What Branded Content is. What it's Not. And How to Get it Right

What Branded Content is. What it’s Not. And How to Get it Right

When we become immune to a drug from overuse, doctors either increase the dosage or use an alternative.

And in the case of advertising, branded content is that alternative.

As our disdain for the endless conveyer belt of advertising infused information grows, brands need an innovative strategy to engage consumers without leaving them feeling sold to.

Their chosen approach is a creative technique as old as humankind.


Ones that convey their values and engage our emotions.

Advertisers perfect this simple strategy to a point where we don’t see it as marketing but information that we find exciting and engaging.

In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at what branded content is, what it’s not, and how to get it right so you too can use it to your advantage. 

What is Branded Content?

what is a _____?

We live in an age of AI and machine learning and new businesses can now create and use brand design tools to easily design their brand look. This is great! However, there is more to branding than looks. Much more!

Branding at its core is capturing what you stand for as a business – your values, your intentions, your meaning, and creating branded content is one of the ways you can express these qualities and, by extension, your brand reach.

Before we dive into some examples, it’s important to define what traditional advertising entails, as they are often considered opposites.

Traditional advertising is what you usually think of when someone mentions an ad. This includes newspaper ads, radio ads, TV ads, magazine ads, billboards, direct mailings, and anything else of the sort.

Most commonly, the goal is to push the ad to as many people as possible regardless of their interest in the messaging, product, service, or brand.

Let’s look closer. 

Two perfect examples of branded content are sitting down and watching The Lego Movie with your kid – the movie itself is an entire branding endorsement for Lego – and the Red Bull Supersonic Freefall stunt in which Felix Baumgartner went on a record-breaking skydive from space decked out in Red Bull gear and ultimately showing the viewers that “Red Bull Gives You Wings,” as their tagline comically suggests.

YouTube video

In neither situation are the consumers interacting with the product being told to purchase or use Legos or Red Bull, but because of the nature of the interaction, it definitely makes them more likely to be aware of the brand and want to purchase from them.

The first example leaves everyone (including adults) in fits of laughter, and the second one in complete awe of witnessing something truly unique.

But do we feel like we’re being sold to? No, because we don’t see them as advertisements, but of course they are! That’s branded content in action.

I know that if I were a kid, I would definitely ask my parent to buy me Legos after watching the best movie of all time.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

“In marketing, branded content is content produced by an advertiser or content whose creation was funded by an advertiser. In contrast to content marketing and product placement, branded content is designed to build awareness for a brand by associating it with content that shares its values.”

And a shorter version:

Companies use branded content to highlight their values – not necessarily their products or services – while designing it so that viewers subconsciously make the connection between the two.

In the case of Lego, we associate family fun, laughter, and connection. With Red Bull, doing the extraordinary, pushing our limits, and overcoming obstacles.

And brands are using this type of content more frequently as we as consumers become more intolerant of traditional advertisements.

It’s how they navigate around ad-free platforms like Netflix and adblocking software. And while the marketing message may appear to be almost invisible, the message is still alive and kicking.

In a nutshell, you know you’ve succeeded with branded content when the people who interact with it enjoy it without thinking much more about it. And you do that by providing content that’s worth the consumer’s time.

For a better understanding, let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of this type of content:

Branded content is all about people’s stories and brand values, not products and services:

Branded content is all about people's stories and brand values, not products and services:

We should look at branded content as the reverse of traditional advertising. It starts with stories that are important to people the brand is targeting, then brands find ways of associating it to their brand values. And by doing so, also their products and services. 

Branded content gets people talking about the brand, not its products or services:

When a brand connects with its audience personally and emotionally, that usually triggers a favorable response that gets users talking about the brand. It’s why the key metric for judging a brand’s content success is by the number of mentions it receives both on- and off-line.

Branded content’s about providing value to the user:

Branded content's about providing value to the user:

Again, this is a reverse take on traditional advertising where a lot of effort is put into displaying and playing on the brand’s story to ultimately get more interaction from customers – regardless of if it’s sales or not – with the product or service.

Branded content turns the traditional marketing ideas on their heads by only using content that can prove to customers immediate benefits and interests. It could be a story they relate to, a topic they’re interested in, or pure entertainment. It doesn’t necessarily matter how that value can be presented to the user, just that it is.

Branded content connects with our emotions:

Using emotions to connect, engage, and convert people into taking action has been with us since we first drew and shared stories on the wall of a cave, and it’s still a powerful strategy.

But branded content avoids using rational arguments to convince people to take action or choose one brand over another. Instead, it convinces us by getting intimate and connecting on levels that arouse our emotions.

Remember, emotions are more powerful than rational thought when it comes to branded content.

Branded content is great storytelling in action:

Dove’s Real Beauty campaign is a brilliant example of how branded content uses people’s stories to promote their product.

YouTube video

Dove’s short story, born from research showing only 4% of women believed they were beautiful, highlighted the gap between a woman’s perception of herself and reality. The story has a start, middle, and end, and connects with viewers on every level because it’s about the growth and emotion of each individual woman’s story which is extremely relatable.

Making it about the consumer and not the product is powerful in storytelling.

Branded content is often co-created:

Brands often collaborate with the very best film directors, cinematographers, and professionals to produce exceptional high-quality branded content. However, a popular approach is to create this type of content in the form of user-generated content.

UGC is a powerful and popular marketing strategy. As consumers, we are far more inclined to believe what other people like us have to say about a brand than the brand itself.

Companies now encourage users to tell their stories about using the brand’s products or services, giving it a human element that others can connect to.

Branded content is versatile:

Branded content is versatile:

You can use branded content on any platform and in any form.

