.

Bar Stars: Pernod Ricard is willing to forgo some brand recall to gain engagement over time
Bar Stars: Pernod Ricard is willing to forgo some brand recall to gain engagement over time

When is advertising not advertising? As brands step back from loud, brash logos, they are looking to spread a more subtle message — one which can sometimes be devoid of any apparent branding at all.

“As more and more content becomes available to consumers, they become more discerning in filtering out anything that seems too ‘salesy’ or inauthentic,” says Stuart Clark, managing partner, Asia-Pacific, IPG Mediabrands. “Agencies realise it’s important to engage consumers with relevant, trusted content that they will like and share. This requires more focus on the consumer need and less on the brand.”

Advertising with smaller or non-existent branding can take many different forms, including putting out unbranded content, that has no discernible link back to the advertiser, to ‘prime’ online and consumer conversations.

“Anonymous content may not mention the brand, but it can still support the industry or other areas of interest that relate to the brand,” explains Clark. “A classic example would be the way the pharmaceutical industry uses unbranded content to raise awareness about health issues that their products can help solve. Often pharma companies can start raising awareness about a condition before a new product is even approved for sale.”

The alcohol industry, which like the pharmaceutical industry faces strict advertising laws in many countries, has likewise been proactive about using alternative forms of advertising. 

Pernod Ricard’s ‘Bar Stars’ is a geolocation-enabled app that lists bartenders, mixologists and the trendiest cocktails and bars available in Hong Kong. But it barely shows the brand’s logo at all. 

“We have purposely decided not to brand the platform with one brand or the Pernod Ricard brand because we want it to be a content platform that we can build a community around,” says Glen Brasington, VP for marketing, Pernod Ricard Asia. “If we are biased or favour our own brands too much, the bartenders and community will see straight through it.” 

Similarly, sites like Makeup.com are run by L’Oréal; but the beauty brand’s presence is so minimal and the corporate name can only be found in the small print. Instead, it promotes its products within the story.

“You do forgo some brand recall by not pasting logos all over it,” says Brasington. “But the benefit should be realised through engagement over time. We have many brands in our portfolio, so we have the luxury of featuring many spirit brands on the platform.” He says the app features their brands about 80 per cent of the time.

Attempting to trick consumers, rather than provide valuable content, however, is the wrong way to use unbranded advertising. One such attempt, which backfired, was produced by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Titled ‘I hate Thailand,’ it featured a British backpacker who has his bag stolen in Thailand. Bizarrely, the video was intended to promote tourism in the country, by highlighting the friendliness of Thai people. 

The Tourism Authority claimed the video as a success, despite the criticism, saying it attracted more than one million views within three days and over 20,000 likes on YouTube. The likeliness of non-branded content being shared on social media is higher than heavily branded material — if it strikes the right note.

“There is a risk that people will resent the brand if it becomes apparent at a later date that they’ve been ‘surreptitiously’ marketing their products without making it clear the content has been a form of advertising,” warns Simon Kemp, managing partner for Asia at We Are Social.

Ian McKee, CEO of Vocanic, points to the ‘Wireless bungee jumping’ advert by Ikea as a low-branding advert that misses the mark. The three-minute video looks and feels like a brief documentary into a new style of bungee jumping without wires, using powerful magnets. But at the end of the video, it turns out to be an advert for IKEA’s wireless phone chargers.

“Marketing is on tricky grounding where that content is not what it appears to be,” McKee says. “You leave the consumer feeling duped. The trick to getting this right is authenticity, being genuine, not tricking your audience.”

This is only one of the risks. Subliminal, or false, advertising is illegal in some countries, including the US.

More successful examples include Tesla’s ‘Insane’ adverts, which show a range of reactions from passengers when the car is switched to ‘insane’ mode. There is no clear advertising message, but the clips are labelled and clearly marked as Tesla. 

But even where some brands have faced criticism about ‘hidden’ advertising, they still claim it has been useful. ‘First kiss’, an advertising campaign by fashion brand Wren, was slammed after online viral videos of couples kissing turned out to be an advert. Wren’s creative director Melissa Coker said the campaign was useful despite the criticism, because it “continued the conversation”.

Agencies are not necessarily steering this move to unbranded content. “I think after many years of the client asking for bigger logos, the agency might be too scared to suggest dialling down the branding,” says Brasington of Pernod Ricard. However, agencies say they are hiring more ‘storytellers’ to adapt to a range of new ways of creating advertising material.

“Consumers are hungry for entertaining or educational content,” concludes IPG Mediabrand’s Clark. “Generally, if content is branded by a product or service, the consumer is less likely to feel it’s authentic — and they are less likely to share or like it. Branded content tends to appeal most to brand loyalists, but unbranded content may appeal to anyone who finds the content relevant.”

Unbranded content: a dishonest act of desperation

Zoran Svetlicic, founding partner, Shift

Every morning I am not travelling, I wake up on my king-size Casper mattress. I love the combination of latex and memory foam that makes for a comfortable night’s sleep. I love the simplicity of one firmness option that cuts through the mattress industry bullshit. I love the backgrounds of the founders such as designers and NASA scientists. I love the thoughtful details like the handwritten note and bedtime storybook that came with the mattress.

If a recent glowing article in WSJ is anything to go by, I should love Casper’s new unbranded content venture ‘Van Winkle’s’ on which they publish 10 original pieces of sleep-related content a day.

But if that was how I first met Casper, I would never have bought their product. Unbranded content reeks of dishonest desperation. Companies often talk about Chinese walls between editorial and business teams, but people are smart enough to sniff out advertising masquerading as journalism. 

Take Wren Studio, the poster child of unbranded content. Its famous ‘First kiss’ video of strangers kissing for the first time garnered 50 million views in its first week — until people found out the video was fake and turned on the brand, realising the couples in the video were just modelling clothes. 

Companies freaked out by the ad-blocker adoption rate nearing 50 per cent are desperate to get their message through. And underemployed journalists have convinced them they could be media companies, but more often than not they end up being the equivalent of the weird old guy at the club and disaster strikes.

Whole Foods found out as much with its ‘Dark Rye’ effort. After thrilling exposé on kale and an attempt to launch a 20-episode TV show targeting millennials, the results were a lot of yawns and highly confused audience. Soon the content effort was unceremoniously folded into the existing Whole Foods website.

If you’re running a brand, please invest your budget in improving the actual experience. Make your product better, ordering it easier and delight me when I first use it. Only then will you earn my loyalty, and I suspect I’m not alone.

Our view: The next phase of content marketing as a more formal strategy. We expect more brands will be funding content without needing the hard sell.  


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