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JASPER WU and Claire Lee have become unlikely heroes in DBS Bank's latest brand campaign. In the web series DBS Sparks, the two fictional bankers are part of a team that helps clients navigate complex deals and unusual financial predicaments, and if they ring true, it's because they're inspired by real cases. Since its rollout in March 2016, the first seven episodes and their trailers have garnered more than 100 million views and over 11 million digital likes, shares and comments, across the bank's six key markets in Asia - Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India, Indonesia and Taiwan. On YouTube, viewers pester for the next episode, discussing the budding romance between Jasper and Claire and speculating about the introduction of a potential love rival.
Such "microcinema" - or short-form content that is usually distributed online - defines the new marketing. What it does, is wrap brand storytelling, literally the telling of a story around the brand, into a compelling video that taps people's penchant for stories and aversion to hard-sell tactics. It is the opposite of interruptive advertising, which disrupts people's viewing experience to hawk one's fare - think television and YouTube commercials and pop-up ads.
Gone are the days when people sat through ads and remembered jingles. "Now, most people skip ads," says Gary Goh, Singapore general manager of Double M, the commercial production division of mm2 Entertainment. "Most people shut them out. Among the youth today, that habit of watching ads is no longer there, unless they are a captive audience, like in a cinema."
In a time where people can self-select, turn advertisements on and off or pause and skip them, brands are finding the need to create content that people actually want to see - and share. To do that, it has to connect with people, which explains why brand storytelling often portrays a company's values rather than focus on specific product attributes.
Short-form online content, which is usually significantly longer than 30- and 60-second TV commercials, fulfils the need to make an emotional connection because it can tell more in-depth stories about the brands. And because the videos are predominantly run online, they avoid the hefty costs of broadcasting on free-to-air and cable TV.
Falling TV viewership, the high cost of advertising on traditional media and a tilt towards mobile content consumption have also contributed to a shift in the advertising dollar.
In Singapore, brands that have used brand storytelling campaigns tend towards consumer products, insurance firms and financial service institutions. Besides DBS, recent examples include Manulife, Samsung QLED TV, Lifebuoy, Bobo Fishball, Yomeishu, Gold Kili.
The new black in marketing
Asked why the bank had embarked on such a daring and capital-intensive marketing strategy as DBS Sparks, Karen Ngui, head of group strategic marketing and communications, says marketers are finding their ability to have full control of communication "slowly diminishing".
The online medium allows consumers to switch messages off easily, she says. "It is no longer about interruption marketing, but immersive marketing. Recognising this, we are moving towards a new model of marketing where we produce content that creates conversations and experiences for our consumers, with the aim of winning hearts and minds at scale," she says.
The director DBS worked with, David Tsui from Hong Kong, is no stranger to the genre, having shot the cinematic series of Solvil et Titus commercials for the wristwatch brand.
Ms Ngui says: "The (DBS Sparks) series resonated with many of our colleagues. Consumer reaction has also been great."
The bank deployed attribution modelling for two of the episodes, working with a vendor to study viewers' surfing patterns to see if watching the episode would lead to a transaction - like a loan application or account opening - within a certain period. It found that for the SME and consumer business in Hong Kong, 11.6 per cent and 5.6 per cent of new acquisitions can be attributed to customers who watched Sparks.
The web series does not peddle promotional loan rates or credit card privileges, instead opting to illustrate its slogan, "Live more, bank less". It was designed to showcase a more "human" element of banking and shed the myth that bankers are all about numbers, says Ms Ngui. The series was also amplified over social media platforms as well as in display ads, cinema advertising and bus wraps; these helped to guide traffic to DBS's own Sparks microsite by direct online searches.
More bang for your budget
While Ms Ngui declines to divulge the campaign budget for DBS Sparks, she says the cost of producing the web series was comparable to that of a TV commercial, but the distribution cost - what it pays Facebook and YouTube to boost its online exposure - is a fraction of the broadcast cost.
To give an idea of what advertisers are spending on TV, Toh Dasheng, Mediacorp's head of commercial planning and solutions, says clients tend to buy two to three spots running on and off prime time in their first two weeks of campaign, after which the frequency could dwindle to one to two spots a day for the next few weeks.
The base rate is S$2,000 for a 60-second commercial, and this needs to be multiplied by the programme loading multiple (advertisers pay more for popular programmes and are also charged differently on different days). The loading can go up to as high as 11.5 times for Channel 8 prime time. Joe Escobedo, director of content marketing at Happy Marketer, says the cost for digital advertising is not so much cheaper as it is more flexible. For most social media platforms, advertisers can specify their target audience by demographic, geography and interests, and set a budget that works for them.
