Why more and more brands are putting their marketing in the hands of creators

Marketers from Coles, Glenfiddich, Officeworks and more talk about the rise of the creator economy and how they're harnessing its power to foster brand engagement

Would you put your brand into the hands of a complete stranger? For a rapidly increasing number of Australian marketers, the answer is yes.

Modern marketers need to produce ever-greater volumes of content to reach increasingly fragmented audiences and do so in a meaningful way. This challenge sits alongside the ongoing requirement for mass-market brand campaigns, but it is a challenge mass-market production models are ill-suited to meet.

It is, however, a task that appears tailor-made for the thousands of independent content creators who have emerged across Australia in the past decade, promising fresh ideas with rapid turnaround times. And better yet, many of them also bring loyal audiences of their own.

Jules Lund has spent the better part of a decade connecting more than 6000 brands in Australia, the US and UK to independent creators, and has watched as what began as influencer marketing evolved into a highly regarded mechanism for solving some of marketing’s biggest challenges. He now runs influencer marketing agency, Tribe.

“Marketers have this unbelievable need for branded pics and clips at a variety and volume they have never quite satisfied,” Lund says. “What creators do is they fill that gap.”

Several of Australia’s most iconic brands are now engaging external creators, including Coles, which is using them to fill a gap between its existing mass media and ambassador campaigns and owned social channels. According to Coles senior marketing manager, Stephanie Oh, using creators brings more diversity into the supermarket giant’s content.

This has proven helpful with Coles’ What’s for Dinner campaign, which relaunched in February featuring several creators: Rebecca Harding, Flex Mami, Jeff Van De Zandt and Coles ambassador, Brent Draper.

“The type of content creators we are using are not known for being good cooks - their content is much more in the entertainment space or in lifestyle content,” Oh tells CMO. “We wanted to show how relatable it is, that everybody has this problem of finding inspiration for what to cook on a weeknight. Content creators seemed the perfect solution.”

Oh says Coles’ plan is to use creators to connect with audiences on a range of topics, from new products to store innovations.

“Adding in the content creators means we can start introducing different styles and formats of content and storytelling,” Oh says. “Influencers have really evolved beyond just how many followers they have - it is really around the level of engagement that their audience have with the content they produce.”

The opportunities for creator engagement are numerous. For Officeworks, its latest creator campaign, Create-a-thon, invites creators to spend a night in its Chadstone store. Head of marketing, Sophie Smith, says the goal is to showcase the creative possibilities of Officeworks products while supporting emerging and established talent from around the country.

“Create-a-thon has a simple brief - creatives can use any of our products in store to start a creative project, no matter what size,” she says. “Our finalists are judged on three key criteria, ’originality of idea’, ‘skill and level of finish’ and ‘use of materials and supplies’ to take home the grand prize of $25,000 cash to fuel their creative pursuits.”

Smith says the Create-a-thon is open to creators of all ages, disciplines, backgrounds and interests. The event follows on from engagements Officeworks has conducted with creators through its content hub, Noteworthy.

Shared values versus risk

Given the care with which marketers treat their brands, the strategy of involving independent external creators is not without risk. According to Oh, the choice of creator is critical, with Coles’ creators first chosen for their audiences, engagement levels and type of content they produce.

“We don’t want to align ourselves with somebody who could be doing something controversial or that doesn’t align with our brand values.” Oh says. “But from a strategic perspective, we have a framework that looks at all the key pillars that Coles is trying to achieve.”

Critical to using creators effectively is maintaining that authentic connection to their audiences. That means giving them free rein to continue being what made them popular in the first place. Naturally, this can cause anxiety for marketers who are entrusting them with brands that can in themselves be worth millions of dollars, such as the historic whisky brand, Glenfiddich.

Recently, Glenfiddich distiller, William Grant & Sons Australia, engaged with local fashion designer, Jordan Dalah, to promote its Grand Cru variation. According to William Grant & Sons Australia marketing manager, Kristie Asciak, partnering with an external creator was seen as a means of creating cut-through with a new audience.

“Grand Cru is an expression created to introduce whisky into moments of celebration - not an occasion whisky would typically be considered for,” Asciak says. “We knew we needed to short-circuit traditional perceptions of whisky and encourage re-evaluation with an unexpected product.

“Whisky as a category is attracting a more diverse audience with a growing proportion of women and younger drinkers. We wanted to produce a Glenfiddich campaign that was highly relevant to these new audiences to build a more diverse drinker base for the brand.”

According to Asciak, the brief to Dalah was simple: Reinterpret Glenfiddich Grand Cru and its moment of celebration through his eyes and label. The only parameters are inclusion of its iconic Glenfiddich Stag and ensuring the drinking moment included more than two people. The partnership produced a limited-edition pack and custom-designed dress inspired by the Grand Cru and using 10 metres of vibrant gold fabric.

Asciak says it was important for her to be able to let go of control of the project and trust in the strength of the company’s brand – something made easier by collaborating with a partner who matched Glenfiddich’s brand story.

