How we think about content is highly dependent on how we choose to interact with it. More often than not, the content we choose to consume comes with a label that we’re comfortable with, not unlike other products we use including clothing, cars, and even the food we eat.
Beyond personal communications, all content is branded content, whether we see a given piece that way depends on how we feel about the content creator, their motives, and the context of their content.
An Updated Definition of Brands
When I hear the word “brand,” traditionally, I think, “company.” More specifically, I’d probably think, “company that’s trying to sell me something.” If you’re like me, those same notions pop up in your head too, and they come prepackaged with a kind of skepticism, or a categorization, anyway. When a brand (i.e., company) has something to tell me, I’d be smart to have my guard up and to question their motives.
That’s what happens when ads and sales pitches are a necessary evil we’ve been trained to filter out. But we don’t passively consume content while bracing ourselves against ads like we used to. We pick and choose where we look at any given moment, and that’s changed the balance of power.
Now, user choice drives content consumption more than it ever has. Companies are just trying to fit in to a user-generated, user-directed model where the individual is the focus. To effectively connect with consumers, companies are learning that their labels, their trademarks, their mission, their ideas and the type and style of the content they create all have to contribute to the self-image of the consumers they want opting in. Think about that.
The consumer is the unit of focus. The consumer is the brand.
When a company or organization effectively augments an individual’s brand, that’s a marketing win. Just look at how Oreo scored millions of Facebook shares for posting this now iconic image.
That simple gesture provided millions of people with a powerful way to show their friends who they are and what they care about. A cookie can’t be gay. A cookie can’t advocate for gay rights or accepting our differences. And a cookie is unlikely to be something that individuals use to signify an important part of their personal brands. Until now.
Incidentally, when a company creates opportunities for individuals to opt in, those same opportunities cause others to opt out, as boycotts of Oreo and other online backlash have shown. Either way, the point holds true.
Branded Content in Context
So why is it that the Oreo image is celebrated as a massive brand win and not an obnoxious intrusion of sponsored content? First of all, it wasn’t paid for. No one saw the rainbow cookie in their streams because Oreo purchased the placement– all of their exposure was 100% earned media, voluntarily shared by Facebook users, then picked up and reported on by countless news outlets.
Upon critical analysis, we all know it’s marketing, and when companies co-opt causes it can feel dirty– especially if we don’t agree with their chosen causes. But when we like the way it makes us feel when we see it, and we like the way it makes us look when we share it, it doesn’t feel like marketing at all. Whether we choose to admit it or not, the way we want to look, well, that’s our own form of marketing; how we appear to others shows our own personal brand.
Your characterization of whether a given company’s content is interrupting you, or adding to your experience (and the experience you share with others), has everything to do with your personal brand. If the company makes it’s content available in the right context, in a way that’s appealing to you, it doesn’t feel “branded” at all.
When the Content is Important but the Purchase Isn’t
Oreo delivered content that mattered to people. It made them feel a certain way and gave them a means to express themselves. The fact that Oreo makes cookies you can eat is not material to the piece. You could object to their use of palm oil, high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavor (I object to it with every delicious bite), and still use their “branded content” to communicate important things about yourself, like millions of people did.
The same is true of e-books, whitepapers, blogs, videos, infographics and any other kinds of content companies create that help to augment who you are at work and at play. As a professional in the online marketing space, what I know about this particular topic is important to my role, how effective I am and how I am perceived. A great deal of the content I consume comes directly from other professionals and companies in the same space. It’s nearly all branded content! But it doesn’t make me buy things.
Could this very post lead you to spend money with Content Blvd? Probably not. Even if it did, the content of this article would not be material to your purchase. Clumsy content that is always trying to initiate or directly influence the buying process is nothing more than sales copy.
Too often, when advertisers attempt to shift from display ads to in-stream content and call it “native advertising” all they’re doing is making longer, more annoying ads. That’s not branded content anymore than the words on a clothing tag are considered branded content. However, when companies create content that is essentially a stand-alone product, and it did some good for it’s audience, that’s how branded content does it’s job.
The New Media Model that Fuels Everything
Way back in the last century, media (most notably, newspapers) were fueled by ads, largely classified, and subscriptions. The line between editorial and advertising was usually very clear. However, broadcast media models are losing because fewer and fewer people can be found through one monolithic channel. Not only are there better and cheaper ways to advertise, there are better ways to consume the media (the content) we want most. We all want something different, and rarely do we want ads in that mix.
For all the concern about company messages infiltrating otherwise “pure,” personally curated content streams, it’s advertising that pays for those streams in the first place. And because we’re able to ignore most advertising, companies need to adapt. They need to find ways to become part of our curated streams. When they aren’t successful in going “native,” it’s because the got in the way of the people they were trying to target.
Perhaps they were in the wrong context, or they don’t understand their target consumers. Maybe they just don’t know how to create worthwhile content people really want. Whatever the problem, they didn’t induce anyone to opt-in who would use their personal brand to speak for, or associate with, the corporate brand.
The new model means individuals are the vehicle. How do you bolster your target consumer’s brand?