Brands and media owners: the blurring of the lines

In the first-party data era, brands are becoming audience owners in their own right. Nowhere is this clearer than in retail, where retail organisations are monetisng their valuable shopper audiences with advertisers via retail media networks. But brands are discovering that customer data is both a reward and a responsibility...

In this article, Ben Cicchetti, VP of Corporate Marketing at InfoSum, explores why brands are building these audiences, the role content marketing plays in that growth, and how multiple industries can follow in the footsteps of retail to create their own media solutions.

Media owners, whether producing content in print or online, via screen or audio, all have something that brands want: direct contact with audiences. To reach the right people with the right message at the right time, brands need access to appropriate media networks.

Media companies aren’t just in the business of producing content to fit alongside advertising, however; they’re building substantial, engaged, loyal audiences that they can derive value from in a number of ways. In an increasingly privacy-focused world, brands are adopting this model and are also making audience-building a key priority. 

Companies working in the digital space are becoming aware that consented first-party data is a necessity to drive planning, activation, and measurement, in an environment where third-party tracking data is no longer available to them. But building an audience isn’t something that just any organisation can do overnight. It requires investment, of course, but it also revolves around establishing a deep, authentic connection with consumers.  

Therefore, brands are starting to think more like media owners about how they can build relationships with their audience that go beyond a simple vendor-customer model. Subsequently, the line between brands and media owners is blurring.

The explosion of retail media 

Nowhere is this more true than in the retail sector. Forward-looking retail organisations – previously perceived as advertisers themselves – are increasingly monetising their valuable shopper audiences with brands through retail media networks (RMNs) – so much so that retail media is forecast to be a $55.35 billion opportunity in 2024 in the US alone.

Online retailers are collecting more data on shopper behaviour and outcomes than ever before, and they are in a unique position to utilise this data and collaborate with brands who need more effective ways to reach their current and potential customers. This all takes place through a retail media network.

Retailers are now exploring ways to offer even richer media experiences, bringing together data from multiple parties and creating expansive ecosystems which also include media companies, tech partners, and brands. To do this, they are using secure technologies such as data clean rooms to connect datasets across multiple organisations without requiring any data to be moved, centralised, or commingled. Analysis of the data allows them to resolve identities across their various data sets, unlocking consumer insights, letting them build and activate high-value audiences and measure the success of those campaigns without risk.

RMNs, such as those developed by Tesco and Boots, are moving from concept to reality at an incredible rate. Retail media is now the fourth-largest advertising medium, according to WARC data, and will see a 10.1 percent increase bringing its ad spend to $121.9 billion globally in 2023.

How brands can grow their audiences

Alongside these collaborations, brands should be considering how they can build their own first-party data assets at scale. So, what’s the best approach?

Using loyalty programmes and registrations is one way of growing audiences and capturing consented first-party data. Realising how valuable their data is, consumers will be looking for a fair exchange, so discounts and offers could be the answer. However, if brands really want to build a loyal following, they need to look to the organisations they seek to emulate. Just as traditional media owners build their audience around compelling and captivating content, so must brands.

To build and scale an audience, brands first need to build and scale their content creation capabilities. Content marketing is a vital component of audience growth but will require investment. It also requires a coherent strategy, in harmony with all other marketing activities. This is an opportunity to become an educator and reliable source of information or entertainment that brings an even larger audience to the brand. 

Sportswear brand Nike has expanded its business empire – and its audience – through content creation. Nike's Training Club app offers users workout plans, tips, nutrition advice and celebrity interviews and is updated with fresh content daily. Recently, Nike also branched out onto Netflix, launching workout session content on the streaming platform. Beauty giant L'Oreal also gained traction from branching out into content production. It opened its Content Factory in 2015 to develop creative content across social platforms to encourage engagement with its brands and drive business. Both could now be considered ‘media’ companies, and both have achieved this status through considerable investment. 

Following retail media’s example

Organisations that invest in a media division and a strong content marketing strategy can turbocharge their audience-building. Companies in the hospitality, travel, transport, and gaming industries, for example, all have opportunities to engage their customer base with a variety of content types, creating opportunities for advertisers to connect with high-value and authenticated addressable audiences.

When it comes to the practicalities of data collection, brands will need to ensure that appropriate consent frameworks are in place, allowing consumers to opt in and out of their data being collected. They will also need to make sure the data they gather can be used to drive more tailored customer experiences. To do this, they must be able to identify customers across multiple devices and channels while complying with regulations. 

Organisations must collect data in a fully consented and transparent manner and carefully consider how they unlock value from that data and make it available for partners without risking their customers' security or privacy. Understanding how to do this should form a key part of any audience-building strategy.

Takeaway: Becoming a media owner comes with great responsibility

The success of retail media should be a source of great inspiration for brands that want to build their data assets and form deeper connections with their audience. With a concerted effort to become more like a media owner, brands have the opportunity to create a more valuable audience and increase their ability to own that audience within their media properties. 

However, customer data is both a reward and a responsibility for all involved. It can provide limitless potential and performance but must be protected at all costs. Consumers will expect organisations who benefit from their data to prioritise privacy and security above all else. That's why it's vital that brands wishing to branch out develop trusted partnerships and have secure data collaboration technology and processes in place. 

By Ben Cicchetti

VP of Corporate Marketing