Welcome to Brand Story Inc. I’m your host, Jay Sharman. Every week we sit down with smart folks to talk about innovative ways they are creating a content studio to connect with their audiences. I’d like to say every company can be a media company in this conversation. Hopefully, it helps you understand why. Our guest today on Brand Story Inc is David Beebe, Brand Storyteller, Producer, and Speaker and the Founder and CEO of Storified Hospitality Group. David, welcome to the show.
Take a listen to Jay and David’s conversation here or read the full interview below.
DAVID BEEBE: Thanks for having me.
JAY SHARMAN: We’ll just jump right in. Tell our listeners what Storified Hospitality Group is in your words.
DAVID: Well, really think about it as how to storify your brand and so we work very high level strategically with brands that are wanting to really focus on consumer-first content and content that’s driven by storytelling, and so that means a lot of things from they may want to set up a content studio internally to how do you set up brand publishing even to a command center. How do I work with agencies? What are the deals look like and so we really help them develop how should they approach storytelling strategically, and oftentimes what is that space that they should be storytelling in and helping them identify their narrative, and then really in a sense, packaging up some creative slate and options for them by working with the creative community.
So it’s then tapping in and saying, look, this is based on everything we’ve learned and sort of some very high level creative. This might be the right talent to work with, the right producer, the right director, the right agency, and so it’s really helping them guide them and I think the end goal is to get them to do it because a lot of brands want to talk about doing it but we’re very, very clear with our partners we work with that you’ve got to commit, you’ve got to set some budget aside and we can’t sit around for six months and just talk about it. It’s learning and doing.
JAY: I think there’s a fair amount of those folks that are listening to this podcast, ones that are kind of putting their foot in the pool, if you will, and then there are others who’ve gone all in. So, we’re going to try to appeal to all of them today and I invite our listeners to check out David’s website, both at storified but also at Davidbeebe.com for his full backstory. It’s fascinating and quite candidly is probably a whole different podcast, your journey, but part of that journey really included a successful career in Hollywood where you won Emmy’s, Cannes Awards, James Beard Awards for the likes of Disney and your work at PBS and with that background, I’d like to focus today’s conversation on what’s happening at the intersection of Hollywood storytelling and brand marketing.
In today’s show, we’re going to navigate everything from best practices of brands to who’s doing it well, to the classic ROI question and kind of go as much as we can from A to Z. David, with that, let’s start with the basics because I think definitions in our content world can be divisive or confusing. Let’s start there. How do you define branded content versus say, branded entertainment or brand publishing?
DAVID: Yeah, I think if you look at the highest level, I would put that as it’s brand funded content but when you think of even that in itself, I always question isn’t all content essentially funded by a brand with the exception, of course, if you’re paying a pay TV service and there’s no commercials, but maybe they’re still integrations they’re doing, but I think when you look at it, I mean since the beginning, a soap opera is all content really has been funded by brands, and so one way or another, and I think what’s changed is now the brands now have the ability to produce their own content, own the IP, and really make it a long tail game and really thinking and acting like a media company and so when you look at what is branded entertainment, I view that as branded entertainment. It’s content that is about entertaining an audience, pure and simple.
It is, I want to make them feel something. I want them to laugh, I want them to do whatever, and essentially that I’m the purveyor of that as the brand. I’m bringing them that experience and they will appreciate that. So in branded entertainment, I would put things from documentaries to films to TV shows to webisode series, even to the podcast in a sense, but that pure, really much focused on story-driven content, about entertaining and doing nothing else. Maybe it does other things down the road, but it’s very much investing in owning that IP, whereas branded content is very similar but branded content is almost, it’s too branded in the sense that it doesn’t provide value to a traditional distributor of content.
So the key difference there is , with the films that we made at Marriott, some of the different documentaries, TV shows, those were all things that were so valuable that other people like Netflix and Hulu and OTTs and other people that needed content would license from us and that’s where I talked to brands about investing in branded entertainment that’s so valuable that other people will pay you for it, whereas branded content is, “Hey, we’re going to do a cooking series that’s sponsored by this brand.” There are some integrations. It’s too overly branded where people are not going to necessarily want to buy from you because it’s not pure entertainment, and then you have brand publishing, which is their blogs and magazines and things like that.
