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Native Content Is About More Than Disguising an Advertisement

By Melissa Rodier

The intertextuality of media and branding has changed the storytelling landscape drastically in a short time. In a culture that has become immune to the 30-second advertising spot, more and more advertising and marketing depends on product placements, recommendations, and innovative storytelling techniques. In this new era, branded content has become more and more important to brands trying to get their stories told, as consumers have evolved to a point that they consider themselves too savvy to be swayed by direct advertisements.

Branded content has become the norm in most publications. It can be difficult to tell the difference between native advertisements and pieces written far outside the reach of advertising dollars — which, to be honest, is a difficult task when most media companies depend on ad revenue to remain afloat. A study published in the beginning of 2016 showed that most consumers could not distinguish between native advertising and original editorial content. In fact, only 8% of the people studied could correctly identify what was, in fact, advertising — even with the mandatory disclosures advertisers display with native advertising.

That most consumers cannot distinguish native advertising from news might be ideal for brands, given that the point of native advertising it to be as indistinguishable from news as possible. But that ideal is not enough. Most native advertising aims to please the brands they represent, and audience engagement, while an important priority, is still a second priority behind client happiness. It’s why the standard needs to be raised, and is being raised, by some innovative creators and thinkers within the branding landscape.

Experiments within the narrative branding landscape are necessary to keep savvy audiences engaged and interested in a brand and its message. Audiences demand story, something they can connect with and relate to in a meaningful way. The team at Pereira & O’Dell has been working with the cinematic form as a new way of engaging in meaningful narrative storytelling that connects brands and audiences. The team’s most recent venture has enlisted documentary film-making legend Werner Herzog, who has made a living making audiences care about everything from a man with an enthusiasm for bears that would prove deadly in Grizzly Man, to the lives of villagers in Siberia in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, to the journey of death row convicts in Into the Abyss. Herzog, a gifted storyteller, was enlisted by P&O to create its newest piece of native storytelling, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a film that enjoyed a celebrated Sundance premiere, and also just happens to be an advertisement for Netscout.

Beyond just being an advertisement though, the film has generated genuine critical attention from publications like Variety. When is the last time that a piece of native advertising written for a newspaper or magazine gained attention for its own merits or quality, beyond the attention of those on the inside of the marketing and advertising industry? The people behind something like Lo and Behold understand that audiences want more. Audiences want genuine engagement, and want to be as much of a priority for native advertisers as the clients who pay for the advertising.

PJ Pereira of Periera & O’Dell understands the importance of the collaborative possibilities that native advertising presents. It presents the possibility of creating genuine and important pieces of storytelling while also conveying a brand’s message. Of course, this is dependent upon brands and marketers purely thinking of selling a product when they engage in native advertising. Pereira explains:

“Ultimately, this is the equation: It needs to be worth the money to the client, and worth the time to the audience. In most branded content so far, the agencies have been trying to please the brand, and that’s all. Now, the bar is higher. It also needs to be a good investment of time for the audience. Finding that balance is way more difficult. We need the artists to come in. And we need more credibility as artists ourselves, as agencies, as well.”

With native advertising still finding its feet, we are at an important junction where we can still experiment and discover the best form that works for both clients and audiences. Meaningful storytelling and narrative architecture goes beyond purely selling a product. The true aim should be to create something meaningful and of a quality that leaves everyone a little richer than they were before they engaged with the content. People become enthusiastic when they can truly connect with a story. The best native advertising, and the best possible future of native advertising, will take a page from P&O’s book, and invest in not only delivering a brand’s message, but creating a story of lasting value that will engage and inspire audiences and creators for years to come.

Melissa Rodier is an Associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StoryBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.