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A SHORT STORY ABOUT BRANDED CONTENT

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Body in Geneva. Luggage in London. Conference in Courchevel. That’s how I found myself that chilly Swiss morn, shivering in the airport car park awaiting the contingent who’d flown from the four corners of Europe for the seminar-within-a-conference-within-a-festival to be held, in fluent Français, in the famed ski resort, a two-hour shuttle into the Alps. I’d kind of gatecrashed, even though I’d paid for my ticket. I wasn’t going to let him go it alone in a roomful of strangers so far from home.

 ‘I’d love to showcase your work in France,’ Spero said when we met over the phone. ‘Under the auspices of the BCMA.’

‘Que?’ I asked. I’ve so had it with abbreviations.

‘Branded Content Marketing Association,’ he reeled off the acronym. ‘I’m heading up the South African chapter.’

‘So, there’s actually an association for branded content?’ I asked. ‘I thought I was the only lone wolf out there.’

‘We’re finally getting it off the ground,’ said Spero. ‘And the Courchevel conference is a great place to expose our work on a global platform.’

‘How did you find me?’ I asked.

‘I googled ‘mother tongue branded content,’ Spero said. ‘And yours was the only name I could find.’

‘It depends what you put in the search engine,’ I said. ‘This kind of work goes under a host of pseudonyms. Edutainment. Content creation. Destination listening. It’s all storytelling, really.’

‘One hundred percent,’ Spero said. ‘So, I checked out your website and there’s a couple of your campaigns I’d like to include in the preso.’

I was elated. But I didn’t want to play too easy to get. Flattery will get you everywhere.

‘So,’ I said, ‘if I let you out of the country with our work, I’ll have to come with to keep an eye on you.’

‘Be my guest,’ Spero said. ‘I’ll need all the immoral support I can get.’

I had an ageing patriarch to visit in Aberdeen and an imaginary appointment at the British Museum with a muse called Thalia. In for a rand, in for a euro. So, I carped the diem and booked. Paris-Geneva-Courchevel-Aberdeen-London-Home. I’d be home by Christmas.

The first time ever I saw his face was at O R Tambo, a  tall handsome Greek, steeped in branded content and a faux duck down jacket, the visual counterpart to my audio work, the yang to my yin, the foie to my gras. The Cristal Festival’s hookline was ‘Audace’. We both fit the bill perfectly. Chutzpah is a dish best served frozen.

Nobody goes to Courchevel in mid-December to attend a breakaway session about branded content during the graveyard shift. They were on the slopes. They were judging awards. They were in rented speedos lounging around champagne-drenched heated pools.

With a two-day outbound trip, my luggage lost in translation, I had to wear Spero’s undergarments – gatkes my Bobba would have called them – and his anorak a size or two too tight. Spero sported a purple dinner jacket for forty-eight hours straight, sans thermals, in two below zero. I rinsed my knickers nightly.

II

In all the flights I’ve ever taken, we’ve never turned back once. Turbulence sure, delays naturellement, a botched mile high club or two (never make love in an airplane lavatory, it’s not worth the toilet paper it’s written on!) but nothing like flying in endless circles dumping fuel on unsuspecting African soil from thirty thousand feet in a frantic attempt to retract the landing gear that’s dragging the plane down like a wounded goose. Little did we not know.

It was three hours into the outbound that I first realised something was wrong. We’d noticed stewardesses shimmying back and forth in the aisles, but narry a Perrier had we been proffered.

I tugged the sleeve of a passing cabin attendant.

‘Excusez moi, mamzelle, can I trouble you for a glass of water?’

‘Non.’

‘A beer?’ Spero asked.

‘Ah, non.’

‘Iced tea, perhaps? I’m parched.’

Her icy treatment was laced with panic.

Is there something wrong?’ I asked.

‘Do you speak French?’ she demanded, haughtily.

‘Un petit peu,’ I said.

This provoked a torrent of words of which I had absolutely no comprehension. It could have been a recipe for boeuf bourguignon. It could have been the end of the world as we knew it. They deplaned us into chaos back at O R Tambo. You don’t want to know. The following day we repeated the entire drill. No frequent flyer freebies can ease the pain. One night in Kempton Park makes a hard woman humble.

It’s not that the French are rude, per se. It’s just toujours about them. Their culture, their language, their food, their films, their chic, their panache, their cinq a sept. And they’re right. I’m a wannabe that neverwill. My schoolgirl French is très charmant for a bonjour or two but when it comes to speed pitching in the vernacular, quite frankly, que? Raised in the rural outback of Aberdeen, Scotland, French was my second lingua franca in the early sixties and I was Frere Jacquering before I could Fe, Fi, Fo or even Fum.  None of that bon accent was going to be of any assistance now. Speed pitching in the vernacular made my head spin. Or was it the jetlag?

