David Beebe: Brand Storyteller

By Kate Young

Ever heard of an Emmy-winning marketer? Meet David Beebe. His long list of awards and accolades includes a couple of Emmys from his time running the content studio for Disney/ABC Television. And it all makes sense when you see his work as branded content producer, content strategist, and trail guide on the wild frontier of content marketing and brand journalism.

Described by AdWeek as a “branded content master who makes it ok to love marketing,” Beebe will be presenting the opening keynote at the ABA Bank Marketing Conference in New Orleans this September. So we jumped at the chance to ask him a few questions.

Just for fun, you’ll want to binge-watch his short films on YouTube, including the three-part franchise Two Bellmen, produced for the J.W. Marriott brand. And if you want to start thinking about how his content marketing approach applies to bank marketing, check out what Beebe told us about storytelling, building community around a brand, and keeping up with the next big thing.

ABA: Your film series for the portfolio of Marriott brands bears no resemblance to advertising—in fact, it’s such an entertaining spectacle that it’s easy to forget that it’s branded content. What’s the rationale for that approach?

Beebe: Short film is an effective type of light-touch content marketing. To make it work, brand needs to be a natural part of the story—like a character—not something that’s superimposed onto a pre-existing plot line. In the Marriott films, you see the hotel features and benefits—the restaurants, the pool, the services, without interrupting the story. In today’s world, brands need to stop interrupting what consumers are interested in, and become what they are interested in. I didn’t stop the story to integrate the brand into it. That authenticity is part of what keeps the story moving. That’s why you didn’t see any integration happening. Done the right way, customers appreciate the brand rather than feeling interrupted by it.

There’s no argument—traditional, interruptive marketing no longer engages people.

That’s because technology enables all of us to choose when, where, and how we interact with brands. When people go online, there’s no point in interrupting the experience they went there to have. And storytelling is a great way to provide value. When you’re entertaining people, informing them, or solving a problem, then you’re engaging with people.

Marketing is like a first date. If all you do is talk about yourself, there won’t be a second. You have to build a relationship before you can ask for a commitment. You have to show that you have something of value to offer before people will engage. You can’t start out by pushing your features and benefits—people won’t engage with that anymore.

Customers have an intimate relationship with experiential brands. You remember experiences. You share them; you talk about them.

The films are an example of premium story telling that also showcases how marketing can shift from a cost center to a revenue center. In many cases, especially in premium brand films, the content can drive sales and create licensing revenue. The financial return then is folded back into marketing to fund additional content production.

ABA: How do you measure the ROI of a project like that?

Beebe: There are many ways to measure ROI. But before taking any measurements, it’s important for marketers to first understand the intended purpose of the content. It could be to introduce a brand, drive engagement, drive revenue, or any combination of those things. Once you’ve determined what you’re trying to do, then you measure whether it’s successful or not.

A hero piece like a film is made for brand awareness, telling a good story, and building brand loyalty. It’s not about driving sales. If it drives revenue, that’s great. But it’s not always the goal. [Note: A sales package attached to the Marriott film, French Kiss, brought in $500,000 in sales over two months.]

For film, engagement the most important measurement. It has to go beyond views. Are viewers sharing it? Are they talking about it? Are they liking it? How are they responding? You can buy views now, so those aren’t as meaningful. Having 100,000 views with 80% engagement is better than having 1 million views with 10% engagement.

I developed what I call “the 3C strategy.” I use this with every brand I work with to develop content and creative: Content. Community. Commerce.

First, a brand needs to scale content of all types, then build a community around it, and finally create commerce from the community.

ABA: Although your films are considered shorts, the longest runs just over 35 minutes. How do you reconcile that with the famed 8-second attention span of the average online consumer?

Beebe: Yeah, the consumer’s attention span is short. But think of it this way: a brand has eight seconds to get the consumer’s attention and to convince them the content is worth their time. They’re bombarded by content all day long. TV ads, radio, email, IMs, texts. If something doesn’t engage, interest, or apply to you within seconds, you skip it.

