What has changed over the past 12 months - and what has stayed the same?
At vdonxt asia 2017, I moderated a session on how best one can integrate a brand in online content without completely killing it. This year, at vdonxt asia 2018, I took the discussion forward, with a fresh set of panelists (fields represented include media buying, digital agencies and digital video platforms) and asked them whether the conversation around brand integration in digital video has become more textured, more layered over the year gone by - or whether we're still perched on square one.
Underscoring the importance of uplifting storytelling as the core of authentic brand integration, Akash Banerji, head, marketing and partnerships, Viacom18 Digital Ventures, Voot, says, "Brand marketers, category heads and CMOs invariably look at marketing messages purely as 'message out'... RTBs, product features, communicating the most in that 15-20 seconder... Cut to how media companies and content creators think - it's not about product placement or features; there are no decks when you're pitching ideas. There are conversations. For marketers, brand integration is still one of the annual 'innovations', one of the KRAs to fulfill in the year." Brand integration to him is not about sponsorships, but about enhancing brand equity.
Integrations have become more subtle over the last 12 months, feels Mohit Joshi, managing director, India, Havas Media Group. He says, "Branded content is one of the most abused words in marketing and media. For us, it's a subtle, relevant, meaningful association with live content. But unfortunately, when the client thinks about it... well, the client feels the brand should be 'right there', upfront, in the face," going on to quote Havas' Meaningful Brands study done across multiple markets including India where the sample size is over 50,000, "60 per cent of the content being created today is irrelevant to consumers. Today, online video content or brand integrations therein are being branded as millennial content - that should not happen. That doesn't allow mainline brands to come and create that content."
Enumerating the content creator, the agency and the brand as the three key cogs in the online video ecosystem, Pratik Gupta, co-founder, Foxymoron, says, "Native is the biggest winner, even in the context of video. Brand managers -and content creators as well- need to understand that brand integration has to be native to the content that is created. The agency ecosystem has to facilitate it and make it a lot more measurable for the brand."
According to him, agencies also need to tell content creators to make their peace with small tweaks and adjustments to the story as that's what makes the process viable for the brand. "All three of them are doing a... not so good job. Agencies are not making it measurable, content creators are too rigid, and brands want the logo to be slapped on in 100 places," he opines.
Shabir Momin, managing director and CTO, ZengaTV, thinks things have changed to the extent that brand marketers are now asking for "subtle" marketing and product placement over 'slapping' logos onto videos. "That's how it starts," cautions skeptically. Soon enough, 'subtle' gives way to demands that resemble two-decade-old formats. "They say things like 'Looks nice, but can I change the colour to my brand colour?' and 'Can I zoom into the product and show the logo clearly?' and 'I like this but my boss may not,'" he shares.
He has observed another pattern: marketers often start out on the integration route as a brand building exercise but somewhere along the way start demanding sales and conversions from the association. "If you suddenly start worrying about sales, then you're too confused," he says, predicting that technology will play a big role in sales conversion whereas online video integration will help the brand building aspect.
Momin is also the co-founder of a company called One Digital Entertainment, a YouTube certified premium Multi Channel Network that works closely with content creators and artistes looking to find an audience online. Has the conversation with brands moved from betting on a script or a story to betting on individual content creators? "Yes, it is fair to say that's one big change. Today everyone wants to do 'influencer marketing'," he says. After all, influencers bring in a lot of organic reach, as Foxymoron's Gupta points out.
What kind of integration do marketers prefer - being part of the content or appearing during ad breaks on OTT platforms? Gupta says, "As long as the frequency (of the commercial message) towards the same audience is high, they're not concerned with whether it's before or during or after (the content)." Unlike TV shows, online videos are not structured to be interrupted at a 'high point'. "We need a standardised process to create content such that the flow is not lost (when breaks are inserted)," he says.
Owning up to being part of the problem, Havas' Joshi says, "We are not able to convince the client that we will be able to deliver relevant, contextual content that is subtle, as opposed to in-your-face branding. Consequently, a decision is taken in favour of disruptive, non-engaging content."
Lamenting about the lack of means to measure the efficacy of brand integration, Voot's Banerji says, "These are continuous discussions we have with the brand guys." Integrations he appreciates include Red Bull's famous 2012 'Stratos' video (in which Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from the stratosphere; the parachute surface was heavily branded) and Voot's 'Stupid Man Smart Phone', a reality show in which contestants navigate the hostile outdoors using just a smartphone (Motorola) and a data network (Vodafone). "We didn't change the story narrative to talk about pugs..." Banerji asserts.
What's the brand marketer's biggest grouse when it comes to brand integration in digital video? Overall verdict: ROI, measurability.