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Our Thinking

Can “Branded Content” Build Brands?

Back in the early days of journalism, there was a clear distinction between the “news” and paid advertisements. It was considered of the highest ethical imperative that journalists could not be “bought” or even influenced – by an advertiser looking to make a large ad purchase, or a threat to pull their dollars. If a company wanted to place an advertisement that even looked like a news story, it had to be in a different typeface, and labelled clearly as a paid ad. The term advertorial was coined to describe this.

While traditional media still ascribe to this higher standard, a quick look on their websites – and in almost every social media site – shows an uncomfortable grey zone, and a very slippery slope.

Enter the world of so-called branded content. Branded content might mean editorial opinion, videos, soft news, product comparisons, product placement, manufactured contests, and corporately sponsored (and biased) market research.  It gets delivered through blogs, websites, Twitter, YouTube, and a myriad of other channels.

From a corporate perspective, branded content leaped from the olden days of brochures and media relations, first onto corporate websites, then through social media, and finally via a large (but mostly invisible) army of third-party “news” sites that serve this content almost everywhere.

Despite this somewhat cynical tone, is branded content all that bad? From a corporate context, is it not just now part of a marketer’s arsenal of important tools? And who cares, really?

Branded content per se is neither good nor bad: if a person gets value from the content, then why not produce it? Costco sends a magazine to all of its executive members with fantastic articles. Presumably the goal of the articles us to position Costco as a go to destination for families and business, while at the same time providing an editorial skeleton for their many advertisers. The reality though, is that every page in the magazine is designed to drive traffic to Costco, and then drive product sales. It doesn’t matter if the page is editorial or an advertisement… or one of the many types of branded content in between. That the Costco magazine works is a testament to one thing, and one thing only: the reader understands that the “magazine” has a corporate sponsor – it works because there is trust.

Branded content is bad when the sponsor is hidden, and the user thinks the content is unbiased, independent, and objective. While there are laws that require a blogger to disclose whether they are are receiving payment for writing, this is too easily lost in the fine print. And as the content syndicates through social media (and especially on Twitter) it gets completely submerged.  Once the commercial connection is discovered, or even if it is suspected, then trust is lost.

Old-school publishers got one thing very, very right: Once the reader doesn’t know whether or not they can trust what you write, they absolutely know they can’t trust you.  Branded content that erodes trust – even unwittingly – can take years to earn back – if at all.

This Week’s Action Plan: Is your connection to the content clear?  If you are using branded content, a clear connection to the content builds trust, and builds your brand.  If the connection to your brand is even partially hidden, then you run the risk of erosion.