Spark’s ‘North Star’ brings its vision of the future to life, as NZME embarks on one of its biggest branded content projects yet

Visions of the future are fertile territory for psychics, science fiction writers and highly paid consultants. And as Spark attempts to move from dumb pipes to digital services, it’s joined in the fun and created Spark Life 2025 to show what life might be like ten years from now. And NZME has helped bring its vision to life online.

Spark’s recently appointed chief marketing officer Clive Ormerod, whose first job was to sort out the company’s creative agency roster, says the project is based around its ambition of enhancing the potential of New Zealand through technology so they can spend more time doing what they care about. 

  • Check out Spark’s crystal ball gazing on the Herald here

He says it has been very open as a company about how it needed to change tack if it wanted to stay relevant. And while some believe the company is neglecting its existing customer base to chase after the glittering future, we live in an era of the exponential organisation, with companies growing more quickly than ever before, so it pays to mpve fast. And as Wayne Pick wrote recently about a study by The Economist in Nearables, Hearables and Wearables: “If you had a single dollar in 1900 and you looked ahead and invested it in what you knew was going to be the best performing shares that year, and then re-invested your earnings at the end of each year in the same way, by the end of the century you would have turned your $1 into $1,300,000,000,000,000. That’s $1.3 quadrillion to save you counting zeroes. By comparison, if you invested $1 in what you knew was last year’s best performing shares, and then reinvested the same way each year, by the end of the century you’d have $290. And no extra zeroes. So there’s a real incentive to keep your eyes on the road ahead.” 

From a consumer point of view, humans have a seemingly unending fascination with where that road might take us, as evidenced by everyone going bananas recently over the ‘anniversary’ of Back to the Future 2. And the joy of prediction is that no-one tends to remember what you get wrong while clinging on to the things you get right as proof of some kind of remarkable soothsaying ability (Jeane Dixon, for example). But Ormerod says it also plays an important internal role and is something of a “North star” for staff to see where the company is going (he said some staff even clapped when they were shown the video). 

“As a company we’re pushing and challenging ourselves internally about what the future can look like for New Zealand and our customers.”

Ten years is a long time in tech. YouTube has only just turned ten. And Facebook only started in 2004. And while many might find it hard to believe the near future will look like this (and while many might see this potential reliance on gadgets and technology as a negative given the amount of time we already spend with our shiny rectangles), Ormerod says the video, which was conceived by James Hurman of innovation consultancy Previously Unavailable and directed by Assembly’s Damon Duncan, features products that already exist, so it’s not a huge stretch to imagine them as normal parts of modern life in a decade.

He says it’s not about celebrating technology for technology’s sake, it’s about showing how technology can make life easier—although, as many have pointed out, much of today’s innovation is directed towards solving first world problems like ensuring your online purchases get to your house on the same day, or seeing your taxi arriving in real-time, rather than using technology to solve gruntier social issues.

He admits Spark has a lot of work to do on its own business to make things easier for its customers, but it’s proud of the stuff it’s been delivering and envisaging and that focus on innovation and future revenues seems to have ramped up since the rebrand.

The way Spark is talking to customers and potential customers also says a lot about how the company has changed, Ormerod says. Spark has consciously moved away from what he calls the ‘fireworks’ of traditional ad campaigns and while it still spends plenty on traditional media, it is trying to offer more utility/sweeteners through partnerships, events, sponsorships and, in this case, branded content.

“There are so many media channels where Spark could simply push out its own messages,” he says. But, increasingly, more progressive companies such as Netflix, which has worked with a range of publishers to create some of the best branded content in the world, are realising that a combination of push and pull can be an effective strategy.

“It’s about being innovative in how you’re presenting it and making sure we’re inspiring and going out with a strong message … Innovation doesn’t just come through making new products.”

He says the branded content project came at the end of the Spark Life 2025 process and it made sense to work with NZME because it has also been “looking pretty hard at its business model and thinking about what the future of media would be”.

Dallas Gurney, who moved from running radio stations to a new role leading the Branded Content Hub recently, says it had seen the Spark Life 2025 video and thought it was really interesting territory to explore. 

“We know people are interested in what the future might look like, so it seemed like a great subject to kick off our Brand Feature product. Spark were up for it and here we are. We’re really proud of it. It showcases all of NZME’s talent in one beautiful multimedia article. From research to graphics to animation, video and great storytelling, it’s all there. The NZME Branded Content Lab is able to bring it all together.”