The purpose of short films is just entertaining people. You hear about how TV is dead or dying, but that’s not right. The business model around TV is changing rapidly, but the format is not dead. Everyone wants to sit back and escape for half an hour, an hour, regardless of the screen they’re looking at—whether it’s a TV, tablet, or phone.

YouTube reported that the completion rate for the short films I produced was 80% or higher. Because it’s a story. And by targeting it to a certain demographic, we make it relevant to the viewer. That’s why they go beyond eight seconds.

It also helps to use humor. Comedy is a great way to engage people, to evoke an emotion that makes them stick around for the content. And you have to partner with the right creative team in the Hollywood community. I worked a lot with Substance Over Hype, who uses music and movement as a storytelling device, and you see that a lot in the Two Bellmen franchise. I also partnered with them on Business Unusual, another brand film for Renaissance Hotels.

ABA: Do you see the lines between marketing and entertainment becoming so blurred that the distinctions are disappearing?

Beebe: The two go hand in hand. Look at where it all started from. Soap operas were created by Proctor & Gamble because they produced soap and they wanted to sell it. Most of the soap operas are off the air today, but they’re an early example of how a brand created content.

We’ve come full circle now, with brands acting as media producers. They’re not making revenue off the content itself. But they are creating stories that are meant to entertain and inform. If it doesn’t entertain or inform, it’s an ad.

It used to be that television and radio ads were how consumers found out about products. There isn’t the same need for that any longer. With technology today, we can easily do the research we need to find out about product features and benefits on our own.

ABA: One of the parallels between the hospitality industry and financial services is that both are facing challenges by disruptors. What role does marketing play in addressing those pressures?

Beebe: If you stay the course, your customers will phase out. So you have to try new things and be proactive. For example, Marriott developed a partnership with Universal Music Group, to test providing private-invitation concert experiences. You would see on message boards where older hotel customers may react to that and say, “Hotels are for sleeping, not concerts.” But the younger consumers would say, “This is great!”

The traditional model and the disruptors have to learn from each other.

Another thing to consider is that marketing is coming back to the idea of brand loyalty. We have to always keep that in mind as we move from the idea of the campaign to the idea of building long-term relationships. The campaign mentality is the idea of completing a finite project. But it should be about building long-term relationships. You have to start engaging and educating customers early.

You’ll see hotels with a presence on Snapchat. Some would ask, “Why would they be on Snapchat? Snapchat’s for teenagers.” But those teenagers will remember us when they start to travel, when they have the resources to go places. Not only that, they have tremendous purchasing power in the influence they have over their parents.

ABA: What happens when consumers expect to be surprised and entertained as the baseline level of engagement? What’s the next level of engagement, and how do marketers prepare for it?

Beebe: It goes back to the idea that the customers are always connected. Brands have to be ready for 24/7 marketing, especially from a customer service and brand engagement perspective.

When a customer posts on Twitter or Facebook—and the brands responds—the customer knows the brand is paying attention. They know the brand is there should they need them. That’s a huge psychological impact. It’s “always-on” marketing.

Technology is also paving the way for much more one-to-one personalized marketing, so that whatever is offered is super relevant. We have the ability to know a lot about a type of person—what they’re like, and what they’re looking for. We can use targeting to deliver the right content at the right time to the right audience.

We’re going to see a lot more one-to-one real time marketing and hyper-targeting to niche audiences.

David Beebe is a leading content producer, Emmy winning content marketing executive, AdWeek Top 10 Creative, AdAge Under 40 Marketer, and the creative mind behind Marriott’s Content Studio.

Leading up to the ABA Bank Marketing Conference in September, Beebe is partnering with ABA to contribute a series of articles about content marketing. He’ll share his insights on how brands can develop content strategies, produce content, and build content studios, brand newsrooms, and digital brands that win the hearts, minds, and wallets of next-gen consumers. Follow Beebe on Twitter and on LinkedIn.