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Even before the pandemic, as we went about attending to our daily responsibilities, we sought relief through meal breaks asking, ‘aaj khaane mei kya hai?’ (What’s for food today). And if it wasn’t us asking, it was the kids; either way, the question had to be met with a satisfactory response.

After the pandemic isolated us at home, separated us from our cook and made us unwilling to order meals (making the daily dilemma tougher), we turned to recipes online to make up for our lack of imagination and experience.

As we turned chef/baker and shared our endearing attempts on social media feeds, feeling both well-fed and meaningfully occupied, brands seeking relevance discovered that they could get a piece of the pie. They fuelled the momentum and feelings of accomplishment with all iterations of food-driven content they could think of.

Eight months later and here we are now.

Food-driven branded content has grown so rapidly, and often in ways so unoriginal, that it’s become tough to differentiate one from another. A majority tries to attract consumers by framing recipes as ‘easy to follow’ and possible with ingredients readily available at home. And to ensure brand recall, each one pointedly highlights the product that is making the preparation simpler than usual.

Realising the redundancy that comes with sticking to these basic talking points, brands have tried to ramp up the engagement.

Going beyond basics

By introducing topicality, brands have tried to ensure that their content benefits from the virality of trends and makes it to search results of more than just ‘quick/tasty recipe’. For instance, as a nod to the ongoing IPL, Panasonic India has collaborated with TV9 Bharatvarsh to create ‘Royals Da Swaad’, a cooking show where Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi invites a different Rajasthan Royals member each episode as he cooks their favourite recipe.

Brands like Reliance Fresh have chosen to take their cooking content live rather than (only) upload the recordings.

This creates the possibility of a two-way interaction as opposed to the conventional set-up where consumers are told what to do and are expected to follow.

A live session brings community feeling when consumers see a large number attending alongside them and watch as the attendees’ questions are addressed in real-time, as opposed to watching the uploaded video in the isolation of their home with no one to share the joy and frustration of cooking.

Another popular alteration has been to bring film stars on board to prepare the food.

(Arjun Kapoor prepares a chocolate version of Kaju Katli for sister Anshula)

Not only does this significantly freshen up the content format by replacing the professional cook with a beloved screen personality, it feeds into the fandom’s desire to know more about how their favourite actor lives, and imitate their habits and preferences.

What is the distinguishing factor?

If brands want their food-driven content to be engaging, they need to go beyond the ‘food’ element of it. Because plenty of such content already exists online, especially outside the branded space. YouTube is filled with thousands and thousands of food videos from vloggers who want to become influencers and mini-master chefs in their own right.

To a consumer searching for a recipe, what difference does it make whether it came from one brand or another unless it affects their consumption experience? And that experience won’t be altered by which brand’s condensed milk tin sat in the shot while they watched the video. Or if their recipe for Rava Dosa came from Maggi or any other food blogger.

Those are elements that are incidental to the viewing experience and to some extent, to the cooking experience as well, if the consumer does indeed try out the recipe after watching the video.

How can companies do better with food video content?

Currently, brands seem to be approaching food content with a sales and advertising campaign mindset, viz how do I use the cookery show format to strongly plug my product? And in order to get audiences and viewership, what can I modify of the familiar elements of a cookery show? Who is cooking, what are they cooking, what cooking tools and aids do they use and where are they cooking — these are the 4W elements available to do something a little different in a basic format of a cookery show. 

Many brands have settled for celebrities as the anchors of the cookery show, as the safest bet for getting viewership of the content. And for getting the celebrity to visibly plug the product and its features, like they would do for a celebrity endorsement TVC. This makes for non-distinctive, forgettable content with audiences perhaps remembering the celebrity more than the brand.

Case in point: Neena and Masaba Gupta’s collaboration with Samsung to promote the Masala & Sun Dry Microwave:

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A post shared by Neena Gupta (@neena_gupta)

(The mother and daughter duo overshadow the product despite its multiple mentions that seem out of place to begin with)

A ‘content’-centric approach that aims to engage audiences with food-based videos and is also more distinctive by reflecting some key characteristics of the brand, drawing from the brand’s unique symbolism would yield higher quality, more engaging content. 

Food culture is another treasure trove of insights and ideas for creating more original content. To illustrate, Amul as a national brand strongly associated with dairy could explore the lesser-known but interesting sweets made with dairy from the far corners and the diverse communities of India.  Or even how the various communities in India use ghee or butter in their cooking and the beliefs that they have around it.

All in all, food videos as branded content have a huge opportunity to up the game by using brand x culture as the starting point for content development and staying true to what content is and being mindful of what content is not. Remember branded content is NOT an ad campaign.