Many consumers and business executives, especially those in the baby-boom generation, often equate branded content with advertorials—content created by marketers that parades through the pages of newspapers and magazines as if it were the publication’s own editorial product. It’s a poor ploy; consumers are not so easily fooled.
The advent of digital and mobile technologies has given branded content a chance to reintroduce itself. Many marketers and some media companies have seized the opportunity—often with impressive results. “Branded” today therefore takes in a much wider spectrum of content, events, and experiences than ever before. There is no single, comprehensive definition.
Media companies tend to think of branded content first in terms of “native advertising,” which comprises multiple forms of paid-content marketing. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) defines six standard types of placement that it considers to be native advertising, but the organization also recognizes that this is a fast-growing market that is still in flux. “Native is in the eye of the beholder,” the IAB cautions.
Marketers talk about the importance of “content marketing”—which, according to author and marketer Seth Godin, “is the only marketing left”—but they have an easier time describing what it isn’t than what it is. “Lack of agreement has caused confusion in the marketplace,” the IAB says, distracting from “higher-level discussions such as effectiveness and disclosure.”
The best branded content has always provided value to brand, publisher, and consumer, typically by demonstrating that the creator and the deliverer of the content (which sometimes are one and the same and sometimes are not) understand the user’s needs and want to address them. When branded content is done and presented well, consumers recognize its utility and are willing to accept it for what it is and can be—informative, fun, credible, and valuable.
John Deere’s magazine for farmers, The Furrow, first published in 1895, may be the longest-running extant example. The Furrow provides useful information in an entertaining format created expressly for the company’s customers; it is still read by some 2 million people around the world. More recent examples of branded content include “Whole Story,” the Whole Foods blog that often features content related to healthy eating and nutrition; Net-a-Porter’s Porter magazine, which is devoted to trends and developments in fashion; and Purina’s Petcentric site, which aggregates pet-related content on the Web. (Our own bcgperspectives website and mobile app is another instance of branded content, in a B2B rather than a B2C application.)
We believe that branded content is best defined from two perspectives. First, it combines the promotional purpose of traditional ads with the consumer’s experience of nonbrand-affiliated news, information, or entertainment. It provides a
consumer benefit in the service of a brand. Second, the content is consistent with its setting—that is, it fits with the medium or method that delivers it from both a creative and a contextual point of view. (See Exhibit 1.) Not all branded content is created equal, but all marketers that consider using it should seek to satisfy these criteria. They are the price of admission that will allow them to continue to play.
We see at least nine types of branded content at work today. These include three kinds of content—product-related, category-related, and general-interest content with ties to a particular brand’s attributes or the context in which it is used—delivered on three kinds of platforms: existing media (a TV show, for example), a brand’s own media (its website or social network page), or a platform created expressly for the content in question
These options are not mutually exclusive; some brands use all of them. The role of the Apple iPad on the TV sitcom “Modern Family” is an example of product-related content delivered on an existing media platform. Patagonia’s environmental videos speak to issues related to the company’s line of outdoor products and are shown on its own website. Net-a-Porter’s magazine is category-related content on a new platform designed to deliver it.
Media fragmentation is making it harder for brands to reach consumers and for media companies themselves to capture and retain a loyal audience. At the same time, consumer trust in traditional advertising is low. Our research shows that the three most trusted sources of information by consumers today are recommendations from family and friends, reviews by experts, and the opinions of other consumers. The least trusted sources are TV ads, brand and company e-mails, company posts on social media, and website ads.
Understanding this trust factor is critical. It’s not that consumers are unwilling to trust communications from brands; in fact, they want to believe them. But they are looking for substantive engagement that provides value to them; sales pitches turn them off. An astounding 96 percent of US consumers say they trust brands that provide useful information without trying to sell them something. A similar percentage say they trust brands that use content to inform them or help them meet a need
The digital revolution has not only given consumers much greater access to various sources of information, it has also changed and raised their expectations of all sources, whether they access them online or off. In addition, these developments have changed how consumers navigate the purchasing pathway. As a result, brands need to think differently about how they engage consumers at each step:
- Awareness. Brands need to provide consumers with content that introduces the brand in an authentic and engaging way.
- Consideration. Brands must show what they care about and demonstrate how they deliver value.
- Choose and Buy. Brands must create a personalized experience that informs and supports the purchase decision.
- Use and Share Views. Companies need to develop platforms for consumers to share their views and engage with the brand and with other consumers.
All of which points to more companies finding new ways to explore branded content