JAY: Yeah. I think that nuance is really one of the make or breaks as you talked about, is that overt integration or promotionalism that brands can’t not do. They can’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar. They can’t get in there and not say “buy this now.” One of the things that fascinates me is that you’ve got Storified as a company, but you’re also doing these master classes where you go into topics just like that. I want to actually go into a couple of concrete examples of things that you and or your clients have done, whether it’s the Marriott content studio or current clients specifically that play to that, that true entertainment and how you keep it from crossing that line into too promotional. It’s where consumers see right through it.
DAVID: Yeah. Well I think it’s difficult for a brand to do that where they do want to start out with branded entertainment, but then often what happens is getting, you get branded content or you get an ad because the traditional marketers are so, we’re taught and beat in that it’s about features and benefits and products and service. Let me tell you all about how great I am and that worked when consumers didn’t have the option to skip ads, but now we’ve got to find a different way. So they don’t want to be interrupted with ads. We have to make the ads entertainment essentially.
So how do we do that? I think there’s a lot. I would say it’s still the very early days. I think a lot of brands jumped in years ago. If you look way back when of BMW films and it continues to evolve from there but I think the good news is they’re starting to understand the value of providing value and that not everything has to drive to a sale, but it is that biggest challenge internally and that’s what we do a lot in the workshops and masterclasses is real time development of creative and actually building what’s the purpose of this content? How are we going to measure it? What’s the distribution? Who are our partners that may help pay for? Really getting the think from marketers or storytellers and thinking like a media company.
JAY: You know what I think, and you just hit on it. We first connected several years ago in 2015 after you started getting featured for the work that you did at Marriott to help transform them into this “media mindset” within their company. You were one of the first brands that I saw that came out and said “we are a media company” and you did what you just talked about scripted films, documentary content that was truly entertaining the client.
One of the things I think our listeners will really want to hear is, the word that came out for me was “alignment.” You were able to align the different silos within Marriott to come together for the greater good around this and that’s no small feat. So I’d love for you to talk about how you and your team were able to transform such a large brand into that media mindset. How did you do it? What did it take? What did you learn?
DAVID: Well, I think you first have to have an understanding of at all levels throughout any brand that how their relationship between consumers and brands has changed, meaning that the consumers are now in charge of how they interact with the brands, and then you look at the numbers and so I always, if you’re presenting to an executive audience who is used to seeing numbers all day, use that as a storytelling technique to show them, look, why are we investing in particular types of media that different percentages of people are skipping, that are not engaging with and it doesn’t mean, I think one of the mistakes when people go into a brand and try to create this change, they try to go in and shut everything else off or say that storytelling is the only marketing we should be doing and I’m not a believer in that.
I think that there’s an entire marketing mix and it all needs to connect and nothing should have a dead end and it should all support each other. Storytelling is a big part of that, but it’s not the only thing and so it is using a lot of the data that’s out there to really define why you should be investing in this other form of marketing, and I think you also have to have executive support. Doesn’t mean that they need to understand how it works or the mechanics of it, but really understand the vision of where you want to go, and I think more executives need to spend time educating people internally versus trying to create that change right away, and Marriott and brands I’m working with now, that’s where the first three months is really – education.
It is going around and speaking, meeting with different teams and groups and speaking their language and getting them on board versus trying to come in and force something and not explaining anything because people are going to have fear if they don’t understand what is this change and why are we doing it and so that’s the biggest thing – understanding. Look, I’ve got it. Who’s my audience, and if I’m a storyteller, I better be able to sell my story internally because if you can’t do that, how are you going to be able to sell it, sell storytelling to an audience and so, and I think the last, one of the last key, and this is super important and this is usually the roadblock and where things die: you’ve got to have budget set aside. You’ve got to have your own budget.
So oftentimes what I’ll see is a brand will bring in somebody to do content marketing, storytelling. They’ll go out, they’ll do all this work and they’ll bring these ideas, and then the internal brand will say, well, that was fun but our budgets have moved over here now, and so if you don’t have your own budget, there’s no way you can actually create and ideate and test things and so that’s key. It doesn’t have to be huge, but if you are looking at starting a content studio or anything, I would highly recommend you come up with a budget. Even if you have to go around with a tin cup and go to different groups and beg for $50,000 here, $20,000 there. It is the only way because you’ve got to be able to go out and do that and that’s why everything aligned with Marriott – because I had all those things and the budget wasn’t huge the first year.
