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Branded content adds to the narrative for TV advertising

Back on the agenda thanks to its high brand perception among viewers, branded content is fast becoming a business necessity

Branded content is back on the agenda as reaching audiences becomes increasingly difficult. Photograph: Getty

Branded content is back on the agenda as reaching audiences becomes increasingly difficult. Photograph: Getty


Branded content or advertiser funded programming (AFP) is nothing new, it has been around for decades. The earliest soap operas were funded by P&G, which coined the term and defined an entire genre. Despite a lull in its popularity over the years, recent developments with on-demand services and ad-blocking has necessitated its return, as reaching audiences becomes increasingly difficult. 

Recent research from Channel 4 revealed that branded entertainment sees a 29 per cent higher brand perception than the standard linear TV ad, and nearly half of its respondents felt more positive about a brand after seeing it in such a programme. This research is very timely as broadcasters are under increasing pressure for funding and are more receptive now about allocating primetime slots to brand-funded shows, if editorially sound. 

But does it work for brands? Perception that branded content is too ‘fluffy’ and indulgent is misplaced. There are several brilliant examples of what branded content can achieve if it’s done right. Advertising clearly does a job persuading audiences to make a purchase, but branded content can increase engagement and create a much stronger emotional connection. 

On this week's Inside Marketing podcast Sinead O'Connor, head of Storylab, and Philip Kampff, MD of Vision Independent Productions, discuss the benefits of branded content, it's effectiveness and how it's evolved from luxury to necessity. Listen now: 

The number one priority that often seems amiss is the viewer experience - there’s no point investing big money in a show with no eyeballs. The newest buzzword to describe what was commonly known as AFP is ‘BrandEnts’, but it’s more than just semantics. This new definition makes an important point. Branded content needs to be an almost indiscernible experience from what the viewer might expect from their usual entertainment, but the brand needs to be unapologetic about its presence.

Head of The Story Lab, Sinead O'Connor 

Good branded content feels native, the brand adds to the narrative and doesn’t feel forced. The trick is striking the right balance. Editorial departments tend to be purists, wanting funding but with little brand input to the storytelling. Agencies and brands want heavy exposure, but we’re often too passionate about our brand stories to see that what we’ve ended up with is just a really long advert. The nuance is somewhere in the middle, the brand is an integral part of an engaging story in a way that adds to the viewing experience.
IKEA’s Home Rescue in association with RTÉ was a primetime ratings winner with highly engaging and emotive stories. At the same time, it showcased IKEA product and expertise. IKEA played an important role with a natural and meaningful partnership that didn’t jar with viewers, and which enhanced brand perception and delivered sales. 

It’s these mutual interests and shared values that can build connections with audiences rather than focusing on sales ambitions alone. An important factor from the outset was aligning all stakeholder goals. The broadcaster wanted the show, the producers needed funding and the format was adaptable to IKEA interests and values. 

Mutual interests

Similarly, Virgin Media’s glossy studio production The Line Out co-funded with Guinness worked across mutual interests. Virgin Media, the host broadcaster of the Guinness Six Nations, wanted to expand its rugby coverage while Guinness wanted to reach a broader audience than the rugby fanatic. The entertainment-driven show was a strategic win-win for all.

Often problems occur when brands create their own content without broadcaster buy-in and then try to leverage media spend to secure placing in a schedule. Usually this results in a broadcaster airing it in a graveyard slot post-peak.

When done right, branded content is a highly valuable marketing tool, but the first thing to do is make sure it’s the right solution, and that’s the role for the agency. Then you must ensure the story you want to tell is a story a broadcaster wants to air, and that it’s one people will want to watch. That’s a commissioning editor’s role. 

The best way to achieve this to get an early look at existing ideas from the production sector. They know what commissioning editors want. Then you need to identify the most suitable idea for the brand, one where the brand message can weave into the story in an engaging way that doesn’t compromise on editorial integrity. That tripartite balancing act is the real trick, where all parties are equally important.

The big question is, how do you measure success? Again this is quite difficult, the blunt instruments used by media buyers to measure value of exposure are of little help here. It’s completely different to an ad buy. The value equation isn’t comparable to simply measuring the amount of “airtime” the brand is on screen for - that’s an overly simplistic, ineffective measurement of value. 

In terms of harder sales, it’s worth considering how you activate off-air. Content can play a more direct sales role when taken onto other platforms. Funding or co-funding a show may incorporate licensing rights, talent or bespoke content to create more direct sales activations on social and digital, thus making your content asset work much harder. 

There is a real benefit in working with the original producers, they’re experts in how to get the best extra content from a show and create the most interesting narrative for the brand outside the main broadcast. This is where you can leverage assets to drive sales and deliver significant ROI.

The starting point, like anything else, is understanding the problem we are trying to solve. I’m a branded content specialist, I’ve spent my whole career in TV and I am passionate about it, but it’s not the answer to everything. I need insights and strategic direction from client teams to ensure we can deliver but I’m ultimately here to help make great entertainment. Because if it is done wrong, it can be a very expensive long ad that nobody wants to watch. 

Finally, branded content can be an investment that delivers value in the form of IP and distribution rights. New formats with international potential have come from brand-funded ideas, the coming together of previously unlikely alliances. You need a global network partner to unlock such opportunities in other territories but sometimes the most unusual marriage can create surprisingly alternative routes to new revenue opportunities. Watch this space! 

Sinead O’Connor is head of The Story Lab

Branded content: seven deadly sins 

1. Back one horse
Make a ad or make a programme, don’t try and combine both – be clear on your objectives, the problem and what you want communications to do. 

2. Less is more
Don’t force the brand into every part of the story. You’re trying to engage audiences and they can easily tell when they’re being advertised to by stealth.

3. Make a plan
Make sure you build a detailed plan on how you will drive engagement off air, whether that’s licensing, social or other promotions, this is where you can leverage assets to drive sales more effectively and even deliver significant ROI.

4. Take the temperature
Make sure you have expression of interest from a broadcaster, try and agree co-funding to ensure broadcaster buy-in. 

5. Measure value properly
The whole is greater than the sum of the on-screen parts.

6. Be flexible
The idea for a programme from the agency may not be good TV. Listen to what the producers say and what broadcasters need, and be open to tweaking your initial concept.

7. Have mutual interests
Make sure all parties, the client, the agency, the broadcaster and the producer all agree and understand what the job of the content is. 

Inside Marketing is a series brought to you by Dentsu Aegis Network and Irish Times Media Solutions, exploring the issues and opportunities facing the world of media and marketing. For more information, visit

The Inside Marketing podcast is available on Soundcloud