The following morning, still wearing Spero’s gatkes, we attended a viewing of the finalists for the usual categories – creative effectiveness, integrated, digital, design data, outdoor, on-line, press. A smattering of corporate and PR. A nod to brand entertainment and content.

After staring at the presenters in blank incomprehension, we cottoned onto the translator headsets and a studious Sephardic youth kept up a regular patter, lagging jerkily each speaker in a mad jazz improvisation of lingual gymnastics.

The finalists were flying. Certain campaigns were winning in multiple categories. We noticed a trend starting to emerge. Each nominated campaign seemed to be based on storytelling, engaging the consumer in an entertaining way, the brand values threaded into the concept.

To keep track of my train of thought, I thumbtyped on my iPhone where the competing campaign had branded content aka storytelling as its hidden thread.

The Magic Wallpaper, best use of mobile. Marketer: Castorama DIY store, first wallpaper that tells stories. Dozens of characters act as digital marker. Kid chooses character engagement. Hundreds of potential stories. Parent scans character via dedicated app and the story begins. Different character combinations permit hundreds of storytelling permutations. Turning precious moments at bedtime into magical moments. Storytelling much? http://tbwa.com/work/magic-wallpaper

        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banco Santander picked up in several categories. This was, guess what? A lavish story, telling the tale of a superrich but lonely recluse who has everything money can buy and no peace of heart or mind. People allungamento pene video paid to watch this movie. It was a story that had the brand value embedded in its thread and drove the plot forward in a way that captivated the public’s imagination and call to action. The idea that ‘Money isn’t everything,’ is a counter intuitive take for a financial institution, but on one that doesn’t condescend to its public, one that can relate to them through a really good story, told well. https://www.adbrands.net/us/mrm_us.htm

Canal+ spread the word about a forthcoming TV show via an Artificial Intelligence bot, baptised #AiMen, created in the image of the Young Pope, that trolled twitter, interacting with apposite biblical quotes in real time. Quotes all have literary value. Tweet sized short stories. Bringing home the call to action (aka: watch the series) in an engaging, entertaining way. That old storytelling trick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III

We spoke about this phenomenon over lunch with Andrew from England, Florian from Germany and a Great Dane from Copenhagen, aka Mister Goodvertising.

‘It seems like everything is based on branded content.’ I said, filleting my sole meunières.

‘I think of it as more of an umbrella than a foundation,’ said Florian, popping a mussel into his mouth.

‘Then why are they using the conventional categories?’ I asked, reaching for a handful of frites.

‘People take time to catch on to change,’ Andrew sipped his wine sagely.

‘But surely the ad industry has to pick up that the way of the future is all about branded content?’ I asked.  ‘There’s no such thing as a plain old 30 second ad anymore.’

‘Everyone wants consumer engagement,’ said Spero.

‘Everyone wants branded content,’ said Andrew.

‘Everyone wants a Cristal award,’ said Mister G.

‘Come on, gents,’ I said. ‘There isn’t even a category for what I do back home.’

It was a Eureka moment. Everything is based on branded content. And branded content only really succeeds if it tells a story.

Much like this one.

 IV

If you’ve ever been the last presentation of a last day of any conference, multiply that by the FOMO factor of not being on the slopes and you’ll know what I mean. Present we did, to a tight knot of passionate content creators; a musician who has an agency where he deals with marketers direct; those wonderful people who brought you ‘Pitch to Rich,’ a branded content campaign that gave almost the entire budget to the prize money; a polymath who has straddled semiotics and storytelling with aplomb, marketers who see the thread. It was a room full of successful innovators who have broken through the silos that separate filmmaking from advertising, art from high finance, to make their mark on branded content, which is, in the end, the telling of stories. This was a meeting of minds that are breaking the rules, breaking mindsets. Spero’s presentation went down well, featuring work from  King James, 7 Films, Egg Films, FCB, Primedia, Launch Factory, Soul Provides, Retrovial, One Lady & a tribe TBWA, Creatrix & Blink Pictures.  The room was in awe of the way that African brands have embraced Branded Content, particularly the campaign for Airtel’s ‘Touching Lives’, a TV series that runs in 8 African countries highlighting how purpose-lead brands can change consumer perception from a liked to a loved brand. You’re famous in Courchevel. Take a bow, South Africa!

