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The Battle For Our Screen Time

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At the end of July, Scarlett Johansson began the process of suing Disney after her superhero film Black Widow was released on streaming services at the same time as its cinema release.

Although it set a box office record for a film released during the current pandemic, grossing $218m in its first weekend, receipts then fell sharply and Johansson argued this was because people were able to watch it on Disney+, therefore depriving her of potential earnings and breaking contractual promises which had been made to her.

While Disney defended itself and claimed it had not violated Johansson’s contract, the saga is just the latest example of how powerful streaming services have become, and how traditional film outlets may have more than COVID-19 keeping them up at night.

The streaming industry was one which benefited hugely from the pandemic, with millions of people being forced to stay in their homes. Netflix reported that in Q2 2020, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, it gained 10 million new subscribers in just three months. Similarly, Disney+ launched in the UK in March 2020, perfectly in time to swallow up droves of viewers in search of new content.

Signs that streaming platforms could garner significant returns on films bypassing theatrical were already there. In spring 2019, a whole year before the pandemic, Murder Mystery, a Netflix original starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, was viewed in over 30 million Netflix accounts in its first three days of release – a phenomenal figure by any stretch but even more so if converted into equivalent box office numbers.The enforced closure of cinemas during lockdown gave the major studios a golden opportunity to experiment with straight to streaming themselves, which Disney did with Mulan (Liu Yifei) and Soul (Jamie Foxx & Tina Fey), and then with the simultaneous release on streaming and theatrical (“Day and Date”) of Black Widow itself. If Day & Date can be made to work for the studios, this would seriously weaken the leverage cinema chains leverage over their share of the box-office.

However, there are clear signs that Day & Date is not necessarily working for the studios resulting in a weaker overall return – there is no incremental revenue from the streaming views – whilst the earlier appearance on TV screens is also ushering in an increase in piracy. The financial model has definitely changed but theatrical releases and cinema itself look set to still be with us for the foreseeable future.

Podcast Measurement Is Gaining Traction

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Despite the impact of the pandemic on media consumption, podcasts have been somewhat ‘pandemic-proof’. Following an initial dip in podcast consumption in early 2020 – reflective of a shake-up of consumers’ regular routines, where they no longer needed to fill the silence of their daily commutes – loyal listeners soon found the time in their new routines to re-engage.

Whilst radio still tops the ranks for most popular audio source, there are 14.6m podcast listeners in the UK and growing, with 25% considering themselves ‘regular’ listeners. And with the majority having only listened for 1-2 years, that tally is only set to grow – to an estimated 16.8m by 2024.

Self-reported surveys show podcasts to be a highly effective media channel. In one such Nielsen study, 62% of listeners correctly recalled a podcast ad, with the same proportion considering the product as a result. Thus, podcasts attract an audience which is highly engaged, attentive and curious – all while maintaining a relatively low cost of entry both for publishers and advertisers.

In the UK and globally, podcast audiences skew male, 16-44, and with an above-average income. They are highly engaged and loyal to their favourite podcasters, but also diverse in their consumption, with 40% admitting they consume more podcasts than they did when they first started listening. Podcasts are also successful in driving time spent, with the average listener completing 80% of an episode – substantially higher than YouTube’s 50% viewer completion rate.

Taking this into consideration, podcasts appear to be a no-brainer for brands. However, until recently, the ability to target specific and often complex audiences has been a difficult task.

Whilst we know that podcasts garner a loyal following, gaining a more granular audience understanding with effective channel measurement has proven complicated. Recognising this challenge, leaders in the digital audio market have long searched for ways to make buying and measurement more seamless. Tech giants Apple and Spotify are pioneers in this space, looking to create a programmatic inventory that would enable the buying of audiences in aggregate.

In a bid to become the world’s largest audio platform, Spotify are investing heavily. By leveraging data and analytics in order to grow the monetisation of their ad ecosystem, Spotify have recently acquired Gimlet Media, Anchor and – critically – Megaphone. Through a partnership with Nielsen, Megaphone has unprecedented access to that golden nugget of audience data. This will allow Megaphone and, in turn, Spotify to use Nielsen data to target podcast audiences.

For the first time, podcast measurement can move away from monitoring downloads only, and towards a more platform-agnositc, real-time view of listener behaviour and interests. This offers not only a lucrative prospect for brands, but a more personalised and engaging experience for the listener. As they become easier to buy and measure and more embedded into consumer lives, podcasts are becoming one of the most effective media channels for agencies and brands alike.

To Advertise Or Not To Advertise

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Some brands are so universal that it raises the question of whether they even need to spend on advertising. Many people claim that they are not influenced by ads at all and, once brand loyalty is established, it’s a tricky task to get consumers to change their behaviour.

