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Blog Branded Content: Today’s Marketers’ Dilemma

Branded Content: Today’s Marketers’ Dilemma

The way we see it, branded content merges branding and advertising. It targets human emotions in a calculated and very artistic manner. Branded content challenges the principles of content creation as we know it. It tends to go the extra mile and tap into storytelling.

If we were to look for a definition of branded content, we would find out that it’s just content that is openly produced by a particular advertiser. However, due to this, transparent funding advertisers need to create impressive content that strikes an emotional chord with their audience.

The roots of branded content

While the concept does appear as modern, its first iterations can be traced back to the early ’40s. Back then, quiz shows and soap operas were produced and sponsored, each by a single brand. Those same trends are being repeated today through web shows. One example of this is Jerry Seinfeld’s show, ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’. It doesn’t take very long to see that car manufacturer Acura is highly involved in the show’s content.

jerry seinfield with obama in comedians in cars branded content


Throughout the last century, businesses have been looking into intricate ways of creating impressive content that is recognizable and has a substantial emotional impact. At the same time, they must also balance a desire to market with expectations that they hold to ethical standards.

The challenge of trust and connection 

The latter can be complicated. The article listed above mentions the Quiz Show scandal of the 1950s. But branded content controversies still exist today. Celebrities and influencers have been criticized for sharing content about products, then failing to disclose that they’ve been compensated for doing so. There’s a trust issue that must be solved for sure. In fact, 54% of people don’t trust sponsored content. Another ⅔ felt misled when they found out that content was sponsored by a brand.

Of course, trust is just one of the challenges marketers face. The other is creating branded content that resonates with audiences. The following addresses both dilemmas.

Great examples of branded content in action

There are certainly some modern day examples of branded content that stand out as very good examples. Marketers can use these as a starting point.

Airbnb’s article on Fatherly

The story here is a bit of sponsored photo-journalism from a dad sharing his experiences at an Airbnb in the Pacific Northwest. The writer expertly tells a story of making the most of a family vacation, in spite of one family member being sick. He weaves in ways in which staying in an Airbnb helped them enjoy a fun but subdued vacation, while still keeping a sick kiddo well-cared for.

Here, the focus is on telling a very relatable story. The brand mentions are relevant and sparse. It’s a great example of branded content that avoids hard sell tactics.

Umeå Energy’s Lag Experiment

This is a great example of video content that incorporates likable characters, humor, and an interesting take on a common issue. Here, virtual reality is used to create scenarios where people experience a visual lag in real life, similar to what they might experience online with a slow connection.

In the video, people with VR headsets attempt a variety of activities while dealing with a lag. They try to play ping pong, bowl, cook pancakes and take an exercise class. Each effort is a hilarious failure. Here, the sponsor’s message is clear. If you wouldn’t tolerate lag in real life, why would you tolerate it online?

Samsung’s Hearing Colors

It’s one of the episodes from Samsung’s series, ‘Connected’. This episode follows a man with total color blindness who’s had a device implanted that senses color and translates it into sound. It’s a compelling watch.

This is a great example of brand-building goodwill simply by sharing interesting content. There are no mentions of Samsung products in the content whatsoever. The only way viewers know that it’s at all related to Samsung is the video’s description.

The essential components of branded content

The essential aspect of branded content is that the story comes first, the advertisement is always second. The examples above do an excellent job of illustrating this. Secondly, the content needs to have a strong emotional impact on the audience. It has to make people care and needs to tap into emotions like happiness, sadness, surprise, and fear.

When this is done successfully, the results are hard to deny. Branded content that has an emotional impact increases sales and engagement. Doing this starts with developing a clear understanding of your audience. After all, how can you connect with someone if you don’t know them?

For some inspiration, check out these insights from marketers themselves about brands they love. In this piece, they describe how specific brands have used content that has impacted them, and inspired their loyalty.

Actionable advice for better-branded content

Be transparent right away: it’s been shown that the consumers of native ads are much more responsive to it if the ads are openly labeled as such.

