Seeing is believing: balancing brand fit with authenticity in video content
In content marketing, campaign objectives are the entry requirements of every story we create. Objectives need to be delivered on and stories often need to be bent (gracefully) to better hit those objectives.
At the same time, we also have a powerful commitment to engage the audience. We know audiences value authenticity and transparency, and we know that while brand integration is largely the norm in content circles, it’s easy to step too far and sacrifice authenticity for brand fit.
In our work as a video agency, it’s not uncommon to get feedback on edits requesting a greater role for brand in the stories we make. It often comes in the form of particular sound bites asked to be added or given more prominence. This is presumably to better hit brand objectives and to strengthen links between product and story.
It is a delicate balance. What we strive for is the point where story sustains brand messages in such a way that audiences don’t see the seams of the integration. The point where the brand fit feels perfectly natural and the audience can enjoy the story, and the brand’s role in it, simultaneously.
In cinema we would call this establishing a suspension of disbelief; that is, the audience’s sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.
When we sit in a cinema we know rationally that the people we see in front of us are just images projected digitally from a machine, through a lens and onto a vinyl screen. We know each character is an actor, we even know their names. And yet we experience their fates at an emotional level as if the events were actually happening in front of us.
Similarly, for an audience to engage with branded video content requires belief in two states simultaneously: the belief that what they are watching is real and is happening, and that it’s also a paid piece of advertising from a brand wishing to sell them something. In our world, this is true engagement and it’s what separates good from great.
So, how do we do this?
Transport the viewer
Most of us have known the tug of wanderlust at some point in our lives. That desire to experience new places and cultures, to see a new side of ourselves outside our ho hum regular routine. The same is true for stories.
Good stories transport the viewer by offering something new to discover, whether it be a new setting, new emotions, or new character perspectives. The lure of discovery draws us into stories and keeps us suspended in that reality, even if only for a few minutes.
In video, we can better transport audiences by searching further afield for stories that offer surprising outcomes, unconventional characters, engaging visuals, and unexpected endings.
By bucking the impulse to ‘go with what we know’ we can deliver work that offers the equivalent of the road less travelled, and provide a compelling reason to watch further.
Establish a consistent perspective
A story is a series of events connected by narrative. When we ‘tell a story’ we reveal the secret to the way it is constructed; every story is told from a perspective. We as ‘tellers’ decide what is in and out, how each plot point is revealed and ultimately how and where it ends.
As storytellers, perspective helps us make decisions on what goes into a story and what to leave out, what the video looks and sounds like, and how the narrative should end. For example, if we let our characters tone of voice guide the pace of a story, the results are closer to what the audience perceives to be a personal perspective. If we allow a character to describe our service ‘in their words’ we’re achieving a more authentic result.
We can probably all remember moments of TV shows when main character do something ‘out of character’. We immediately disengage, turn to our partner and exclaim how ‘far fetched’ it feels.
In such a moment we are recognising that a new perspective is invading the story, the introduction of which breaks us out of the reality we were wrapped up in.
The richer the perspective we deliver, the greater the depth we provide for our audience to immerse themselves.
Show over tell
Branded content leans heavily on documentary techniques because understandably we, as humans, enjoy the advice of other humans to help make decisions. But the tropes of the documentary genre (particularly the reliance on interviews) can lead us to dangerous ground.
When characters in branded content begin talking directly about the brand’s role it sets off a bell in the audiences’ mind that swings dangerously towards the first belief: this brand wants me to buy something. To counter that swing, actions speak louder than words.
What we can show the audience speaks volumes for the authenticity of the overall message. For example, if we show our characters motivations through a backstory sequence where an object or metaphor of that motivation is present, we engage those elements in video most likely to transport and excite: music, movement, human expression, pace, visual impact. We are effectively showing evidence, rather than just delivering the same information verbally.
We can have our characters say “This is the best product for me”. Or we can establish visually, and through the actions our characters take, what is important to them and then position our product or brand within the same space.
If we can show how a character’s mission sets them on a course for interaction with a brand, audiences can better understand and contextualise the brands position in the story. In essence, we can position the brand as facilitator rather than central subject, further encouraging the audience to believe that both realities can co-exist.
Lastly, give the audience what they believe in most and place humans at the centre of our stories. We can showcase human emotions, challenges, triumphs in a way that allows the audience to identify with the universal values that bind us. We can activate that experience where by watching the plight of others in unfamiliar circumstances we get a sense of how those same situations might apply to us.
‘Human first’ seems an obvious choice for branded content right? Like, who else would be at the centre of our stories? But so frequently the human perspective is the first to leave from a campaign process that leads with objectives and (often) predetermined creative, without allowing the influence of our characters personal perspective to play a part.
Centering creative around humans means allowing creative to be informed by the qualities and opportunities of characters.
Undeniably, it can feel good to capture a soundbite during an interview that seems to perfectly nail the connection between brand and story. It almost feels too easy. So why do these moments so frequently end up on the cutting room floor?
We are the audience to our own content creation process. If we can easily see straight through a story to the original objectives we set for it, then the brand influence is likely too overt. Instead, we must learn to look around corners and trust in the remarkable ability for good storytelling to catch up to brand at its own unique pace.