As the U.S. heads towards the highly anticipated midterm elections, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is shedding light on pressing workplace issues in partnership with Courageous, CNN's branded content studio, by producing content that helps tell its brand story in an authentic and compelling way. MediaVillage spoke with Jeaneen Andrews-Feldman, SHRM's Chief Marketing and Experience Officer, and Michal Shapira, Senior Vice President of News Content Partnerships for Turner Ignite, about their goals for this partnership and why branded content is uniquely able to help marketers raise culturally relevant and issue-oriented messages with audiences, particularly around cultural moments.
Kathy Newberger: Michal, you're one of the founders of Courageous, CNN's in-house studio for brands. Why is branded content so relevant today?
Michal Shapira: In today's climate, marketers increasingly want to stand for something and tell their brand stories in a way that breaks through the clutter. They often want to showcase values that are meaningful to them and to their consumers, and that means going beyond traditional advertising and sponsorship. We're seeing that branded content can connect with audiences in ways that traditional, more disruptive advertising of the past really can't achieve. And the trusted environments that we provide across our news division -- CNN, HLN and Great Big Story -- have proven very effective for our advertisers. SHRM was particularly interested in capitalizing on the big cultural moment of the upcoming midterm elections with this campaign.
Newberger: From SHRM's perspective, what were the goals for this initiative?
Jeaneen Andrews-Feldman (pictured at right): This is a pivotal time for the workplace and the workforce. Some of the most critical issues that are affecting society today really show up at work. Our goal is to convene a global conversation on three issues that you see across the headlines every day -- closing the skills gap, modernizing employment-based immigration and creating organizational cultures that prevent workplace harassment. We set out to use very compelling content to help showcase a conversation between SHRM, the leader in all things work, and the Fortune 500 executives who deal with people issues every day.
Newberger: How does the SHRM campaign compare to other projects Courageous has done?
Shapira: Since we launched Courageous about three years ago, we've produced branded work for clients across every major ad category, though we do have a significant number of B2B clients. It can be a challenging category, and the more conventional approaches commonly used, like publishing whitepapers -- are interesting, but usually not the most dynamic. In order to really bring these topics to life, a brand needs to tell their story in an original and creative way. We at Courageous are uniquely positioned to do that through our brand journalistic approach and specialization in video. And then of course, leveraging our audience and the relevant environment of CNN, where this content is going to live, is incredibly valuable as well.
I believe other B2B brands like Pitney Bowes, American Express and KPMG have also worked with us because they realize real, emotional stories break through in a way that more traditional marketing strategies can't achieve. But it's not all B2B. We executed a really exciting campaign for Volvo around the solar eclipse that was shot live and in virtual reality. And MassMutual partnered with us for a campaign around stories about real people worth celebrating to close out 2017, which culminated with a live ad during CNN's New Year's Eve program. They were both compelling executions, wrapped around cultural moments, that drove significant client results.
The possibilities are limitless for brands to get involved in real conversations with their audience in an authentic way. We've been fortunate to have our work in this area recognized by the industry. In 2018 alone, we've received 41 awards and a recent Advertiser Perceptions study ranked us as one of top branded content studios -- including first in 83% of the categories, including engaging, breakthrough ideas and achieving clients' KPIs and goals.
Newberger: The CNN brand is arguably more culturally relevant and important to our society than ever, but your company has some powerful critics, Michal. Is there ever a conflict between telling the story a brand like SHRM wants told and respecting your own brand's reputation for the truth?
Shapira (pictured at right): Journalism is more important to our society than it ever has been before -- and we hold ourselves to the same high standards that the CNN editorial staff does. When we launched Courageous, producing branded content through a very specialized lens of brand journalism, we hired award-winning talent to build the studio from scratch. I think what we do best is look at things through different angles, find stories that haven't been told, or tell stories in different and unique ways to make them more engaging to a broader audience. The work we did for SHRM demonstrates just that.
This studio was established to uphold the separation of church and state, and the journalistic integrity of CNN. We clearly label everything that is branded content, regardless of the platform that the creative sits on. We're very careful to make it apparent that what you're watching and engaging with is branded content. Our standards and practices department reviews everything, vets everything, blesses everything.
The SHRM videos are currently taking over full commercial pods on CNN during New Day and Inside Politics, two relevant programs that are anchored in thought leadership. They are also running on CNN Airport Network and across our digital and social channels. The distribution strategy is very deliberate to ensure we're engaging SHRM's target audience for this campaign in a meaningful way.
Newberger: How did this campaign compare to others you've done in the past?
Andrews-Feldman: We've certainly employed branded content as part of our strategy before, but this series rose to a whole new level. I've worked with a number of different agencies in the past and I'd say the caliber of Michal's team, and their ability to quickly ascertain what we were trying to get done, and to synthesize our messages in a way that came across clearly in two-minute videos was tremendous. Courageous was an ideal partner.
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