ME* Conference 2010

How J&J, GE Have Overcome Branded Content Challenges

Judy Hu, Dave Knox Explain the Learning Curve of Today's Digital Environment

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Brands have been in the content business for more than 50 years, but some of the biggest marketers in the world -- including General Electric and Johnson & Johnson -- are today finding that emerging media and digital platforms are dramatically changing the game in terms of how that content is distributed and how consumer conversations can be controlled.

Judy Hu
Judy Hu Credit: Pete Kolonia
Judy Hu, senior global executive director, advertising and branding at GE, kicked off a series of afternoon presentations at Ad Age's Media Evolved Conference with a talk focused on marketers as media. She recalled the squeamishness she and colleagues felt back in 2003, when GE adopted its "Imagination at Work" positioning to help approach the world's toughest challenges -- from clean energy to health care.

The move meant not only embracing new content platforms to drive innovation, but also enlisting the help of consumers with GE's messaging. We had to "stop talking at them -- which frankly is our own personal comfort zone -- and give them license to get involved in marketing campaigns," Ms. Hu said. "It was very risky for GE. None of us knew what to expect."

To promote an initiative it calls "healthy imagination," GE engaged Howcast to help create a series of cheeky online videos featuring fun ways to improve one's health. Among them were "how to party your way to better health" and tips like "contract your abs while driving." It then enlisted half a dozen YouTube stars for a humorous get-healthy challenge that garnered, to GE's surprise, 7 million video views and thousands of ratings and comments. GE also partnered with publisher Meredith to help build a community of women around the "healthy imagination" idea.

Ms. Hu said the once-conservative B-to-B company found that "we could start influencing the conversation" without making it about ill health, but instead about making good health contagious. And, she added, GE discovered that "if we enlist the imagination of our content creators and consumers, we can really get engagement with our brand."

Ms. Hu's presentation was followed up by Dave Knox, the newly appointed chief marketing officer at Rockfish Interactive who earlier spent seven years as a P&G brand manager.

Dave Knox
Dave Knox Credit: Pete Kolonia
One the one hand, Mr. Knox said, the content business isn't anything new. "This is a business people have been doing for over 50 years," but, at the same time, "it's pretty remarkable when you think about how a marketer owned the longest-running scripted show on TV [CBS' 'Guiding Light']."

The reason that marketers creating content is now a hot topic is the fact that "digital changes the ways to connect ... brands can be in control of both the content and the distribution." Evidence? Johnson & Johnson's BabyCenter, which has a 78% reach of new and expectant mothers -- pretty good penetration for a web property owned by a brand. Another example is Weber Grills, which has sold over a million grilling cookbooks and has now taken that content to consumers via the iPad.

Mr. Knox observed that brands are currently leveraging four key models for owned media, and each has its pros and cons.

1. Publisher collaboration
This model is the one we're most familiar with these days, Mr. Knox said, whereby publishers buy agencies, or collaborate with them. The big pro here is that publishers have expertise in content creation because they've been doing it for a long time, but they still have existing ad relationships, which can make for a messy model.

2. Brands going it alone
This path lets brands be selfish, because historically, they like control over creating experiences themselves. It also creates a new revenue stream the marketer doesn't have to share. But the problem is it's expensive when you're not sharing costs, and scalability becomes tougher.

3. Agency partners
On the positive side, agencies have proficiency in building brand experiences; many have solid marketer and media relationships, and can be flexible with staffing. Agencies are used to growing and shrinking faster than many other companies. But a drawback in working with agencies is their inexperience in creating unbiased content and entertainment. Further, there is incremental funding needed to drive audiences. Publishers already have audiences, whereas agencies need to buy audiences via search or other means.

4. New media creators
Ms. Hu talked about working with one, Howcast, and, he said, the benefit was that new media creators have technology at their core. They also have flexibility in staffing too. A downside though, is the difficulty in choosing the right partner when many of them have only been around six, 12 or 18 months, and the business models are still being defined.

Slides from Mr. Knox's presentation can be found on his website.

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