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What is the one commonality between Maruti’s ‘Nexa Music’, Bumble’s ‘Dating these nights’, Swiggy Instamart’s ‘Inside my kitchen ft. Janice Sequeira', and, Wow Skin’s ‘Wow Lens chat’?

All of the above are non-fictional content series created for brands, be it cookery shows, chat shows or even music reality shows. Increasingly, we are seeing a rise in the number of brands creating original non-fictional content in the form of series. 

One more common link between these non-fictional branded content properties is that they all are tapping the pop culture with the aim to deepen the connection with their target audience. 

What has led to the rise of non-fictional content series?

Shailja Saraswati

According to Shailja Saraswati, Chief Content Officer of Omnicom Media Group India (OMG), non-fiction content has its own charm as it enriches the viewer’s mind with the knowledge of new cultures, ideas and many new perspectives that appeal to the youth. She said, “Three things that have enabled such growth in non-fiction are the insights into viewers and their preferences, the ability to take the next leap of faith while pushing boundaries in creativity, and bringing in new technologies in the process.”

To second her thoughts, Saraswati also shared an example of a collaboration that PHD Media and OMG content did with Laqshya Event Capital, to create ‘Škoda Deccan Beats’, a caravan of Carnatic music and soulful sojourns.

Aditya Mehendale

One of the prominent factors is that people are craving real, unfiltered and honest interactions on screen. Aditya Mehendale, National Creative Director, Schbang, believes that there is a big white space between fictional content with its trappings of melodrama and sometimes sloppy brand plug-ins and clear–cut scripted brand narratives. 

“Non-fictional content offers up an interesting middle that is informative, engaging and drives awareness of the category, behavioural archetypes of the consumer and trending discussions within the segment,” Mehendale said.

Mukesh Ghuraiya

Mukesh Ghuraiya, Chief Marketing Officer of Modi Naturals, seconded that consumers today are looking for stories they can connect with, and not with characters trying to tell them about how buying a particular brand can create an out-of-the-world experience for them. “This trend highlights the rise of authentic stories in marketing communications. It focuses on people selling to people and not brands selling to people, something which is extremely important in an age where consumers are much more aware and have more power over what they buy and who they buy from,” added Ghuraiya. 

Another factor that has given rise to non-fictional branded content is the role of digital celebrities and influencers. Ghuraiya said, “Social media has also played a very important role in this shift because we have seen the rise of influencers and digital celebrities whom we relate to more strongly as we perceive them as “celebrities next door” who tell real-life stories about real-life people on real-life subjects.”

Shashank Srivastava

In the case of Maruti’s premium brand Nexa, Shashank Srivastava, Senior Executive Director, Marketing and Sales, Maruti Suzuki, told that they rely heavily on music, travel and fashion genres to create sophisticated consumer experiences. Non-fictional content helps them to do so in the best manner, as per Srivastava.

Srivastava said, “Non-fictional content helps us get active interaction with the audience. It’s not like an in-film content placement or fictional content. A film story or any fictional content is not something which everyone goes through or relates to. But in terms of fashion, travel and music, everyone has his/her experiences.”

When it comes to fashion and lifestyle, Nexa associates with properties like IIFA Awards and Lakme Fashion Week. It uses content from these associations and regularly puts it on their social media and Nexa platforms. For music, it has its ‘Nexa Music English’ - reality music contest. Nexa will soon be launching non-fictional travel content as well. 

Saraswati of OMG also said that fiction shows present certain limitations for branded content, as there cannot be a lot of integration due to the plots differing, but in non-fiction shows the plots are largely similar so it becomes easy for the OTT and broadcasters to integrate with the brands and create a brand message within the show. She said, “Non-fiction shows attract new and fringe viewers and this helps brands catch new consumers for advertising.” 

How does a brand decide to choose between a single content piece and a series format?

Now that we have discussed various reasons for the popularity of non-fictional branded content, the question that arises next is how does a brand decide to opt for a single piece of such content, be it long-form or short-form, or create a property that is in the form of a series.  

While marketing spending is a constant factor to decide if a brand can afford long-term series or will have to go for a snackable or single piece of content, there are other reasons too that play a big role. 

Modi Naturals’ Ghuraiya said that deciding on a content series versus one single video can be based on multiple factors such as the objective of the campaign, product features and moment marketing. “A brand would decide to build a series of content if they want to communicate multiple features of the product in detail or they want to highlight the multiple use cases of the product. Brands also build a series of content if the duration of the campaign is long and they want to refresh the content to avoid monotony.”

