Content vs advertising is a worthy fight, but which gives you bang for your buck?

Content vs advertising: where does the smart money go?

Is content king or does its uneasy bedfellow advertising still have the upper hand?

The compelling 30-second spot, slick print ad and the arresting billboard have always been a powerful way to tell a brand story. However, with channels proliferating and consumer attention fragmenting, businesses have had to adapt and evolve their methods. 

“Advertising, content and earned media work best in tandem with one another,” comments Rebecca Lieb, author of Content – The Atomic Particle of Marketing. “Think of a stool: it won’t stand upright without at least three legs –  it’s not just that content strengthens advertising, but advertising can also call attention to content, and earned media amplifies and bolsters both.”

True blue

A well-tested recipe of warmth and wit, a dash of kookiness and a splash of quirkiness is present in all Innocent Drinks communications above and below the line. Earlier this year, Innocent demonstrated social media to be the perfect platform to showcase its zesty personality. The ‘Bolt from the Blue’ campaign is a skilful a piece of content marketing that plays joyfully with the brand’s reputation for truth and transparency. “It’s beautiful. It’s blue… We haven’t figured out what its main selling point is going to be yet but did you notice that it’s blue?”.  

Except, arguably, it’s green. A savvy Twitter campaign, where Innocent shared a picture of the new drink and mentioned its blue hue six times, kicked off the product launch. The controversy sparked interest. With carefully seeding, the campaign went viral. It cut through the clutter, and gave the marketing activation enviable scale and reach. 

This social campaign was also a knowing reference to ‘the dress’, a photograph that famously went viral in 2015 when social media users disagreed over whether it was blue or black. With users energetically divided over whether Innocent’s drink was blue or green, the brand’s social media team stood firm. When asked to comment on the campaign, Innocent stayed in character: “A lot of people are saying it’s 2019’s ‘the dress‘. All we know is that it’s blue. Overall, we had 23 million impressions, even if some people didn’t know what colour it was.”

Hot stuff

Old Spice was one of the first brands to make waves with this newer converged approach, leveraging both traditional advertising and content. Back in 2010, the aftershave brand optimised its overarching “Smell Like A Man Man” ad campaign with an astute use of content marketing. Weiden + Kennedy’s engaging narrative centred around knowing humour and a hunky character, played by former football star Isaiah Mustafa. After getting out of the shower, the ‘Old Spice Man’ ranges shirtless through aspirational lifestyle settings, cheekily addressing a female viewer, “Look at your man, now back to me”.

The tactical use of Mustafa and tongue-in-cheek humour didn’t stop there. What really secured success later that year was bringing the character to life in the social sphere too. A campaign seeded on social media invited people to submit questions to the ‘Old Spice Guy’. Within 48 hours Weiden + Kennedy had created 183 YouTube videos, in which he answered people’s specific questions. Savvy and clever in marketing terms, it was extremely fun to watch and the content went viral. These response videos have been viewed more than 46 million times. The campaign scooped upwards of 100 awards globally including an Emmy and the Cannes Lion Grand Prix. Oh, and the sales results were pretty good too.

Christmas presence

Typically, Christmas ads are emotionally-stirring pieces of storytelling and John Lewis’ 2018 effort, featuring national treasure Elton John, was no exception. The ad, by Adam&Eve/DDB, aimed to boost sales with a clever narrative around how the musician’s first piano was ‘more than just a gift’. It was also more than just a traditional above-the-line advertising campaign. 

Content marketing proved pivotal in the ad getting exposure across a range of touchpoints and achieving sought-after resonance with the target audience. Several hours before the two-minute ad was screened on prime-time evening TV, it was seeded out across social media. Posted on the social media accounts of John Lewis partners at 6am, it then went live on the retailer’s official channels at 8am. Within 24 hours the ad had accrued more than 11 million views on Facebook and YouTube. It was trending on Twitter within 15 minutes of its launch.  

Taboo subject

The social sphere is where debate happens and where brands with a purpose need to be. Bodyform, a household name now making a mark with bold marketing, is not afraid to tackle taboos there. Its 2017 #bloodnormal film gained brand traction by leveraging debate-provoking imagery around menstruation. This included a woman in the shower with blood trickling down her leg; a man in a shop casually purchasing sanitary products; and realistic red liquid on a pad. The short film by AMV BBDO portrayed real-life situations.

Working with influencers was instrumental in how #bloodnormal sought to break the stigma around menstruation and promote positive period imagery. Rather than a TV-first campaign, the brand leveraged YouTube’s viewer-centric platform to reach its target audience. The images, which were starkly different from the sanitised images normally associated with the category, helped to create vibrant discussion and plenty of social buzz. The film ended with the message “Periods are normal. Showing them should be too”. This simple yet chastening detail also served to comment on the advertising restrictions which still deem period blood unacceptable on normal telly.

Advertising is a lot less like advertising these days. In fact, within this dynamic, fluid landscape it’s become a subset of content marketing. Whereas above the line was once the hero of brand building and storytelling, it’s content that’s getting closer to the consumer and engaging them with the brand at the opportune moment. 

With people navigating an always-on culture and criss-crossing devices, sites, channels and platforms, the rules of the game have changed. Brand owners are missing a trick if they’re not putting relevant and useful content, targeted to a consumer’s interests and channels of choice, at the centre of their game plan.

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