I got my two cents worth right at the end with a tweet sized punt for the value of storytelling in mother tongue on radio in South Africa, our multilingual and literacy challenges, how our target market is hooked on stories; how destination listening occurs with a loyal tune in factor – advertising perceived as programming; how we can migrate and amplify our audio tales into the digital domain, moving with our market to a more on-demand consumption. How branded content on radio holds the hearts and minds of the market and how a media spread is vital now to create a gestalt effect.

It was there in the Vivaldi Seminar Room that early Shabbos dusk at the Festival of Audacity, that I realised we are of international standard. To say the very least. That our work stands up to the best in the world. Perhaps we were preaching to the choir. But our multiplicity of voices were heard by each other and connections were forged that are already reinforcing the BCMA’s presence and influence in South Africa.

V

On our third and last night, after the awards www.cristalfestival.com/en/competitions/prizelists-2017/ – we were motorcoached at midnight to a Brazilian-theme restaurant, deep in the snow, and treated to a bevy of semi naked pale natives in feathered headdresses and impossible stilettos.

As I eschew the eating of land animals, I was slightly revolted by the decapitated duck’s leg laced with jus d’orange, plumped down in front of each inebriated festino.

‘Je ne mange pas du viande,’ I said to the diminutive garçon who was fussing about the patrons with his dead ducks.

‘Pardon?’ said the waiter.

‘Vegetarian,’ I said. ‘Although, strictly speaking I’m an ovo viparian.’

‘Végétarienne?’ He looked at me as if I’d gone stark staring mad, minced across to the kitchen and reappeared sometime later with may have passed for a regurgitated wheat turd. I could have bounced it off the walls, frescoed with scenes of the Rio Carnival, champagne aflow; first bottle on the house, second bottle a hundred and twenty euros. It. Was. Inedible.

There really were speedos for hire at the door and a smattering of hot pools around which you could be served more champers at fifty bucks a shot. I went back to my bunk. I needed to wring out my sopping suitcase. Besides, my days of Jacuzzis in the night are over. In someone else’s used swimming costume? Eww.

It was all over by Saturday morning. It was the only time we were both warm enough to walk through the minus two snowfield.  Spero wanted to ski. It was his virgin trip out.

‘How much?’ I baulked.

‘A hundred and fifty. Don’t do the math.’

‘Jesus. That’s the same as a bottle of Cristal.’

‘Pick your own poison, chèrie. Are you joining me?’

‘Are you kidding? I’m not putting my skeleton through that. Got that ski-shirt anyway.’

‘You’ve skied before?’

‘Twice, actually. First time round I was on the intermediate slopes after five minutes. Canadian Rockies. Eighty-three.’

‘And the second time?’

‘The Jungfrau. Ninety-one. Slipped on the baby slope. Broke my frigging ankle.’

‘I must admit, I’m kakking myself a bit.’

‘Do what you need to do, doll,’ I said. ‘My physio would have a hissy fit. I’m going to take the short road home.’

VI

Mister Goodvertising told us all about the pool party, as much as he could remember, on the long, slippery shuttle back to Geneva. He’d meant to wake up for a last go on the slopes. He only got to bed an hour before the shuttle left. Every hairpin bend evinced a low groan and a sharp wince as we skidded across the frosty contours from Courchevel to Geneva.  Those of us who were sober picked up some Leffes from a roadside café and continued our branded content debate.

‘As I’ve stated in our manifesto,’ Andrew said, ‘the line is very blurred as to what branded content is. It’s generally divided into two categories. I’ll send you the link. But essentially we define branded content as ‘any manifestation associated with a particular brand in the eye of the beholder.’’

‘Or the ear,’ I said, taking a sluk.

‘Catchy, very catchy,’ Spero said. ‘The Ear of the Beholder. So, you could say that branded content is any iteration in any medium that embed a brand message or brand value.’

‘You could,’ said Andrew. ‘But it can now be co-created, from the consumer’s point of view. People out there mould and direct the conversation. It’s out of the marketer’s hands.’

‘Well, that certainly evens up the playing fields,’ Spero said, biting into his Croque Monsieur.

‘That’s the beauty of the digital age,’ I said, draining my second Leffe. ‘It’s many-to-many communication, as Marshall McLuhan would say.’

‘Pardonez moi, Maestro.’

‘Maestra, actually, Spero. I’ve told you before.’

‘So,’ Andrew continued, ‘you have to create a narrative that resonates with the target market and sets up the conversation. And what’s the best way to engage consumer engagement around your brand narrative?

‘Tell one heck of a story,’ I crowed.  

‘Can’t you guys keep your voices down?’ cried Mister G. from the bowels of the shuttle.

‘I’ve got a hangover here!’