Neither Ormerod or Gurney would discuss the budget attached to the project and no specifics were able to be given on the number of visitors or engagement statistics. Gurney said the traffic and engagement has been excellent and “well in advance of our expectations” and when we spoke on Friday, Ormerod said the feedback had been great and the general out take was that “Spark was doing some interesting stuff at the moment”. But Ormerod says it’s not just about money, it’s also about the amount of time and effort they put in to create something that would be of value for readers.

As well as promoting the content on the homepage, NZME has also pushed it through its own social channels, although with limited interaction (this differs from the New York Times’ T Brand Studio strategy, which uses separate accounts so as to not muddy the waters).

Interestingly, despite all the hooplah, it couldn’t be found on the homepage today and a Google search was required to find it (aside from a few nudges on social, Spark doesn’t seem to have promoted it too heavily either).

Gurney says there will be further Brand Feature articles in Q1 next year. 

“The first one took a long time to get done, but we’ve got the hang of it now and are keen to work with clients who have an interesting story to tell. We want to be the go-to for native in New Zealand.”

There’s still plenty of debate about branded content, with the purists thinking it’s a creeping threat to editorial independence and others believing that, when done well, it can be a win-win-win for publishers, brands and audiences. Whatever your view on it, NZME is pushing hard into that space and it’s seen by many as a necessity in what it is a very difficult media environment. And when we spoke with NZME chief executive Jane Hastings recently, she mentioned the T Brand Studio as a good model for the Herald as it keeps church and state separate and she believed it “could lift both sides of the boat”.

One of the issues with this kind of quality branded content from a commercial standpoint is that it’s such a bespoke, time-consuming process. As Monocle’s Tyler Brule pointed out when he visited New Zealand a few years back, he can send hundreds of thousands of magazines around the world and know they will arrive in a dairy in New Zealand on the right day, but can he get a fucking website done on time? Not likely. NZME is just starting out in this area, and while the page isn’t quite as sharp or advanced as some of the overseas efforts, it’s certainly a step up from its Brand Insight section. And if the T Brand Studio is anything to go by, it now employs around 40 full time staff, up from just a few a couple of years ago, so it’s proving to be a popular model. 

To launch its new Branded Content Lab last week, it brought over Melanie Deziel, who was the editor of T Brand Studio, created industry newsletter The Overlap League and is now “air traffic control” every time a brand wants to work with one of Time Inc’s 35 brands.

So why invest in content, rather than advertising? Numbers can be massaged to suit any argument, but Deziel says it makes commercial sense, with branded content getting 52 percent more visual focus and 18 percent higher purchase intent than standard ads.  

“The one thing I’ve learned from working at all these different places is context is everything. Branded content that works on Sports Illustrated is not the same as the stuff that works on Fortune or Travel and Leisure. Context comes from the latin Con and Texturia, which means to weave together, which is important to remember. Whether its an agency’s experience weaved together with their client’s objectives or a publishing partner working with an advertiser to fuse their objectives, it’s a beautiful thing when they come together. But there are a lot of pieces that need to come together.” 

And it’s difficult to align all of those things, particularly when you’ve got an advertiser, a publisher and potentially multiple agencies trying to make a meal. 

There are four things she says you need to do. 1) Identify your power, which involves finding out what you have the authority to speak on; 2) find your people and know who you’re creating content for; 3) know your place and find out where it needs to live; and 4) dress the part when you get there and make sure it looks good.  

“We already know that 74 percent of people trust educational content from a brand on a topic in their area of authority. So how do you define what you can speak about? It’s not just your products and services. No-one likes the guy at the bar who only talks about themselves. You have to think a little bit broader. How do products make people feel, what problems are you solving?”

She says it’s important to look at what’s already being said in your area of authority and try to come up with a unique perspective.

“Go straight to Google. The algorithm is fantastic. It tells you exactly what people are asking, what problems they’re having, so autocomplete will give you clues. And you can use that to build your content strategy.”

It’s also key to look at what people are likely to share and, while it may pain you to do it, it pays to look at your competitors to see what kind of content people are engaging with. Timing is also key, so look at how and when the target audience consumes content. Interest can fall away if it’s deployed at the wrong time, or during a major news event.

“You should also remember that your story should dictate the format, not the other way around. So it’s important to make sure you have right tools for the job and think about the user experience.”

While most use the terms paid, owned and earned, she prefers to use owned (websites, blogs, events and other content that is fully within your control), borrowed (social platforms that charge and might leave you in the lurch if they shut down) and allied (which combines the best of both worlds and gives you control over your content).

The last option is her favourite, for obvious reasons. And no doubt it’s NZME’s favourite too. Netflix, which she worked with at Huff Post, T Brand Studio and now at Time Inc, uses all of those strategies and it stands out as her favourite client. Here are some efforts she mentioned in her presentation and some others that stand out. 

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