Branded content: Leading or Lemming?

Digital ad blockers have been roiling the ad industry for a while resulting in a spike in branded content that runs largely ad free. The digital Chinese walls apparently worry even the biggest digital ad company, Google/Alphabet, whose CEO Sundar Pichai despite protestations to the contrary  announced an ad-free YouTube service labeled YouTube Red which racks up a monthly $9.99 charge. Advertisers though display no ambiguity and apparently are buying into the notion that consumers are increasingly repelled by ads particularly in the smartphone universe and investing heavily in branded content. Those well off the launchpad include Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame and Travel Channel Host with a list of clients that stretches from General Mills to Toyota and US Cellular.

Marriott has also checked into this not so new yet fast growing arena as a recent Financial Times report says "The hotel group is making its own films and running a ‘newsroom’ in its push for online branding." The hotel giant has added "original film production to the (advertising) mix. And while "financing and producing two short movies is more in keeping with a media company than a hotel operator" it has similar objectives as any media company: to find audiences they can monetize and hopefully woo and bring into their loyalty fold.

Although as the FT points out this is not a new phenomenon for Marriott, having featured comic books in its Hot Shoppe diner chain in the 60's, the "latest twist on the genre is quite different, given that Marriott is the creator, producer — and distributor — of the videos. As well as the films, it recently commissioned a Hot Shoppe animated series, which will run to five episodes and air on YouTube." Marriott's  21st century take has resulted in a news “studio” at  headquarters in Maryland with the moniker "M Live" which has been designed to bring together the company’s public relations teams, an in-house creative agency and media buyers".

Marriott is scarcely alone in the old-new world of branded content. The legendary London hotel, The Savoy was the real star in a ten minute video titled "Girl Panic".  The video has an astounding 7 million (and rising) hits in its four year life on YouTube. Starwood's Luxury Collection also preceded Marriott with a short (Indie) film titled "Here" albeit with far fewer hits.  There are many others looking into leap into this promising space.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a paucity of metrics to gauge the new wave's efficacy. In other words is ROI quantifiable or is there a lemming like rush to follow the "leader"? A reason for the measurement problem is that branded content seeks to set itself apart from "regular" advertising and so cannot be discussed with consumers/guests in those terms and if the message is unsubtle it is likely to be viewed as an infomercial or worse, an outright ad.  Perhaps time will tell whether the old, if apocryphal, adage of the ad-man "fifty percent of ads are effective while fifty do not but we don't know which fifty it is!" applies here.

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Vijay Dandapani

Co-founder and president of a New York based hotel company for 24 years. Grew the firm to five hotels in Manhattan and also developed a greenfield project at MacArthur airport, New York. Speaker at numerous prestigious forums including Economy Hotels World Asia, Lodging Conference, NYU, Columbia University Real Estate Roundtable, Baruch College's Zicklin School and ALIS. President and ceo of New York City Hotel Association since January 2017.