The difficulty in understanding the impact of turning advertising off is that few studies have been conducted; those in the industry are more focused on the effectiveness of their media. In the past, some studies have been conducted looking at pausing TV advertising, with findings suggesting a 50/50 chance of sales decline, but the majority of these focused on established brands.

The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science has now released a report examining brand sales once advertising is halted. The study looked at the media spend and sales of 70 brands in the Australian consumer goods category over 20 years. Of these, 57 cut media for a year or longer. The initial results showed that stopping advertising for one year led to a 16% sales drop; two years saw a 25% drop and three years a 36% drop.

However, within these averages there is significant variation. Therefore, the study split the brands into small (<250k units), medium (250k-1m units) and large (1m+ units). Given that the larger brands will have greater mental and physical availability, we would expect them to be more resilient once advertising stopped. Indeed, the study found that big brands were fairly stable after a 2-year advertising pause. Medium and small brands both saw a more marked decline in sales.

The data also differed depending on the brand’s stability. Stable brands saw a substantial decline after 2 years with no advertising. Brands that were growing had very different results depending on their size. Big and medium brands continued to grow for 1-2 years, whereas small brands immediately stopped growing and then declined. Unsurprisingly, brands that were already declining dropped off at a faster rate once they stopped advertising.

The evidence shows us that while brands might be tempted to pull advertising, it’s highly likely to have a negative impact on their sales. Mental availability falls if the consumer isn’t exposed to the brand, making them more likely to be swayed by a competitor’s advertising. This is particularly important when we consider that most of any customer base is made up of light buyers. Without these customers, brand growth is impossible. Even large brands will be sacrificing sales growth if they pull their ads.

While some may consider advertising to be a nice “add on”, this study proves it to be an integral part of a brand’s success.

Greener, Faster, Smarter

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The road less travelled makes for a turbulent ride, so we are creatures of habit, comfortable in the status quo.

In times of crisis, however, humans are very adaptable. When COVID hit, we quickly got used to working from home, and our laptops became windows into our worlds. Of course, there were rogue children photobombing news reports and lawyers’ faces replaced with cat AR in courtrooms, but for the most part, we were okay.

So, when traditional shooting (particularly at scale) became a significant challenge, everyone looked at creative alternatives.

One solution was stock footage libraries. Before the pandemic, these libraries were littered with awkwardly hammy scenarios. Now, with the production world having to pivot and spend time navigating what was now needed to safeguard the health and safety of everyone attending film shoots, sites stepped in erupting with swathes of outstanding material. Thus, a new level of quality, previously inconceivable from stock footage, was born.

Taking full advantage of this, Supernova – the7stars’ in-house creative arm – fulfilled a brief for Penguin Random House in this way, advertising the new book by Lianne Moriarty, author of Little White Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers. By utilising the expanded stock footage libraries, we were able to create a trailer-style film in a quality once unimaginable – by thinking smart, acting fast.

When it became clear that stock wouldn’t cut it for all briefs, the production world pushed ahead with computer-generated imagery. Virtual sets and packshots were created, often using photo-realistic, real-time rendering through the Unreal Engine. A technology once limited to gaming was now being used to produce Lurpak ads; seen on a colossal scale when filming The Mandalorian; and combined with parallax techniques for dramatic effect.

When parts of the world opened up once more, the production community began attending shoots remotely, saving on unnecessary travel costs and, more importantly, on carbon emissions.

And with shoot production the most significant cause of carbon emissions in advertising, each of the above techniques – relatively new to adland – can help us to mitigate that carbon footprint.

The past few years have proven that we can discover new and better ways of working when challenged. Much like virtual meetings, many recent innovations are here to stay, meaning we can work greener, smarter and faster to produce results. As the media industry continues to evolve, such techniques show we can innovate to benefit our staff, clients and, above all, our planet.

What’s Trust Got To Do With It?

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While the marketing industry continues to debate the challenges of a cookie-free future and the value of attention metrics, it’s easy to forget what really matters to people when it comes to brand choice.

BrewDog learnt the hard way recently when a group of ex-employees blasted the craft beer firm for its terrible company culture. Before them, the Boohoo boycott shined a light on unethical and unsustainable manufacturing standards. These high-profile fallouts are a timely reminder that a brand’s credentials go way beyond just their product or service offering.

the7stars’ quarterly tracker (The QT) has monitored consumer sentiment and intent since 2016. The most recent 12 months, including the pandemic and lockdown that followed, brought about a significant shift in how people are feeling about life and their intentions towards brand consumption. Trust, it turns out, is high on the agenda.