YouTube advertisers, for example, pay per view for their in-stream ads, with an average cost-per-view ranging between 10 and 30 US cents. This means that advertisers only pay for viewers that have watched at least 30 seconds of their video, or have interacted with the video by clicking on an embedded URL for example.
There are also Google AdWords, where advertisers bid on certain keywords in order for their ads to appear in Google's or its subsidiary YouTube's search results.The system functions like a stock market: if more than one marketer has put in bids for a particular keyword, the highest bid dictates which ad is displayed for the searcher, or in the pre-roll of a YouTube video.
These benefits of digital marketing resonate with DBS. Ms Ngui says: "In the past, we were hemmed in by media cost. To do a 60-second TV commercial would be considered a huge luxury, and 90-second was a very rare occurrence... Digital also presents the opportunity to do more targeted marketing to specific audience segments."
DBS says it plans to continue to "up the ante on digital brand storytelling", exploring different formats to reach its target audience "in a relatable manner".
What's more crucial than the likes and shares is brand recall. Viewers must walk away having connected the story with the right brand.
Another recent web series commissioned by fishball and fishcake manufacturer BoBo did this in several ways. Besides the requisite close-ups of bouncing fishballs cascading into a pot of boiling water, it named the female protagonist Bobo, and gave the antagonist, a "fish deity" called Lord Yellowtail, a hideous, high-pitched laugh that sounds distinctively like "bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo".
In an interview with Marketing-interactive.com, Vanda Lim, marketing executive at BoBo, says the campaign targeted young families, tapping into working mums' frustrations with juggling family and work life. It also wanted to reinforce the BoBo brand as a family-oriented one.
Objective and reach
Yet amid the hundreds of thousands of likes and shares that marketers trumpet, scepticism towards digital ad spend is creeping up. Consumer products giant Procter & Gamble (P&G), the world's biggest advertiser, two weeks ago said that it cut spending on digital advertising by more than US$200 million last year.
P&G said analytics on its online ads suggested that such ad spend has largely been wasteful.
Digital marketers laud the ability of data analytics to deliver the message to the right audience, but P&G chief brand officer Marc Pritchard was doubtful, saying brands have been "overwhelmed by big data and ceding power to algorithms".
Incoming CEO of marketing communications company MullenLowe Group SEA, Paul Soon, stresses that brand storytelling is not just mere aesthetics, but needs to set clear objectives. "If a brand storytelling campaign does not add value to the campaign, then no matter how emotive the film is, it would be just pure entertainment. I believe brands now moving into content must be entertainment with purpose to action. Like how we now seek transformative experiences, brands need to uncover how they are transforming their engagement with consumers."
And today's consumers, more savvy now than ever and sensitive to online fakery, are a tough audience. A straw poll by The Business Times showed that while many had seen DBS Sparks' advertisements and trailers online, few had actually clicked to watch the series.
One particularly sceptical respondent said that she believed it to be "a slick public relations campaign to paint banking as an altruistic profession", while another said the cast - mostly foreign - did not appeal to him.
Nevertheless, co-founder of short film content platform Viddsee, Derek Tan, says it was no mean feat what DBS had pulled off with DBS Sparks. "I think the challenge is because this is the first time (a major local brand) is pushing out content like this; it is something very different in our advertising space today. People are just not used to this new medium."
The series in fact was warmly received on Viddsee's platform by its community of viewers. "We actually see our audience falling in love with the content," says Mr Tan. "Completion rates are higher and we see essay-length comments coming in praising it." According to Viddsee's data analysis, online brand storytelling does garner better viewer engagement than regular advertisements - some short films on its platform get a completion rate of 70-80 per cent.
"Stories work so well that people don't skip them but share them instead. The engagement around these stories is pretty amazing. To the client, their investment in the content production and marketing is also more justified."
And corporates are receptive to considering this nascent marketing channel when Viddsee engages them to explore marketing ideas. "Based on our early experience with them, it's been quite promising. It's not something that we are going in and banging our heads against a wall over."
All together now
Whatever the outcome for companies moving into brand storytelling, what's clear is that the rest of the ecosystem has benefited from the new channel. There's money in these stories, as online platform owners, production houses, filmmakers, media owners, even YouTubers, have discovered.
Viddsee, founded in 2013, last year began to seriously look at commercial storytelling. The platform had survived on investments from private investors and venture capital, and spent a good part of its last four years building up its community of filmmakers and audience.
Late last year, it launched Viddsee Studios, a production unit headed by local film creator Kenny Tan, formerly a senior producer for Mediacorp. The unit is now working with the Info-communications Media Development Authority as well as corporates to produce content. It is also a venue to showcase content and offers expertise from its community of filmmakers.
