Weighing In on Branded Content

Big Fuel's CCO on the future of the medium

Avi Savar, founder and chief creative officer of social media agency Big Fuel, led the inaugural Branded Content and Entertainment jury at Cannes, awarding a Grand Prix to Chipotle and CAA for the burrito brand’s sustainable farming “Cultivate” campaign. Adweek caught up with Savar to chat about the category and where it’s headed.

Adweek: How does branded content differ from advertising?

Traditional advertising starts with defining “what is the unique selling proposition of the product you’re trying to focus on?” Content is really the inverse of that. It’s thinking about people first. What’s resonating with them…and connecting those people’s stories to your product in a relevant way? Did this create compelling and engaging content that motivated behavior and change, but did it in a way that really felt like content? Frankly, if you can’t actually determine whether it’s content or advertising, that’s probably the purest form of branded content.

Shouldn’t all advertising be like branded content, then?

They need to co-exist. It’s important for brands to tell really compelling stories that connect to the audience and drive with great storytelling, but I also understand and appreciate the need for product-focused content in that people need to understand what a product is, does, and can do for them.

What about the Chipotle film in particular set it apart? 

This was a brand that is embracing content in every form possible, and that film was one of many things that was part of that campaign. There was a No. 1 hit song that the brand was involved with, with Coldplay and Willie Nelson. And it became a No. 1 song that was a paid download. People were buying the song. When you're paying for branded content, that means something. They created games. They created a toy, outdoor festivals, so all of a sudden you start looking at that and you say, "This is a brand that is not talking about their $2 burritos or even the kind of burritos that you can buy. They're actually talking about something much bigger than that, and they're aligning themselves with a broader conversation, and they're doing it through content. This is an example of how to use content to build a brand."

How do you hope to see the category evolve?

There’s still a lot of work left to do in defining it. The line is so blurred. We didn't want people coming out of this going, "Oh, branded content is only for challenger brands who can be risky." We wanted people to look at brands and say, "Wow, you can actually build brands through content and do it in a meaningful relevant way, and it's not risky." This is actually a great vehicle for brand building. [Intel's] Museum of Me, that's not risky. Whereas the Qantas Great Crusade and MFCEO—those are kind of very risky and very good for challenger brands and those were some of the best examples of branded content. We really wanted to kind of elevate the category and say, this wasn't just about making some funny content. This was about, "How do you use content to build a brand?"

There were more than 34,000 submissions to Cannes this year. Are there too many categories? 

As far as branded content was concerned, I think people were excited to participate in this new category. But we did feel like there was a lot of repetitive content. We have 12 subcategories in branded content. As the categories get more defined, it will be more important to make sure people really think through what categories they're entering in and that they're relevant in those categories and not just kind of shotgun blasting, hoping they catch the judges' eye in a particular category. 

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