7 in 10 Brits agree that trusting a brand is more important to them now than in the past.  Overtaking traditional rational considerations of quality and value, our data reveals the current top drivers of brand choice to have tilted into the emotional spectrum, towards trust-related metrics.  60% agreed that, over the past year, the feeling of ‘being put first’ by a brand had become more significant. People want to be treated like people – not like a body of consumers or a data point. It might seem minor, but it’s a big deal in terms of the sentiment and positioning that brands have an opportunity to get right.

If reputation is a codeword for trust, 2 in 3 Brit’s agreed that it became more important during the pandemic.  In turbulent times, people rely on safe bets, spending money with brands that promise to meet their expectations.  Amongst 18-34-year-olds, ‘knowing what to expect’ was cited as the top driver of brand trust.

On the flipside, being seen as a ‘category leader’ and having ‘brand heritage’ were the two least important drivers of brand choice, as people favour a more relatable human experience with brands they want to consume.

This desire for human connection was confirmed by the 8 in 10 who cited a positive response to the pandemic as another deciding factor in brand choice, and by the 1 in 3 who changed their shopping behaviours accordingly, whether that response was supportive of customers or staff.

So how can brands build trust?  Start from within.  Whether it’s a commitment to becoming a net zero company or being a vocal anti-racist advocate in your industry, people respond to brands that exemplify a more inclusive and responsible ethos, one embedded within company culture. Next, build on existing assets: authenticate your trust credentials by remaining true to the core values of a brand proposition and its communications. Finally, remember to adapt. The cultural landscape continues to evolve at pace, which provides an opportunity to build better relationships with the audiences we’re trying to engage.  As their world evolves, so too should a brand respond to what really matters: be helpful, be kind, be wise – and ensure trust metrics remain relevant.

Why Brands Are Finally Taking Note Of The Paralympics

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For decades, the Paralympic Games were, at least in the media world, an afterthought. With the British public seemingly fatigued after a marathon of summer sport, coverage of the games was too often neglected, relegated to a few hours a day on a lesser TV slot than its sister tournament, the Olympics.

Beijing 2008 was something of a turning point. Some 3.8 billion around the world tuned in to the Paralympics – a ten-fold increase on Sydney 2000. At long last, disability sport had gone mainstream.

Some brands were quick to take note. In 2010, Sainsbury’s became the first brand to solely sponsor the Paralympics, not the Olympics. And Channel 4, after 40 years of BBC coverage, acquired the Paralympics TV rights. They had a momentous task ahead: having seldom covered sports in the preceding years, Channel 4 planned to broadcast over 400 hours of London 2012 – a 400% increase on the BBC’s offering from four years prior.

Spearheaded by the ground-breaking Superhumans campaign, the 2012 Paralympics were a roaring success. Amid record levels of engagement, public perceptions of disability began to shift. Over half of the UK’s population tuned in, and 91% agreed that disabled athletes were just as talented as other athletes.

For brands who had signed on, Paralympic sponsorship offered an opportunity to spotlight the stories of disabled athletes in their campaigns, and ties to the event resulted in positive associations. Duncan Blake of BP, another longstanding disability sport backer, describes sponsorship of the Paralympics as “sport’s best kept secret” – noting also that those aware of the partnership were more favourable towards the brand.

Tokyo 2020 will mark another milestone for disability sport. For the first time, all 13 of the International Olympic Committee’s top partners will sponsor the Paralympics. As brands finally adopt the Paralympics into their portfolios, they must recognise the need to adapt to changing narratives around disability. Superhumans’ greatest success lay in persuading people to see disabled athletes as athletes. But the world has come a long way in nine years, and the 10 million disabled people in the UK simply want to be viewed as ordinary people. That’s reflected in Channel 4’s latest instalment, which places the emphasis on the humans behind the stories – the everyday challenges they overcome both on and off the field.

No longer is it enough for campaigns to depend on the emotional backstories of their featured athletes – they must be thought of as masters of sporting prowess, just as their non-disabled counterparts are. And they must not be limited to a fortnight’s exposure, every two or four years. If public attitudes are to continue to change for the better, disabled people need to be visible in British advertising, 52 weeks of the year.

The Rise Of Creator Economy

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The explosion of social media usage, evolving shopping behaviours, the democratisation of ecommerce and career flexibility have contributed to the rise of the creator economy. As people are looking for more ways to monetise themselves, their skills, and creations.

Like the rest of the ecommerce market, China has been leading the way. Creators or Kol’s in China are incredibly powerful, and many have become brands in their own right.

Ruhan’s (a Chinese incubator for influencers) top influencer brand sold over $24.6 million in a single day. Ruhan’s influencer brand ranked eighth, in terms of sales volume, for top women’s fashion stores, only outsold by brands like H&M; and UNIQLO.