Although, Srivastava of Maruti suggested that creating non-fictional content in form of a series works more for brands which are in the early stage of their brand journey. “For example, Nexa is still a developing brand and creating a content series does help it. For more established or long-standing brands, this type of content may not work.” 

Schbang’s Mehendale told that any brand looking to convert a branded content piece into potentially a brand IP needs to look at making it episodic. He commented, “The factor to consider is how much can the concept with its fixed framework and outline be stretched into multiple renditions. The trick is to have at least one element refreshed each time.  

Giving examples, Mehendale explained, “This can be in the form of a new guest per episode, brands such as Bumble did this rather successfully with their ‘Dating These Days’ property last year, which has just come back with a new season called ‘Dating These Nights’. A new guest each episode opens up avenues for new topics and new perspectives within the same larger subject matter.” 

He also suggested that the introduction of new themes can also help. Netflix has perfected this through watch reactions to their latest content offering. Their IPs such as the popular ‘Behensplaining’, ‘Grandma Reacts’ and ‘Tanmay Reacts’, all operate on the same formula. 

“Overall, what brands should consider is if they have a Fixed Winning Variable (Host/Format/Treatment) x Unique Variable Each Time (Guest/Content/Theme),” he added.  

Debraj Sengupta

Even when it comes to creating episodic content, content that is short, impactful, and high on emotion, works best in today’s landscape where the attention span has shrunk considerably, according to Debraj Sengupta, CMO and Country Head -Watches at Victorinox India. He said, “If the brand is rich in stories, many such episodes can be sprinkled over a time frame to create the 12-course meal that will leave one hungry for even more - the catch here is that each dish needs to burst into a gastronomical experience in the mouth.”

Things to be kept in mind while creating non-fictional branded content in form of series

Mehendale suggested some rules which should be kept in mind by a brand before creating a non-fictional series. They are:

  1. a) Are they looking to invest in being a thought leader within that domain? 
  2. b) Is the content packaging going to successfully generate ongoing conversations or at least enable the brand to contribute towards ongoing conversations within that cohort? 

One very important factor to keep in mind while exploring this route is to keep the content real. Saraswati explained, “Gen Z and Millennials like to keep it real with no frills attached and that’s how they like the content to be served to them. They are also the cohorts we should watch out for as they are the growing spending power and it’s important to understand their preferences, passions and interests. Hence, storytelling in non-fiction has to become increasingly unpolished, more believable than before, yet not bare bones and still charm these audiences.” 

She further said, “While it might look simple and doable, the challenges from the storytelling and execution perspectives will be about finding the right mix of storytellers, writers, visualisers and a team that understands this audience and has enough experience to tailor-make something unique and not something which is run-of-the-mill. What I also particularly like about non-fiction is the possibility of engagement, e-commerce, NFTs and gamification.” 

Many a times, the right balance between building aspirations for the brand and real-life situations is lost in the process of creating non-fictional branded content. “Marketers do get overboard while building aspiration for their brand which dilutes their slice-of-life narrative, added Ghuraiya. 

Sengupta of Victorinox India emphasised that while a brand tries to make itself immortal through emotions in the form of a story, it must remember that the emotions should not take over the brand, meaning that the long-term residue that remains in the mind of the addressee is not just the emotion but also the brand. It is vital that the stories balance both elements.

Trends dominating the non-fictional branded content series space

According to Varghese, a few trends that she has noticed are: adapting TV reality shows for digital, be it talent, music, dance or travel shows. Secondly, interactivity blends into the show which brings in the social media angle that appeals to the youth and their sensibilities. Thirdly, comedy has always been a huge ecosystem in our country but the genre saw even more of a positive uptake during the pandemic. Further, the ability of unscripted shows to build a deeper connection with the viewers as they become involved with the participants and their lives and are fully involved in the polling, commenting and canvassing for a contestant.

A major trend for some time now has been to own expertise. Mehendale explained this by giving the example of childcare brands that actively invest in building awareness and education on all things childcare through collaborations with mom influencers, paediatricians, and mental health professionals. He said, “The idea is to occupy the consumer’s consideration for all things related to their child, outside of just the purchase of the product which may serve up a very small need.” 

An important aspect that brands now need to think of is the 2.0 version of this strategy that doesn't speak only through the voice of the “expert” but also through their consumer in a way that makes them the face of the campaign and exposes their vulnerabilities, frustrations and challenges. “Brands that can then own up to this need gap, and convey the confidence that they will attempt to help resolve these issues will definitely win more trust,” said Mehendale.