It was very small, but we had the ability to say, okay, we’re going to go do this and there are people that need to know and need to know but this isn’t about a committee. This isn’t about going around and getting a hundred signatures. We’re just going to do it and that was because we had our own budget to go execute things.
JAY: Well, before we leave Marriott and kind of move on to Storified, I’m a visual learner and there’s that one photo in a lot of articles that you were profiled in with the M Live Control Content Studio that literally had the different names of the departments on the back of chairs. Instead of producer and director, it was media agency and social media team. It was a very literal alignment of bringing people together.
You also, while there, created an original film, French Kiss. You had another series around the Bellboy and Marriott, while featured in it, was very subtle. It was very entertaining, so bringing those points home but then you also had to tie that down to ROI, and you were one of the first ones that kind of really went out there were able to show, “Guys, here’s how the dots connect.” I’d love for you to share that. Talk about from a higher level, how the entertainment content actually impacted the bottom line.
DAVID: Yeah, that goes back to when you talk about strategies is really defining that purpose of the content. I was very clear as we laid out and built a strategy is, “Okay, what is that we define the purpose of it?” Meaning, how are we going to measure the success? Is this content meant to do sales? If it is, that’s fine, but here’s what it needs, here’s what it is, the type it is, here’s where it goes, here’s how we’re going to measure it. Is this content meant to just purely entertain or is it to inform or is it to introduce a new brand? Is it to change perception of a brand?
I think oftentimes when we’re doing branded content of any type, people get so excited about doing it but they can’t explain the purpose behind it, the audience it’s for or how do we know this is successful? It’s very clear to spend a lot of time in that because as marketers are typically obsessed with measurement and so you need to know before you even start talking about creative, all of those things. That’s super, super important. That’s always a place to start. With the films, it was all of those things. In many cases it was to change perception of a brand, showcase the product experientially through the story but never interrupt the story. Then what does that opportunity to reward people for watching or participating? I always find how can we extend this content further? Meaning, is there an offline experiential component that I can now engage more with an audience, and I’m trying to build a relationship with? Online, can I create some sort of sales package?
With French Kiss for example, we built sales packages around all of them. The idea was that you got presented an offer as you watched the film in multiple different ways, but the idea that you too could experience what you’ve seen in the film. The intention there through the story was to inspire people to travel, which ladders up to the overall goal narrative was to be the world’s favorite travel company. So, if I can show you a story that resonate with you, that’s going to say, “Oh, I remember when I was in Paris.” Or, “I’ve always wanted to go to Paris.” Or, “Oh that’s really cool. I saw the Eiffel tower. ” Whatever it is to trigger that emotion, you’re most likely to start thinking about traveling and because you have really watching the content, why not present something to you that says, “Hey, you can meet the GM, VIP arrival, great room, chocolate champagne on arrival, whatever, a VIP tour of all the places we shot.” Which happened to be the iconic locations in Paris and at a great rate and that one sales package did $500,000.00 of rooming sales in two months for that particular hotel in Paris. That goes into helping cover the cost of producing that type of content.
That was years ago, but that film is still playing on screens, on airlines, any place a screen is, because it’s distributed and sold everywhere now. It is much bigger than a campaign. So, when you’re investing in something, the other thing to realize is this is something that’s going to be around for three years, four years. It’s going to be relevant because it’s truly storytelling as long as the brand is the same brand essentially, meaning the experience hasn’t changed.
JAY: Great point.
DAVID: Those are some key things in there.
JAY: So, a couple of years ago then 2017, as you pack up your Emmys and you start your own company, you start Storified brands, which as we mentioned, is really helping the hospitality industry transform into the media mindset. So, now you’re a couple of years in, dozens of clients and case studies. We’d love to dig in a bit more on some of the current common challenges and opportunities you are seeing for clients. Where do you start with your clients?