“I was confident the Glenfiddich brand was strong enough to carry the stamp of another designer and brand,” Asciak says. “Once you establish creative guardrails, you must resist the temptation to change the creative outcome. I had to constantly remind myself that we are working with Jordan because of his brilliance, and not influence it.”

She advises other marketers to find comfort in the unknown and new. “The whole process itself was an exercise in Glenfiddich’s boundary-pushing brand values,” Asciak says.

“Placing Glenfiddich in Jordan’s world – the world of luxury fashion – and having Jordan work within the world of alcohol was uncomfortable for me at times. Ideation did not follow the traditional planned agency process, and I definitely felt my own ‘Marketing 101’ boundaries being challenged.

“On reflection, I loved this about working with Jordan – the campaign evolved considerably as Jordan proposed new, edgier ideas that pushed us even further into his world.”

Asciak says the first two ballots for the limited-edition box sets have sold out and a third ballot is now live. The campaign has also met her expectations for audience reach and brand positioning.

“I can’t see why we wouldn’t repeat this approach again,” Asciak says.

Up next: Balancing control with creative freedom, plus measuring results

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Finding the right guardrails

Stephanie Seebacher began her exploration of the use of external creators in her former role as associate manager for social for Sunbeam at consumer goods maker, Newell Brands, where she launched its influencer program in partnership with Tribe. Back then, she saw a space for harnessing communities of content creators to connect in with Sunbeam’s brand and products.

“What we quite quickly realised was there is an even greater opportunity to build genuine brand advocates through these creator partners, while also having a strong, engaging and built-in community of creators ready to tell the brand story we required through their content,” Seebacher says. “It started with a need to reach a new audience and grew into an opportunity to plug into creators to help us talk about our products in a consumer relevant way - and fill a gap that is so often present in the social media space - feeding the content beast.”

Seebacher is now setting up a freelancing/consultancy business focusing on social strategy and execution, which will offer guidance on and support with creator leverage. One piece of advice she is happy to give away is the need to think beyond what’s obvious when choosing creators.

“It may not always be creators in the categories you think that can get the best results for your brand,” Seebacher says. “If you traditionally speak with a certain category, think about other ways through creators to enter different ones. That’s the beauty of the creator economy, we now have so many ways and avenues to connect in and be relevant to our target audience through the creator partners that we work with.”

Seebacher cautions, however, that it is important to rethink the briefing process when working with creators and to keep it as simple as possible.

“Often as brand custodians, we try to get our marketing activity to tick numerous boxes,” Seebacher says. “The key with engaging creators to support your brands is to understand exactly what each campaign - and more specifically, the role each creator partner has for your brand.”

While Seebacher initially provided written briefs, the most successful engagements came about when she engages directly engaged with creators and built relationships between her, them and the brand.

“It’s definitely time consuming and a pretty old-school approach to marketing, but I think it’s invaluable to invest time into building relationships with your creator partners,” Seebacher says.

Lund agrees the answer to the question of how much a brand should intervene in the output of their creators is ‘very little’.

“Outside of brand guidelines, the more they intervene in the creative process, the less they will benefit from it,” he warns. “You can have something that is really easy and safe, but you have to pay a premium to that, and that is creative agencies. But if you are buying someone’s audience as well, you are leaving it up to them.

“Those people that are trusting reap all the rewards. If you can’t afford to be trusting, then you shouldn’t play in that.”

Seebacher agrees so long as you have done the foundational work, any risks in the engagement should be mitigated.

“If you have aligned with the right creators and done the foundational work on objective, creator brand/style alignment, and providing them with a clear picture of the end-goal, then my recommendation for brands is to let creator partners do their job,” Seebacher says. “You have selected those creators because you have seen their content and style resonate with your target audience. Have faith in the groundwork you have done and let them do what they do best. I believe that this is why having strong relationships with your creator partners is key - it’s a collaboration after all.”

Adapting the briefing process is something Oh has taken on board at Coles and she says is critical if Coles is to engage with their audiences in an authentic way.

“Authenticity is so key in all of this,” she says. “They need to be able to tell their stories and produce content from their own perspectives. It is not about us briefing them word-for-word on what needs to be posted or shot creatively, as we might traditionally. We have brought them in to understand the brand, understand our objectives and feel passionate about it.”

Oh says Coles briefs its creators each month on key priorities, but then lets them choose what they work on.

“As part of their contract, they have a minimum set of deliverables, but we are flexible with it. If in one month they can’t fulfill it, then they will make it up later down the track,” Oh says. “Consumers and audiences on social media are getting smarter and smarter, so they know when we are selling something to them. Coles has to follow guidelines around having clear call outs that this is an ad or a sponsored post. But when the content becomes more relevant to that content creator’s audience, they are more likely to engage than when it something that is purely a sponsored post.

“It’s been a really exciting journey for Coles as a brand as this is quite new. The results have been phenomenal. Internally, there is so much excitement around the potential that this will bring from a longer-term perspective.”

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