The studio earns a margin between what it charges clients and the cost of executing its projects. With this, Viddsee aims to become profitable this year, Mr Tan says.
mm2 Entertainment is another company that saw the money-making opportunity in brand storytelling. Mr Goh says: "mm2 did not start out doing production and creativity services for clients. We only started in 2015 when we represented a group of freelance directors and worked with them and pitched to clients - either direct corporate clients or advertising agencies. In some cases, we develop the creative ideas, but if the client already has a script, we'll just do the execution. We have shot for United Overseas Bank, Manulife, Singtel."
Feature-length film production remains its key business, but mm2 has diversified into other revenue streams such as short-form content production as a "bread-and-butter" business.
"Movie-making is a high-risk game. We can't make money on every film; we may produce six movies out of which only two may be profitable, three lose money and one breaks even," he says.
The Business Times understands that for a short film production, clients are willing to pay a range of S$50,000 to S$80,000, excluding marketing and distribution fees.
Most directors don't expect to make a windfall from short films. Rather, they get into it for exposure, for the calling card aspect, for getting their name known and honing their craft, in hopes of paving a bigger and better career in filmmaking. A portfolio of short-form content is also a quick way for producers to assess directors' artistic style.
"Almost every filmmaker in Singapore, be it your Eric (Khoo), Royston (Tan), (Boo) Junfeng, even Jack (Neo), in the early days of their careers, all started out doing short films. Back in the day, they had to cough up their own money to do so, but their efforts have paid off. Now, clients and advertising agencies will pay them to do short-form content," Mr Goh says.
Media owners are in on the game, too.
Publisher Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which owns The Business Times, launched SPH Content Lab in 2016 after it noticed that Singaporeans were consuming more video content on the Internet and on the go.
Koh Weng Wai, head of SPH marketing communications, says video brand storytelling fits nicely within SPH's cross media reach in print, digital, radio and outdoor. SPH Content Lab has worked with clients from the property, banking, fashion, motoring, and food & beverage sectors, with marquee brands that include Audi, DBS and G2000.
Mr Koh believes that going forward, more brands will move into video content creation hosted specifically on the Internet, especially going by the number of brands that released their Chinese New Year video content online in the recent festive season. SPH Content Lab is also working with Singapore Polytechnic students to co-create video content for millennials, by millennials. The video series will provide a new medium for SPH advertisers.
Mediacorp too has jumped on the bandwagon. In 2015, it started its content marketing unit called Brand Studio, comprising a team of about 20 former journalists who create and produce branded content campaigns for clients such as Uber, HSBC or Singapore Airlines.
Mediacorp has also embedded Singtel's brand messaging about its roaming services into a travelogue programme called Travel SSBD (Same Same But Different) series, showing that brand storytelling need not fall within the fiction genre.
YouTubers, ever alert to the possibility of earning some income, are getting in on the act as well, often weaving product placements - sponsored by brands - into short skits.
mm2's Mr Goh says technology has made video production cheaper and distribution free, thus lowering the barrier of entry for YouTubers since four to five years ago.
"That's why companies and groups like Night Owl Cinematics, Jianhao Tan, Wah!Banana are able to become content players with their own channels and captive audience," he says.
In fact, mm2 Entertainment has been working with eight digital content producers to commission original online content such as mini-movies and web series. These producers include local YouTube channels such as Butterworks, Cheokboard Studios, Ridhwan Azman, Dr Jiajia, Juo Productions, Evalee Lin, and Urban Xtreme Monkeys.
"We wanted to explore this space because there is creative talent and we are in the business of developing talent other than film... They have their own style and flavour which we found very interesting," says Mr Goh.
"A lot of these YouTubers are multi-talented. They write their own script, act in it, produce and shoot everything. Because of their ability to multi-task, they can do it with a certain budget."
mm2 Entertainment invests in some of these series and tries to find sponsors for them. If there are insufficient sponsors, mm2 fills the gap by providing the rest of the required funding. Most of these YouTubers get to retain their creative input. Depending on their popularity, YouTubers can charge brands S$10,000 to S$20,000 per video for a three- to five-minute video.
In return, mm2 hopes to groom these talent for its film-making business. Many short-form creators also harbour ambitions of seeing their production on the silver screen some day.
Meanwhile, brands continue to push the envelope, blurring the line between advertising and auteur filmmaking. JW Marriott recently issued a third instalment of its Two Bellmen series, putting out a short film that stretched to 35 minutes, resplendent with fight choreography, special effects and set in hip Asian metropolis du jour, Seoul. Raffles Hotel has just released We Were Built, a four-minute short made by award-winning Singapore director Kirsten Tan.
Whether people will tire of the 'ads-but-not-ads' tactic remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: the marketing game has shifted and the competition is now in HD.