DAVID: The biggest challenge and the most common thing I hear is how do we start or where do we start or what do we do? What’s that first thing? That mixed with typically what I see across clients and just brands in general and talking to them is that they’ve decided they’re going to invest in storytelling, content marketing, whatever type it is and not very often do they get the opportunity to build it from scratch. They’re usually inheriting a team and in many cases, it’s a team that is a whole mix of that type of talent.
So, that combined with I’ve got the mandate to invest in content, I’ve got this team over here that’s kind of maybe talented people, but that’s not their expertise. Anyone that worked in corporate long enough, knows that you just can’t change people’s job overnight or invent new headcount. There’s a whole process in HR, which is part of the frustration in those big companies. It takes three months, six months to create that change. That with the struggle of what’s my first thing, that’s the biggest thing is just strategically getting a cohesive team, then a process and then an actual strategy of, “Okay, let’s look at all the possibilities in the world.” What do we want to create? And you start to narrow that down into, “Okay, we are, through a series of sessions and workshops and whatnot, we’ve landed on the best place for us to start is to do a podcast , to launch a magazine and a documentary.” Or maybe it’s one of those but really narrowing in on not trying to do it all.
Again, going back to how do I define this strategically? What’s the purpose of this content? How am I going to measure it? Because you’ve got to be able to still prove the value of it.
JAY: Well, I think that’s to that point that there’s an overwhelmingness of where do we start, right? Since that’s where most people go. As I mentioned, both at Storified and at DavidBeebe.com, you can see some of the masterclasses that David has that really break these down in a really distinct subjects, and I believe you call it the brand blueprint is one of them. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your brand blueprint process and what you do. It seems to be a logical starting point of kind of that process piece.
DAVID: Yeah, it is. The blueprint is really the outcome of probably about three to six months’ worth of work, depending on the size of the company. Within there, you are essentially mapping out an entire content strategy and beyond the content strategy, that means people, process, measurements, the type of content you’re going to do and then more importantly, your ecosystem, meaning, what are my own channels, who are my distribution partners, where’s all this content going to go? It really is an entire blueprint, and it’ll continue to adapt and change, but it is the guide of, I would say, three years worth of work and what needs to get done. They’re pretty comprehensive, and they take a while to complete and really digging in. It is really the A to Z of, “Okay, we’ve made a decision. We want to invest in this, but before we just jump in and say, sure, let’s go make this, not know anything, we’re going to spend the six months to actually map it out.”
JAY: So, who’s doing it well? You’ve got a bunch of clients and you’ve done this and you’re, by my focus group of one here, the Capitol THE leader in the industry on this, so share some case studies. Who were some of the, whether it’s your clients or others that you think have gone through this and what are they doing that’s been successful?
DAVID: I think HP does a really good job, I think. Even if you look at, what I would say is traditional advertising, TV spots in longer form, two, three minutes online of their different things they do they’re really focused on. Even if we’re going to do an ad, it’s going to be driven by story in a sense. I think IBM, George Hammer and his team over there, they do really good storytelling that is really focused on B2B but really has almost … it could have a consumer twist to it in some of their documentaries they do.
There’s a lot of brands out there doing it well. I think again, going back to that, they’re just doing it and figuring it out.
JAY: It’s half the battle, right, getting in the game. I think one of the things we run up to is quite a few small and mid-size businesses who hear something like this and say, “Well that’s great. Give me your tin cup budget at Marriott, which is going to be bigger than mine, because I’m a 10, 50, 100-million-dollar entity.” So what do you say and what advice do you give to the small to midsize businesses who may not have the marketing resources of some of the companies that you just listed?
DAVID: I think that excuses is BS.
JAY: Love that.
DAVID: If people knew the budgets that I had at Marriott, they’d laugh at them. I’m not kidding. I had to go around there with a tin cup and collect money from other groups but also, I would lean into partner. So, I’d say, “Hey, we’re making a documentary, a film. I need luggage, I need cars, I need wardrobe.” I went and made deals with credit card companies, rental car companies, luggage companies, and said, “Hey” just like a traditional producer would, “Hey, we’re making this film, we’re shooting in Dubai, the audience is going to reach 10 million people. Here’s the whole plan. I want to make you part of it. “Tumi Luggage, give me $50,000.00 worth of luggage.” Or whatever it is. Or, “BMW, give me, I need six cars.” They all did. It was bringing in partners as well. That’s where I go back that money is always the reason, the BS reason.