Video, podcasts, video games, print, interactive formats, radio, and events are all examples of where you can start to showcase your branded content. Apps, websites, and social media are also great places to start because they are easily accessible to the average business owner.

Branded Content, What It’s Not

Branded content is relatively new, causing some blurred lines as to what it is and what it isn’t. Here’s what some judges at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity had to say.

Jan Godsk, head of the BCMA’s (Branded Content Marketing Association) Scandinavian Chapter said:

“One of the problems with trying to define branded content is that there’s unlikely ever to be any consensus because everyone has a different take on what branded content is or should be.”

However, Jan points out that regardless of the various awards, different juries, and the unresolved definition of branded content, the association usually comes to a shared conclusion as to which content should be awarded, meaning that even with the blurred lines, there is an understanding as to what makes the cut.

Universal McCann’s chief content officer Scott Donaton was quoted as saying:

“The beauty of the space is precisely this lack of any clear definition about what branded content is.”

Scott, a previous jury president at Cannes, also said he was fascinated by the diversity of branded content and the innovative ways it’s being delivered.

Again, those considered as the finest examples of branded content often win awards in numerous categories.

Still none the wiser as to what branded content actually isn’t?

Let’s find out by looking at the differences between it and conventional marketing strategies.

Conventional marketing vs. Branded Content

●        Branded content doesn’t actively promote products or services: While brand products can appear, like in the example of Felix Baumgartner sky diving from space in a fully branded Red Bull suit from above, the product itself is not the focus of the content.

●        Branded content is non-invasive: Unlike the full-frontal assault on our visual senses approach that pop-ups and banner ads take, this type of content is designed in a way that people choose to consume the content because of the benefit offered. It’s not pushy or trying to convince you to do anything in regards to the product or service.

Content Marketing vs. Branded Content

●        Content marketing is every piece of content a brand uses within its overall strategy to promote itself. Branded content is a piece of that larger puzzle and is a sub-category of content marketing.

Branded Content vs. Product Placement

●        Product placement is blatant: You know product placement when you see it as it’s always apparent. Think about Tom Hanks and his companion in cast away, the Wilson volleyball – which he of course named Wilson –, or Tom cruise wearing Aviators in Top Gun. Branded content is far more subtle, and the product is never so obvious.

●        The brand does not decide product placement: When a brand agrees to a deal for product placement within a movie, their input generally ends there. Meaning they have no say where the product appears or how just that it does.

●        Product placement is void of relatable storytelling: Brands don’t bother building a story around the product in product placement as that’s not the advertising strategy. It’s not about the product or brand, rather the situation in which it’s being used or by whom.

●        Product placement is not something that consumers actively take notice of necessarily. Often, the products can be missed, but other times the viewer’s eye catches it instantly. It truly depends. When it comes to branded content, the goal of the entire content piece is not to sell the item but to just show it exists, even if it’s in the background.

How to Get Branded Content Right

It can be difficult to know where to start with branded content. Here are some important things to remember so that you can do it right.

Start by discovering what your customers are sharing:

When choosing your branded content topic, think about why your target market might share and like it. You can use content marketing tools like Buzzsumo to find key terms most shared in your industry and get ideas from competitors and influencers.

If you think your niche is a little boring for branded content, find a niche with a tangible connection and go from there.

Give your content an approachable tone:

For your branded content to connect with a viewer’s emotions, you must avoid direct sales, such as a call-to-action or “buy now” style language. It’s about connecting on a human level, so talk like a human, not a corporate advertisement.

Make it entertaining, valuable, and memorable for users:

Make it entertaining, valuable, and memorable for users

The more valuable and entertaining the content is to your users, the more memorable your branded content campaigns will be. You build connections between your brand and viewers through mutual values and interests.

The most successful branded content always tells stories that can excite the given audience and ensure viewers can relate that emotion to the brand.

Use an immersive, multi-sensory-driven approach:

Branded content is best used in media formats where visuals can play their part in getting your intended emotional message across. Video and audio enable this type of content to excel by creating an emotional experience for the viewers and a secondary way to interact with the content.

Enable on-the-move engagement by using cross-channel distribution:

As your branded content will most often be video or audio-driven, most viewers will watch it on a mobile device. Keep this in mind and make it accessible for people to listen and view it from multiple social networks and other third-party websites.

Enable engagement and loyalty.

Your goal with branded content is to connect with your viewers on an emotional level.

When you’ve achieved that level of connection, take advantage by provoking user response. Provide those customers with a means of connecting with your brand and engaging on a deeper level through engagement on social media, or offering an online chat service, for example. 

Look for opportunities to collaborate with high-profile brands:

Collaborating and producing stories with other brands who share similar interests and values is an excellent way of gaining attention and traction among a wider audience.

Don’t be afraid to be the one to reach out – don’t expect collaborations to come calling your name.

What Have We Learned?

Branded content requires you to play on customer emotions and not to try and sell them your product or service.

Make sure to check in with your strategy to make sure you don’t cross the line of traditional branding. It’s okay if you want to go that route as well, but don’t confuse the two.

The goal of branded content is to create more brand awareness among users. As long as you stay true to that and to your brand as a whole, you’ll be ready to start your journey.

This is a post contributed from one of my marketing partners.

Photo by Megan Lee on Unsplash

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  1. Typical of your explanation skills, you have once again played the role of marketing professor ingeniously my friend.

    My takeaway has affirmed what I need to do less of and more of in playing on customer emotions and not trying to sell them my services.

    If my experiences are positive access to examples of what could be stories for Branded Content is readily available.

    Thank you, Professor.


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