Whilst Influencers in the West have been using platforms like Instagram to build their fan base, most of their content is produced for free, relying on big brands to supplement their income. With the exception of You Tube, most haven’t provided the tools to monetise that content.

But change has begun. Some creators have become influential enough to draw users to new platforms.  Creators are gaining power in the media ecosystem as fans seek to connect with individual personalities.

New platforms are emerging that provide the tools and capabilities for creators to monetise their influence. One of these is Popshop Live, which recently secured $20m funding, backed by the likes of Kendall Jenner. It allows creators to connect their products to their audiences through live shopping, video entertainment and conversation with their fans.

Another is Spri.ng, which allows creators to design their own products, create a customer store, integrate with social channels to share product launches with their community, all whilst Spri.ng handle production, shipping, and customer support.

In response, You Tube, Amazon, Facebook, Tik Tok and Snap are all fighting for creators’ attention, knowing that they offer the secret to keeping both an audience engaged and the platform relevant. Tik Tok have put aside a creator fund of $241m (increasing to $1bn over the next 3 years), You Tube $100m and Snapchat $1m a day. Instagram recently rolled out their own creator network, allowing them to build, connect and monetise their brand across the platform.

The increased ability to engage with consumers through video and live content and with the ability to dovetail that with ecommerce, will make influencers more accountable, and the good ones more powerful, changing the way influencer marketing works. With the rise of the creator economy, brands have to acknowledge that no longer can they control the message. Instead, they must become part of the conversation. Associating themselves with the creators who can build trust and deep connections on their behalf is imperative for the ones who want to stay relevant.

Why Brand Authenticity Matters In Sustainability

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As the Russian permafrost liquifies and weather patterns turn erratic around the world, the clock ticks for the challenge of climate change. Although collective responsibility is acknowledged, eyes turn to brands, both large and small, to don their own environmental credentials as some of the world’s biggest contributors to waste production.

The sustainability space within the realm of brands, however, has evolved beyond meaningless green badges and occasional decorative initiatives. Consumers now demand complete transparency from their brands and are wising up to greenwashing with 71% of people saying that opaque buzzwords such as ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ have now lost their significance. In turn, pressure mounts for companies trying to navigate a sensitive landscape with a strategy that is both authentic and effectual. While a multitude of brands have joined the sustainability bandwagon, only a select few have made genuine impact.

From NatWest’s carbon footprint tracking app to Ikea’s buy back scheme, the market as it exists urges brands to innovate or risk being left behind. the7stars asked consumers which aspects of sustainability they thought different markets should focus upon, unravelling insight into which issues lie at the heart of each industry.

Arguably, for fashion and grocery, greenwashing has become the most widespread. More than half (58%) say that they struggle to find brands who live up to their environmental claims. Lightbox Pulse survey results also find that the two industries garner the most concern for sourcing sustainable raw materials alongside ethical working practices for employees. With fast fashion and food waste being two of the most alarming crises in climate change, banning overseas sweatshops and encouraging business with Fairtrade-certified producers could transform these industries. Brands leading the way in these initiatives include fashion label Reformation whose slogan is ‘Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. Reformation is #2.’ The LA based label commits to being 100% water, waste and carbon neutral. For the food industry, M&S and ASDA tackle the issue by introducing refillable grocery concepts in their stores whilst Iceland pioneers as the only supermarket in the UK to sell 4 different types of bycatch fish that is otherwise wasted.

Home furniture brands and packaged goods, however, were top contenders for recycling and waste management concerns. Although the packaged goods/FMCG industry is infamous for its damaging throwaway culture, the rise of fast homeware is another threat, rivalling fast fashion in depleting the world’s natural resources. Being the world’s largest furniture retailer, Ikea joined the anti-waste movement through its ‘Trash Collection’ campaign by showcasing Ikea furniture deposited on Norwegian coastlines that the retailer refurbished and resold for a discounted price.

On the other hand, utilities and travel populated the most votes for concerns on carbon emissions. For the former, consumers’ sustainability intent is evident with 81% of households switching to green energy tariffs in 2020 according to Compare the Market, as well as a steep incline in registered electric vehicles in the UK from 6,200 in 2011 to 200,000 in 2019. Meanwhile, for the travel industry, although only 16% are willing to forego air travel completely, consumers are willing to commit to smaller but maintainable green habits.  For example, 1 in 3 plans to book eco-friendly hotels for their next holidays and younger cohorts are more favourable towards travel companies who offer carbon offsetting.

Although industries may differ in focus, one thing applies to all. Sustainability is now crucial not just for the planet, but for each brand’s economic interest and market competitiveness. With social media and a growing cancel-culture, brands cannot risk being caught on the wrong side of a global societal awakening.