I actually think that small businesses have the biggest opportunity in this space, but they need to think differently. I’m talking small. So when you look at, let’s look at real estate agents for example. There are real estate agents out there, and I have good friends that do weekly shows. One of my top real estate agents in Los Angeles who’s on two reality shows, he started.
In Los Angeles who’s on two reality shows. He started four years ago doing a show called the Real Estate Minute. It’s three minutes, it’s him around town talking about trends, what’s being sold, real estate news, entertaining things. He’s made hundreds of episodes. Even the first couple of 100s didn’t get a lot of views, but eventually three, four years later, TV producers started to see it. It opened up more opportunities. Now he’s got a book, now he’s on national speaking tours and so it really opens up, you’ve got a global audience there, but it takes a lot of consistency.
It doesn’t take a lot of money. He has a team now that shoots everything for him, but when he started it was literally him and friends holding the camera and him editing it, but he put in the work. Same thing. If you look at, I think even like dentists, doctors, car dealerships, well what’s the opportunity? Any of these local businesses, why are they not creating the programming?
JAY: Yeah, it’s a great point.
DAVID: It doesn’t take that much because I think they actually have the biggest opportunity with a small amount of money to invest in creating this content that’s going to inform, entertain people, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. It’s about them being the authority in their space and building that influence up.
JAY: Yeah. Right. It needs to come from that base of credibility. I’d love for you to react to this because we talk about this here. If you look at a major brand, and I’ll just pick, we’re based in Chicago. All State, who’s based here. Huge in college football spending tens and tens if not 100 million all in on college football. One of the things we talk about when you look at just All State’s, forget about the money they’re spending on advertising on the ESPNs and the Fox’s. We’re not saying replace that, but where we think it’s going is what’s that niche within college football? Since you’re associated with it, that you can entertain your fans in a way that they’re not being entertained elsewhere? You’ve already made that decision that this group, this target audience is a fit for what you’re doing. So how do you further own that? To your point, I still think it’s early, but I’m curious where you think the market’s going as it relates to branded entertainment?
DAVID: I think you’re going to see more and more brands doing it. I think consumers don’t care where content’s coming from at all, as long as you’re upfront about it and saying, “Look this is coming from a brand and because of that, it may have a particular slant.” But why’s that different than any other content we watch every day?
For example, I’m working on a documentary with a solar company that is tracking down where the money comes from that’s against the industry, these organizations that don’t want clean energy. Obviously the solar company has a stake in the stake in it and they want to tell a particular story. Not everyone’s going to like it, but they’re standing up for that.
One of the biggest branded entertainment success stories that people don’t talk about or I don’t think don’t realize is Lego. Look at these Lego movies and the brands involved in them and they participate in the IP and the ownership and the revenue. That’s a little bit different because they’ve created this character in this world, but that’s branded entertainment at its core. So I think it’s just starting. But I also think what really has to happen has to people understand this, it’s not advertising, it’s not marketing. It does those things. We can show how it does those things. But this is purely about building an audience, engaging them with entertaining content and building that relationship and then building that community around it. Then how do you activate that community?
JAY: Well said, I mean homestretch here David, but there’s one last topic to bring up. I listen to Digiday and their podcast and Brian Morris, he’s great, but one of the things that bothers me in the trades and the narrative for marketers right now is this whole concept of an in-house agency. I read a stat from the Association of National Advertisers the best one I could find was from 2018 where it says, “78% of its members now report having an in-house agency, up from 50% in 2013.” So a huge uptick. However, what does that mean? Right? It can be a content studio like you built at Marriott and that you’re building for clients and then there’s in-house agencies, which might be nothing more than media buying or media planning or some element of it. There are so many different components. So I’d like to spend just a couple of minutes on what you’re seeing in terms of best practices of the in-house content studio as either a subset or differentiated from the in-house agency at brands.
