Unlike conventional advertising, a branded content strategy focuses more on a brand’s value than the products and services they offer. As far as branded content goes, the focus and strategy has more to do with the emotional response the consumer associates with the brand (which increases its brand value), rather than the product or service of the brand itself. This practice of branded visual storytelling has evolved out of more traditional advertising models since the beginning of the latter half of the 20th century.
The Coca-Cola brand is in the upper echelons of our collective consciousness and it’s evolution is emblematic of the transformation we’ve seen in brand marketing as a whole.
Common practice for effective storytelling is to show rather than tell. However, in the early days of television advertising the commercials told you quite explicitly exactly why the product is for you. Cut and dry, black and white.
Show, Don’t Tell
Take this 1950’s Coke commercial for example -in the spot, the (white male) announcer proclaims how “an ice-cold Coca-Cola [and] the bright tang of Coke is always welcome after a busy day of shopping.” He goes on to assert that the “bit of quick energy you get from Coke makes it the perfect refreshment every time.”
Meanwhile, what images do we see? Exactly what you’d expect. A soda jerk fills glasses with the soft drink and serves it to two (attractive white) actresses smiling from ear to ear. Affixed to the wall between the ladies is a large Coca-Cola poster. Cramped at their diner table, they sip, chuckle, smile, sip again. Cut to the announcer, staring into the distance sipping, swallowing, sipping again – then acknowledging the camera he speaks to the audience directly. “For a bright taste, bracing sparkle – the perfect refreshment every time – there’s nothing like ice-cold Coca-Cola!”
A Branded Content Strategy That Get’s with the Feeling
By the end of the psychedelic 1960’s the audience was primed for a different kind of commercial. We already knew about Coca-Cola’s product attributes. What we wanted now was an authentic feeling – “the real thing.”
Make way for one of the most memorable ads in television history. 1971’s “Hilltop” features an ethnically diverse array of people singing in a pastoral landscape. Their fashion and grooming, a reflection of the colorful culture at this point in time. From the very first lyrics of the song, “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love” we are not focused on the product, we’re focused on the feeling. The unifying communal aspiration for a world full of love and peace.
15 seconds in, the camera pulls back, lyrics about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony are paired with images revealing that each person is holding a classic Coca-Cola bottle. There is no acknowledgement of the beverage in hand until about half way through the minute-long spot, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke…that’s the real thing.” At around 45 seconds we hear individual lyrical embellishments just prior to an aerial shot of the collective. We are all unique individuals who can express ourselves as we wish, but can come together to sing harmoniously with Coke in hand – the unifying element.
The commercial could have ended there, but perhaps unwilling to risk being too oblique, an anxious McCann-Erickson executive decided it best to be prudent and scroll some text on screen atop the goosebumps-inspiring last shot. The text tells the audience what they already have seen, and with a somewhat self-congratulatory flare:
“On a hilltop in Italy,
We assembled young people
From all over the world…
To bring you this message
From Coca-Cola Bottlers
All over the world.
It’s the real thing. Coke.™”
An Advertising Landmark
Despite the word vomit at the end, the ad is magnificent and revolutionary. The simple, yet sophisticated spot is even referenced in the famous final scene of Mad Men – implying Don Draper’s dreams up the ad with a smirk while in a state of meditative enlightenment, cliffside at a retreat center reminiscent of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Did Don sell out Esalen or is he bringing enlightenment to the masses? As a marketer myself, I prefer the latter, optimistic interpretation – a transformational happy ending, using powers of persuasion for creative fulfillment, positivity and sales, of course.
Beginning in 1993 and over the next two decades, Coca-Cola TV advertisements sealed with the approval of the Atlanta offices became more brave. They explored more impressionistic terrain, like an ice-cold animated arctic landscape inhabited by cheerful polar bears and penguins.
The consistent features of these animated animal-themed ads? No words, which means international appeal and an avoidance of being too salesy. And the animal characters (delighting consumers of all ages) all happen to enjoy in Coca-Cola, but not until the end of the spot.
The branding is minimal, but in this case, less is certainly more. The avoidance of spoon-feeding and prescriptive ad copy demonstrates a respect for the (often undervalued) intelligence of the audience. The content transcends from advertisement to entertainment – albeit entertainment that happens to feature a brand.
With the Internet, and the spawning of our insatiable craving for new niche video stories to click and tap, enter branded content as we know it today. By 2020, Coca-Cola’s brand journey ventured into the realm of human interest documentary. Take this example of María Elena, la invencible bodeguera iqueña. The video (made for social) depicts María Elena, a small-business owner in Latin America who has benefited greatly from a bottle recycling program that happens to be sponsored by Coca-Cola.
The piece highlights the benefits to the health and financial welfare of María Elena’s family. This environmentally conscious initiative underscores Coca-Cola’s prioritization of sustainability, illustrating corporate social responsibility (CSR). Over the course of the two-minute doc-style video, Coca-Cola bottles are depicted briefly in one shot. The brand name is mentioned once in tandem with its sponsorship of the recycling program. The Coca-Cola logo makes an appearance for a few seconds at the conclusion of the video.
Organic and Authentic
Branded Content strategy: It is beyond product placement, which can feel like a hoodwinking. This is the organic integration of the brand, which with a A well thought out branded content strategy can be forgiven – even applauded. These are stories worth telling that may not have had a voice were it not for the corporate coffers that the brand has to offer. The sponsorship of real-life, good deed-doing or art or comedy or drama is truly the real thing.