Here’s an example of a transparent native ad. It shows that it doesn’t take much effort at all to make it clear that content is brand sponsored. This can be done without distracting from the content. Further, if the content is interesting enough, it reflects quite well on the brand sponsoring the content.

Sync with the platform’s audience: It’s common that businesses create native ads featuring topics that are irrelevant to the magazine’s or website’s target audience.

Here’s an example of an ad that is relevant to the platform. Not only is the content itself appropriate for the Wa-Po audience (sophisticated, intelligent), but the imagery and formatting are as well.

Entertain and educate audiences at scale: While it’s important to have a profoundly inspiring message behind the ad, educating your audience is absolutely essential. It’s our responsibility to find topics that are common denominators between the niche aspects of a business and topics of public interest.

Here’s an example of an ad that provides a broad spectrum of information on a topic that is important to a large section of the population. It covers goals and concerns that virtually all of us have in common. These are the desire to travel, worries about family and health, and pursuing a career that is both lucrative and meaningful. It matches well with a wide audience and is relevant to Synchrony’s role as a financial services provider.

Other tips for creating better native content

  • Self-published content can certainly have an impact, but it’s been proven that brands can get even better results when they partner with a publisher. Just consider some of the examples here, published through the Washington Post, and Fatherly. Publishers understand audiences and can help you take a strategic approach to creating and publishing branded content.
  • Know that audience members already approach branded content with a sense of skepticism and lack of trust. You have to work that much harder to show that what you have to offer is worthy of their time. Native content must meet even the highest standards of quality. Use content creation tools to ensure that every piece you publish is perfected. Then, make sure that it’s relevant and culturally sensitive. This is especially true with global audiences. If your reach goes beyond the borders of a single country, consider using a review site like PickWriters to help you find content localization services.
  • Different audience segments respond well to different types of content. So do people in different stages of the customer journey. To hit all the right notes, experiment with different forms of content. There are more options than video or articles. Branded content can come in the forms of ebooks, white papers, infographics, even quizzes.

Why branded content works better

We, as consumers, become desensitized to ads. We’ve been conditioned to react less and less. We’re also no longer a captive audience. We can skip video ads, install ad blockers, scroll past, or buy subscriptions that give us the gift of an ‘ad-free experience’. This infers that providing customers with the advertisement that aims to deliver a message other than a compulsion to purchase a brand’s products is preferential to traditional advertising.

Not only is it easier to get branded content in front of your audience, but it’s also more impactful when you use it. Brand recall is 86% when audiences consume branded content, but only 65% with standard advertising. 

Getting the most from your branded content

Like any other marketing effort, branded content is only as valuable as the ROI it brings you. To do that, you have to start with goals and metrics. Whether you choose social media engagement, lead generation, or something else, and determine how you will obtain your measurements.

Once you know how you will measure your ROI, you can start taking action to get better results.

  • Take your existing content and repurpose it so that you can present it to new audience segments in new ways. Rather than investing the resources required to create entirely new content, old content can be updated and reformatted to appeal to audience members on other platforms.
  • Draw audiences in by focusing on adding value, not selling products and services. Here’s an article on ways in which the prison system is failing women inmates, and their families. It’s compelling and newsworthy. The article was sponsored by the series, ‘Orange Is the New Black’. It generated enough interest in the topic of women’s experiences in the prison system that it motivated people to subscribe to Netflix to watch.
  • Invest in video content to maximize your ROI. Although they are a lot more expensive to produce than images or text, when it comes to all online content, nothing has more impact than video. It generates more traffic and engagement than any other content format.

Final Thoughts

Branded content can certainly be an effective tool. It can build brand loyalty, help companies establish thought leadership, generate engagement, and earn leads. However, there are also challenges. While branded content can create an emotional response, making that happen isn’t easy. Trust is also an issue. To overcome these, brands must create quality content that is relevant to their audience, publish it on the right platforms, and focus on transparency.

Kristin Savage

Kristin Savage

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