DAVID: Yeah, I think when I arrived at Marriott, the team that I absorbed in a sense was the in-house agency and ultimately building and decided to build up other teams around them. So that in-house agency was responsible for, about 60 people strong, responsible for servicing the 30 different brands under the Marriott portfolio. Everything from mailers to print ads to any type of digital content, but traditional marketing and advertising in a sense and even activation things that you would need for individual hotels and whatnot. That’s where I think it’s just important to define what is, to your point, what type of agency is it and what’s the purpose of it and even what’s the business model of it? There are some agencies that, for a Marriott example, the way it was set up was that the agency actually bill the brands and it wasn’t for profit at the end of the year we sort of a zero out in a sense, but the brands paid for the work just like they would any other agency.
Now we didn’t have all the capabilities in-house. There were lots of agencies in play and I think there’s a balance to that. I think trying to do everything in-house is a mistake certainly. So if you put that in the branded content space, brand entertainment, I think it’s important that you should have an internal team, a small team that is, I would call them more your executive producer types who are help what is that strategy, everything we’ve talked about today, but okay, who then are the right creative people for me to execute it with? So I think a lot of people thought at Marriott we were building a content studio and had a team of a 100 people in a content studio.
In reality, it was really four people, but it was all people that we said, “Okay, we know we want to make this type of content and so this production company, this talent, this agent or whatever it may be is, are the right people.” That’s what I meant by packaging. I would go out and handpick the people and then the internal team really acts as the executive producer of the project to make sure that it stays on track and on budget, on time and all of that. But there’s an external team actually executing it.
JAY: Very cool. Last question for you David and we’re fascinated here about your master classes as you can probably tell since I’ve mentioned it like three times in this podcast. But it’s funny because it’s a collection of all the questions we get from our clients when we’re talking about similar things that you and I have talked about. Well, how does this work and how will I know and show me who’s making money on it? So it looks really cool it’s at Davidbeebe.com. I think we set off air here that our team is going to partake in these. So we’ll be clients of yours on this.
But I’m curious for you, what are graduates, folks coming out of this program or master classes, where are they getting the most value? What are they saying and what’s surprising to you when they come out and being like, “You know what David, this was awesome cause I never realized X.” What are you hearing?
DAVID: I think, there’s a couple of things. One certainly is that, I didn’t think of it like that or didn’t view it that way. So the big part of the morning is really getting people to think different and it’s really education in a sense and getting them to think, let us transform them from a marketer or a story teller. So that’s everything of a lot of different case studies showing them this world and getting them to think, “Oh okay, I’m not making ads. This is about entertaining.” So thinking like a producer in a sense, that’s one of the biggest ones. I think the other one is really that they leave with something real world, meaning that the entire afternoon is actually all hands on and work shopping, both individually and as groups. They are developing, let’s say that there’s usually two challenges in the afternoon that they get together for.
So one will be, let’s say, they’re assigned a format. So maybe one group is doing a podcast and one’s doing a short film or whatever it may be. But they have to figure out within an hour and really build and we give them some guidelines, but what is the purpose of it? How am I going to measure this? What is strategy distribution, partners? Then they pitch it back to the executive teams that come in for the two different sessions to hear. Then winners are picked and oftentimes a brand will reward them with some, even if it’s $5,000 to go and ideate a little bit more on the winning ideas.
But all of them leading through that whole process with anywhere from 12 to 15 ideas that have been flushed out that are real world ideas that they can actually go back and say, “Hey, okay, now we want to do this.” It’s not just listening to people talk. It’s not just doing stuff that there is no outcome. You actually leave with boards and boards and boards of all of these different content ideas and strategy and distribution and then it’s up to them to decide out of all of these, where do we want to go next?
JAY: Awesome. David Beebe. Thank you so much for your time today and sharing your journey and some of your learnings and keep on keeping on with the branded entertainment you’re creating for clients and we really appreciate you stopping by today.
DAVID: Yeah, thanks for helping me. We can get the word out and help people. Again, just the biggest things is you’ve got to go do it.
JAY: Go do it. David Beebe said it. Go do it.
Thanks for listening to Brand Story Inc. we’ll be back next week with another conversation, digging into the ways companies are becoming more like media companies. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give me a follow on Twitter @_JaySharman and on LinkedIn.