A Mile Wide & An Inch Deep
Navigating Branded Content Waters
Branded Content. Marketers are clamoring for it. Agencies — advertising, talent, media, and PR — are shilling it as a panacea to whatever ails their clients. VC firms are throwing funding at it, while media companies — both old and new — are scrambling to find new ways to package and push it out.
Every day more and more branded content gets developed, produced, and distributed. By creative professionals, entertainers, editorial publishers, amateurs, and everyone in between. And some of it actually gets found and consumed by real audiences. But what is it exactly? And why, rather than tightening the corners on practical applications of branded content, do we have to make it more confusing by introducing new splinter cells? There’s liquid content, micro content, sponsored content, omnichannel content, native content, snackable content, and the most abhorrent of the lot, contentvertising.
As the lines between creator, curator, and consumer blur, and the distinctions between commerce and editorial, brand and publisher, not to mention paid, earned, and owned media, all become more distorted, it’s tempting to fall into the ad tech trap of stringing together a series of buzzwords to form one long, amorphous definition to describe seemingly simple solutions. In researching this piece, we attended a number of conferences and tuned-in to countless webinars on content marketing, and were astounded by how many of the so-called experts dodge — sometimes artfully, but more often with the grace of a wounded water buffalo — the subject of what they actually do for a living. It’s enough to make a politician blush.
From “content is the atomic particle of all marketing” to “content is a tripartite solution to paid, earned, and owned media,” we’ve heard it all. One content agency we challenged during a recent event went so far as to say, “We don’t really feel comfortable defining content; we just market it.” Really? That’s like Nike saying, “We don’t know what a shoe is, we just market it.”
Admittedly, many of us are guilty of throwing the c-word around in RFPs, at industry boondoggles, in the heat of a pitch, even on our own LinkedIn profiles, but few in our industry seem to want to commit to a working definition of what branded content is, and, more importantly, what benefit it provides, how it integrates into the marketing mix, and why it’s worth the investment. The only thing we can agree on is that it involves some combination of three other c-words: connectivity, community, and conversations.
But here’s the real irony — the further we move away from clearly defining branded content, the more heated the arms race to stockpile it becomes. It begs the question, what unmet or under-delivered need or desire is this sudden glut of content filling? Why is there such a gap between supply and demand? After all, just because you can drink from the fire hose doesn’t necessarily mean you want to.
As a brand strategist, I felt compelled to take the plunge into the world of branded content and emerge with a jargon-free, meaningful understanding of what its true value is. And to talk about it like a human. What’s clear is that as audiences grow more skeptical of traditional advertising (76% of people think ads in general are exaggerated, 87% think that we’re Photoshop fiends, and 32% believe they know what our ads are “trying to do”), there’s a real opportunity to augment — rather than replace — those push marketing efforts with informative or entertaining stories that pull audiences towards a brand. To succeed in today’s marketplace, we’d better recognize that, or get out of the way of marketers who do.
So what exactly is content? Broadly speaking, content is everything — there’s no right or wrong definition. As humans, it’s what we create, perform, write, film, sing, invent, play, report on, review, and share. It’s artistic, entertaining, educational, funny, sad, informative, and sometimes, oftentimes, just pointless. Branded content, on the other hand, must serve a purpose, both for the brand that’s funding it, and for the audience it’s created for.
The distinction between branded content and say, editorial content or entertainment, can be simplified into two enmeshed factors: the (perceived) source of funding and associated level of consumer trust. Editorial content, which in theory expresses the opinion of an editor, publisher, or individual, is generally more trusted, because audiences don’t believe that it’s paid for directly by marketers. The same goes for entertainment, which audiences believe is funded by a studio, producer, or investor — not brands with an agenda to influence or manipulate their behavior. Based on the reality of the dollar flow behind editorial content and entertainment, this might look like a distinction without a real difference, but audiences the true arbiters, believe otherwise.
Using this logic, one might argue that branded content, by virtue of the fact that it’s funded by a marketer, is a type of advertising, but we disagree. Yes, branded content and advertising both manifest an idea or message intended to get a specific target audience to take an action that ultimately solves a brand’s business problem. What differentiates the two is how their intended purposes serve different outcomes. Advertising, when done effectively, is intended to sell more, in one form or another, while branded content is intended to get attention and build affinity, trust, and loyalty. Advertising persuades, while branded content informs and entertains.
Branded content should feel like there’s something in it for both parties — the brand that’s funding it and the audience consuming it. Or, stated more simply, an implied quid pro quo between the seller and the buyer. It’s a fundamentally different value exchange than traditional advertising, which is often perceived as a forced intrusion, rather than an invited guest. One stands between a person and the stuff they want to consume, while the other, when done well, feels like the stuff they want to consume. Will one replace the other? Not likely, at least in our lifetime, but when combined in the right ratios, they can work together to foster a more equitable — and trusting — relationship between brand and consumer.
So did I succeed in crafting a working definition for branded content that’s devoid of jargon? One that I could explain to my uncle across the Thanksgiving table or to a stranger in the next seat on a flight? Just when I thought I had it, I read a quote from Doug Scott, Chair of this year’s Cannes Lions Branded Content & Entertainment Jury, who defined content as “marketing so good that consumers don’t know it’s marketing.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself. Simple, honest, and stated in relatable, human terms, this definition shares all the same qualities as great branded content.
The above article originally appeared in the print edition of Wake Up Quarterly, Q3, 2014.