We ignored him and continued our verbal brawl over another round of Leffe.

‘Salman Rushdie says that ‘man is the storytelling animal,’’ I said. It’s the quality that

defines us as human. It’s universal.’

‘I’d agree,’ said Florian. ‘It’s part of our collective unconscious. Nobody can resist a

good ‘what if …?’ and the magical possibilities of ‘and then…’’

            The shuttle skidded into the airport car park.

I downed the last gulp of my dop and heaved my two wheelie bags out of the back of the shuttle.

            ‘Thanks, guys, it’s been real,’ I said, blowing them a few air kisses.

‘You’re going back to London?’ I asked Andrew.    

            ‘No rest for the wicked,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a pile of work waiting for me.’

‘Do you mind if we can chat further?’ I asked. ‘I’m popping through London for a couple of days before Christmas. I’m in the area.’

‘Great idea,’ Andrew said. ‘How’s eleven on Thursday the eighteenth?’

‘Fab,’ I said. Thalia could wait.

‘Capital,’ said Andrew. ‘Ambrose Coffee Shop. Inside Heals on the Tottenham Court Road.’

‘Aangename kennis,’ I said, hauling my luggage out into the blizzard.

VII

Did I mention that Courchevel is one of the most sought-after resorts in all of the Alps? We could have bumped into Willie and Cath in a coffee shop, Camilla and Charles in a ski lift. I saw the inside of my bunk and the dimmed lights of an auditorium. I was just to frigging freezing to see anything else.

As I trudged up from the hotel to rendezvous with Spero, everything cast in white, cars buried to their antennae ends, a pair of black specks drifted through the monochrome towards me. Two Chassidic Jews, Chassids, we call them back home, dressed to the nines in the height of fashion of eighteenth century Ukraine The Chassids are a deeply religious sect that follow a charismatic approach to Yahweh; singing, dancing, drinking, prancing – just as long as there aren’t any pussies present. Ringlets dangled beneath tall fur hats, long frock coats adorned with protruding fringes. They must have been walking towards some kind of schtibel, a makeshift synagogue, to celebrate their certainty of the Invisible Man in the Sky. A kind of karmic layby system. It was a scene from some ancestral Russian dream; a benighted shtetl, cloaked in nothingness.

Clad now in my salvaged Norwegian issue threads, quadruple layers from vest to waterproof jacket, two pairs of gloves, my nose sticking out above my bright pink scarf, I might as well have been the abominable snowman.

We edged parallel. I lowered my snood and smiled.

‘Shabbat Shalom,’ I said in my best French accent.

One boychick spat his chewing gum into the slush. The other lost his footing and slipped about three meters, windmilling his arms to retain his balance.

‘Shabbat Shalom,’ they stuttered in unison.

‘Où allez vous?’ I asked.

They stared at me, mute, looked at each other, lowered their high hatted heads and slid off to their Shabbos assignation.

The non-French brigade bade each other farewell in the frigid Geneva morning.

‘Keep in touch,’ Andrew promised.

‘See you next year,’ Florian flourished his skis.

‘Maybe sooner than you think,’ Spero said. ‘We’re planning a conference in Johannesburg real soon. Do you think you could make it across?’

‘What? Surf and turf in deepest darkest Africa?’ Their faces lit up at the prospect.

‘Email me.’

‘I always wanted the kids to see a real live elephant.’

‘I came up with my Goodvertising concept in Cape Town,’ slurred Mr. G. ‘Nearly bought a semi in Camp’s Bay. I’d be superexcited to hop on over.’

‘Lekker,’ said Spero. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

‘Cheers, mate,’ said Andrew. ‘See you at the Ambrose, Lynn.’

‘Au revoir, gents,’ I said, fiddling for my vape in my rucksack. I so didn’t want to get into finding a smoking room in this turgid climate.

‘Auf weidersen,’ said Florian. ‘Don’t forget to send me those links.’

‘A bientôt,’ said a pretty Swiss blond who hadn’t uttered a word the entire trip.

Andrew flew BA, Florian on Lufthansa, Mr. G was poured onto a plane to Paris. Spero went home. I spent another seven hours at Geneva airport and nine at Schiphol, roadkill collateral in another cancelled flight.

I had plenty of time to think about the next leg of my journey, the pilgrimage to My Father Who Art in Aberdeen. Had I decided to forgive him? Would I find redemption for my anger and blather about his feet of clay? Was he not also wronged? Were his children not untimely ripped from his bosom as he sat sobbing into his half jack at Heathrow airport some forty-five years earlier?  

You’ll have to tune in next time to find out.

 

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