Beyond Content: Leveraging Branded Entertainment in B2B

December 13, 2016 • 7 min read

Your banner ads are being blocked. Your emails are being deleted. Your commercials are being skipped. Times are tough, guys. And in an effort to liven things up, brands are turning to content. More specifically, B2B companies are cranking out infographics, case studies, assessments and other forms of “non-vertising” to position themselves as thought leaders and create brand awareness. But is it enough?

In a word: No. Don’t get me wrong—building content is awesome…essential, even. But what you really need to keep up with the market and engage with customers is branded entertainment. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone. The definition is pretty loose, but Adweek considers it content that starts a conversation around a product, service or set of values; aligns your brand with a force for good; and/or builds a story universe around your products or services. Additionally, branded entertainment doesn’t focus on your products and its features, and its sole purpose is to do exactly what the name suggests—entertain. 

Why is branded entertainment ignored by B2B brands?

Recently, Bulldog’s Chief Creative Officer, Brian Maschler, told attendees at Viewtopia that today’s creative marketing planning is broken. What he means is that often, B2B marketing teams are ill-equipped to plan integrated, omnichannel marketing programs. They’re often given brand guidelines that cover logo use, colors, photo types and tone, and then are tasked with creating a strategy brief and, ultimately, a campaign theme. Some essential ingredients are missing there. Few people are exploring buyer personas, the customer journey or even the reasons why it’s time to make a change.

As a result, a formulaic approach to marketing occurs. The basics, such as banner ads, email nurtures and direct mail, are quickly checked off the list, but we don’t push any further. And while it’s great to try to expand the limits of those types of media, we’re missing an enormous opportunity to create branded entertainment that excites audiences and makes them more willing to engage.

Video is the obvious choice.

Not surprisingly, Brian pointed to video as the most underrated form of marketing, saying that it’s usually an afterthought. And that’s an unfortunate reality considering video is a surefire way to engage with customers. In an age where technology is offering more dynamic, interactive delivery options and people are consuming video at enormous rates, it’s more important than ever to make it an integral part of your marketing mix right from the start. Plus, video creates emotion, and that’s crucial because consumers are primarily influenced by emotions rather than information when forced to choose between brands.

In the consumer space, Netflix did an excellent job of using branded entertainment to elevate its brand. Originally a streaming service, the company branched out into original programming with the 2013 release of House of Cards, an acclaimed series that has garnered 46 Emmy nominations and six Emmy wins. Lego pulled a similar move by branching out into video games and then later, in 2014, releasing The Lego Movie. The company’s sales rose to a record $4.4 billion that year, securing Lego’s place at the top of the building block market.

Another great example of branded video entertainment from a company that targets both consumers and businesses? Marriott’s Two Bellmen short film. Released in 2015, the video was distributed online and through TVs in over 1 million Marriott hotel rooms. On YouTube, the video has racked up over 5 million views. Since its release, Marriott has followed up Two Bellmen with another short film (French Kiss, which earned over 6 million views on YouTube), a successful TV show and a personalized television show. The hotel chain’s content studio continues to explore other branded entertainment options to keep consumers invested.

On the B2B side, we look to Volvo for a perfect example of how an entertaining video can connect your brand with a wide audience. Viewed over 84 million times on YouTube, its Van Damme split stunt garnered worldwide attention. There was no need to add a call to action at the end of the video, because the video wasn’t meant to convert leads. It was meant to showcase a piece of technology found in large trucks that are commonly used by other businesses.

Even CAT has had a little fun with stunts. In 2014, it challenged a few of its own machines to a game of ginormous Jenga to show off their precision. To date, the video has been viewed over 3.6 million times. 

Other brands look to podcasting.

Another great way to start a conversation is to dive into podcasts. GE has used this medium twice already—first with its show, The Message, and again with its new series, LifeAfter. The Message was a science-fiction story that followed the weekly reports and interviews from Nicky Tomalin, a man who is decoding a message from outer space received 70 years ago. The series was a big success, racking up millions of downloads during its two-month run. LifeAfter, another science-fiction series, investigates the role that artificial intelligence has on the grieving process and what happens to a person’s digital footprint after they pass away. Neither of these programs discuss GE’s products in detail. Instead, they are simply “presented by GE.” The purpose of both podcasts is not to sell products, but to start a conversation around the technologies and topics that GE wants you to care about. In the case of The Message, the underlying story revolved around sound-based medical treatments, but for LifeAfter, the subconscious narrative touches on what happens to our digital identities after we die and what role artificial intelligence can play in the grieving process.

Other brands that have had success with podcasts include Tequila Avión, InterContinental Hotels and State Farm.

It’s time to think outside the box.

Video and podcasts aren’t the only way to entertain your audience. Take Intel, for instance. At the 2016 Grammys, the tech company used its own technology to project the face of the late David Bowie onto Lady Gaga’s face during her tribute to him. Twenty-five million people tuned into the broadcast, while the campaign that followed the performance generated more than 120 news stories. When measuring benchmarks for how millennials saw Intel as an innovative brand, perceptions were increased by 122 percent.

BuzzFeed, arguably the king of branded content, recently took to Facebook Live to broadcast a countdown to the 2020 election. In an election cycle that was so contentious, this little bit of levity sent followers a very distinct message: BuzzFeed is the place you go when you want to have fun with the news.

Even Hamburger Helper looks to branded entertainment from time to time. Earlier this year, it released a digital mixtape with five tracks. One track, Feed the Streets, has been listened to more than 7 million times on SoundCloud.

Why is this important for B2B brands?

Too often, we get caught up in direct ROI, conversion rates and qualified leads. Instead, it’s time to put a little effort toward storytelling and stirring emotions in our targets. Consider this—Marriott, Volvo, CAT and GE are all brands that serve both a consumer and B2B audience. It’s true that in the B2B space, we’re marketing to businesses. But those businesses are run by people—and, as we’ve mentioned before, people are run by emotions.

Eventually, even the most innovative brands become a commodity. And when that time comes for your business, you’ll need to find new ways to stand out and connect. Starting that process now may be crucial to your success in the future. So, whether you attach your brand to an important cause, start a conversation about a hot topic in your field or build a universe around your products and services, be sure you do it in a way that’s compelling.

Above all, take Brian’s advice and avoid incorporating branded entertainment as an afterthought. Make it a central piece of your strategy from the very beginning. Make sure you stay true to your brand, but don’t be afraid to loosen up a little. If it’s not helpful or entertaining, it basically has no value. And once you have your strategy set, make sure you revisit your ideas each quarter and see what you can improve upon next time. Keep exploring. Keep innovating. Keep entertaining!