Brand As Publisher: Demystifying Branded Content

April 17, 2014 Jonathan Paul


In Demystifying Native Advertising, we discussed how branded content and native advertising, despite being terms often used interchangeably, aren’t actually the same thing. Now it’s time to demystify branded content, also known as content marketing or custom publishing.

On the journey to transaction, native advertising takes the highway, branded content the scenic route. Both provide value to the consumer, but in different ways. The goal of providing value with native advertising is subordinate to making the sale. Think newspaper advertorial in an online ad format — it’s often audience-tailored content that aims to help consumers solve a relevant problem with a particular product or service posited as an opportune solution. The value of the content is actually contingent on a purchase being made.

“Content marketing, when it’s done properly, it should be more content-driven than advertising-driven.”

Branded content focus on editorial

Branded content, on the other hand, is much more akin to an editorial experience (resulting in a lot of brand/publisher partnerships and a lot of journalists to jump into new careers) and valuable in and of itself. It provides that inherent value to consumers over the long-haul, bringing them closer to a brand by earning their trust over time; a potential purchase is a happy, albeit strategically encouraged, consequence.

“My experience with native advertising is that it’s more advertising than content-driven and I would say with content marketing, when it’s done properly, it should be more content-driven than advertising-driven,” says Doug Kelly, Publisher/Managing Director of Strategic Content Labs.

“The relationship that branded content has with the viewer, compared to native advertising, is a very different one. It’s a matter of providing something that’s valuable, getting engagement, and for a client, allowing brand halo to kick in. That can go any number of ways, whether it’s simply changing someone’s mind on an issue, getting them to think more favourably about a brand, or actually leading them to some sort of defined action.”

 ”It allows brands to clearly and unequivocally ‘OWN’ the relationship with consumers.”

Branded content isn’t new, having been part of the marketing mix for quite some time, but lately it’s emerged as a particularly effective strategy for cutting through an increasingly cluttered mediascape.

“It’s gaining increasing levels of importance because it allows brands to clearly and unequivocally ‘OWN’ the relationship with consumers,” says Joseph Barbieri, Managing Director, Content & Media Partnerships, at creative agency Sid Lee. “Equally, consumers are content hungry and open to engaging with brands in a more transparent and authentic way when content is purposeful, useful and entertaining.”

Owning the relationship

There are some great examples out there of brands that’ve just nailed that two-way relationship. Consider Red Bull or American Express’ Open Forum for small businesses. They act like true publishers, pushing out a torrent of editorial-style content over a variety of digital platforms, ultimately pulling consumers back to a central content hub (ah that ol’ hub and spoke strategy) where brand halo comes into play.

They draw in their desired audience with engaging, high quality content, which is the anchor for a rich, overarching experience that breaks through by supplementing consumers’ lives with relevance and meaning, no strings attached. Many of those consumers will buy from those brands by virtue of goodwill earned. Then there are publishers, like Buzzfeed, who thrive off of producing one-off branded content pieces for their advertising partners. Remember that video that made the social media rounds wherein a cat talks bout the trials and tribulations of taking care of a human? Branded content for Purina cat litter care of Buzzfeed.

Of course, content marketing isn’t just an effective tool for B2C brands.

“I think it’s important to distinguish between B2B and B2C brands,” says Dan Levy, Content Strategist at software-as-a-service company Unbounce. “When people talk about branded content they usually jump to giant B2C brands like Red Bull or AmEx. Yes, they’re doing cool stuff, but their goals and budgets are impossible for most companies to relate to. In the B2B space, I’m looking at fellow SaaS companies like Moz, HubSpot and KISSMetrics who have built their brands – and, more importantly, their communities – on content marketing; sometimes it’s hard tell where their marketing ends and their product/service begins. In a good way. In the case of Unbounce, we actually launched our conversion blog before we even launched our landing page builder.”

“We’re all a bunch of Christopher Columbuses running around thinking we discovered a new country.”

Despite its emergence as a force for media clutter cutting, content marketing still has a ways to go and grow.

“Right now we’re in the definition phase,” says Levy. “We keep coming up with new names for the same thing, from branded content to custom publishing to content marketing. We’re all a bunch of Christopher Columbuses running around thinking we discovered a new country (never mind that it’s been long inhabited – John Deere has been doing branded content for more than a century!). Pretty soon we’re going to have to put our heads down and start building.”

The challenge of transparency

And building means overcoming challenges, of which content marketing still has its fair share. Like native advertising, transparency is an important challenge for branded content. It’s incumbent on all content marketers to overtly own their content. These days, people may not care whether or not content is commercial, but as we’ve said before, they definitely give a damn when content pretends to be something it’s not. The most important challenge for brands going forward, however, is to get with the program.

“Branded content requires a level of commitment that is holistic and foundational,” says Barbieri.  “One of the main challenges is moving brands from ‘campaign’ thinking to ‘program’ thinking, and developing a clearly articulated POV which distinguishes a brand’s voice in a congested landscape. Having a clear sense of objectives and KPI’s is essential, but bringing of level of nimbleness is equally important. The key to creating effective branded content is to ensure that it is a fully integrated part of a marketing strategy.”

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