I’ve been on the frontline of journalism for 13 years now – in print, on the web, across consumer, B2B and customer publishing – and one evolving trend I’ve observed is ‘branded’ content.
That phrase covers a wide spectrum of content and means of distribution but is essentially when companies try to reach their target markets by sponsoring, producing or associating with relevant content for that audience.
In its least subtle and arguably least useful forms this can be seen in clumsy and obtrusive advertorials, blatantly biased research and surveys or bland brochure-ware. It’s also evident in PR-led content readily published as ‘editorial’ by cash-strapped newspapers, magazines and websites. (See the whole flat earth news debate for more of that can of worms.)
Trying to fool the reader or viewer by blurring advertising, marketing and editorial boundaries is courting trouble. One thing I’ve definitely learnt over the years is that readers aren’t stupid and if you try to mug them you’ll pay a heavy and sometimes irreversible price in loss of trust and credibility.
When it’s done right, however, branded content gives the target audience content they want while boosting brand profile and credibility with those readers. Here are a just a couple of very different recent examples where I think they’ve got it right.
B2C branded content’s peak performance
I’m a mad keen, if not particularly skilful, rock climber and I edited Britain’s leading monthly climbing magazine, Climber, for almost three years. My budget there was, as red-haired crooner Mick Hucknall might have said, too tight to mention, making it tough to produce or pay for high-quality photography or video content. Some outdoor equipment companies have latched onto this and spotted a gap to exploit.
One is rock climbing shoe manufacturer Boreal, which has produced an excellent series of short videos, each featuring one of its sponsored climbers. The videos have been tastefully shot to feature some of the UK’s breath-taking natural landscape, interview footage and climbing action.
The key here is that each of these videos passes for good content in its own right, such is the low key and subtle nature of the branding. It’s engaging and perfectly pitched at its target audience – there’s none of ‘I only use Boreal rock climbing shoes because they make me climb better’ type of quotes and no gratuitous product close ups.
Boreal has then put the video out there on video sharing websites and also made it available to all the online climbing media to use for free, ensuring widespread global distribution. Here’s the first in the series – called True Grip (a play on the sticky rubber used for friction in modern rock climbing shoes), featuring top Peak District climber Andi Turner.
B2B branded content
Over in the business world an example where I was involved first-hand involves Japanese IT company Fujitsu trying to build closer relationships with chief information officers (CIOs) of big global organisations – the people who make the buying decisions on IT contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
CIOs are a sophisticated audience. In charge of the IT function, they usually sit at the top table with the other C-level board members and see themselves as business, rather than IT, executives. White papers and brochure-ware simply doesn’t cut it for them.
As editorial consultant I helped London-based customer publisher Redwood come up with a concept for a high-level, glossy, business-focused quarterly magazine featuring and catering for CIOs from around the world (rather than just another parochial UK or US-focused one).
The key to the publication having credibility among this CIO audience was the content – heavyweight, in-depth interviews and analysis of key business and technology trends for the Harvard Business Review–, McKinsey– or Economist-reading executive.
The great thing was that Fujitsu’s marketing team totally got it and together we launched the magazine, called I: Global Intelligence for the CIO (and its website www.i-cio.com).
Fujitsu also got the tone right – although the branding is subtle, there’s no attempt to fool the reader that it’s an editorially independent publication. Yet much of the content could stand on its own as editorial.
The magazine has helped Fujitsu build closer links with that target audience in a way that no white papers, mail shots or advertising could hope to achieve. And it has won several awards for its high-quality design and content in the three years since its launch.
Here’s what I’ve learnt when it comes to getting branded content right:
- The quality of the content is paramount. You need to provide something different, engaging and compelling to the reader/viewer.
- Let the content do the talking for you. Of course there’ll be branding but don’t try and shoehorn in clumsy marketing messages.
- Be honest. Readers aren’t stupid so don’t try to pretend it’s independent editorial content.
- Seize the opportunity. Editorial production values have been hit by budgets being decimated so there’s a gap for content with high-quality design and production.
Get branded content right and there’s a huge opportunity to become a trusted and valued contributor/advisor in the area you are trying to target.
The Collective Content blog regularly covers issues around branded and custom content. For more on guest writer Andy McCue (@andymccue), check out this recent post: Collectivist #3: Content creator.