By Luke Cope published March 13, 2014

Why Your Branded Content Shouldn’t Always Be About Your Brand

like-thumbs-up-imageCreating branded content that doesn’t specifically showcase the brand through its products or services can be a tricky prospect for many businesses. A company may have spent years developing its brand image — and brand content to support it — yet agencies are increasingly advising clients to create content that barely mentions its own brand or products. Let’s explore some of the reasoning behind this.

Who is it for, and what are you trying to achieve?

The main problem with heavily brand-oriented content marketing lies in how you are defining your target audience.

By its nature, heavily brand-oriented content appeals to a relatively small number of followers who are already loyal to your brand. Chances are that they’ve bought your product or service and liked it, so they’re potential repeat customers. That’s great, and it’s good to keep them engaged, but brand content targeted toward existing customers is very different than brand content aimed at attracting new customers, who may not have your brand in their consideration set. This, ultimately, is where your business should focus its content efforts in order to increase its market share.

Don’t get content marketing confused with advertising

It’s an easy mistake to make, and we all think we know the difference. Advertising is a method of selling a specific product or service range, whereas content marketing consistently targets a relevant consumer audience with engaging, helpful, and/or entertaining content and encourages them to take action.

The lines are somewhat blurred because many organizations still struggle to produce content that doesn’t explicitly aim to sell their products. Content marketing shouldn’t do this, nor should it involve you preaching about your brand essence. If it does, chances are consumer interest in your content will suffer — and so will its chances of ever achieving its marketing purpose. That can be a fairly universal goal for any content marketing campaign. It’s a more subtle approach to improving your brand image, gaining vital inbound links and shares, and eventually increasing online conversions.

Just try reading a heavily product-focused blog:

personalized wine gifts ad

Reading this product-focused branded content would likely make a consumer more skeptical about its value: We’ve all come across incredibly transparent articles that are trying to cross-sell items at every turn, a fusion of press-release hyperbole and call-to-action advertising with an underlining of self promotion.

This sort of branded content will also be considered too “self-serving” for readers to empathize with it. Blog posts similar to the one above generally receive very few social shares and links, as they do not engage or educate in any way. Some marketers might argue that these types of posts encourage conversions, but why would consumers actively read/share a post that is worded like an advert?

If the above example of a blog post had been based around what type of wine to drink with specific meals, then it may have had a chance of attracting more attention in the form of social shares and links.

Less product-oriented blog content is more likely to be perceived as educational or entertaining, thereby encouraging repeat visits. Ironically, in the end, which blog would do more for your brand?

What are your targeted personas interested in?

When you are creating a content marketing plan, it’s vital to consider at whom the content is actually aimed. Before you begin producing content, you should develop a list of personas, and then you can tailor each piece of content to a certain persona. Also develop a list of influencers that hold a large following of a targeted persona.

What are they sharing? What are they talking about? What type of content really gets a discussion going? Do your research to identify what content is doing well within your industry, as this will also help you define your personas.

The key here is not to approach content marketing like an advertiser looking for sales figures. Instead, think about what content will genuinely interest or help a certain persona or attract the attention of an influencer. Again when it comes down to heavily promotional branded content vs. an unbranded approach, the latter will gain more traction in the form of social shares and links.

If you’re operating in a niche that rarely elicits social discussions, then you may need to have a bit of fun with your content to even be able to receive a positive response. Perhaps the real interest lies in an area not directly related to your industry. For example, Charmin provided one of the best campaigns of recent years with its “Sit or Squat?” mobile app. This app was developed for the user to be able to find a nearby public restroom that was highly rated by other users on a series of performance indicators (such as cleanliness, convenience, etc.).

A toilet paper brand is hardly the most luxurious of niches, yet it managed to create a campaign that can actually help its consumers in an entertaining way. How much more useful is this type of campaign for improving brand perception compared to an old-fashioned “Charmin versus competitors” piece of content? 

charmin-sit or squat ad

If it’s branded, make it unique

Of course, you don’t need to forget about creating branded content altogether. However, if you’re going to do it, then you need to make sure it is innovative and worth sharing. Companies like Oreo are great at branded content marketing, and at one point the company was even posting out “real time” branded images based around global events happening on that day. Obviously, this is easiest with a popular and iconic product like an Oreo, so use your discretion.

Other brands need to take a page out of Oreo’s book and avoid self-appreciating content that nobody in their right mind would share. In other words, brands need to start thinking like regular people instead of old-school, call-to-action marketers. In other words, aim to connect with your buyer personas through their interests, as opposed to pushing your own products or services. This is the crux of the idea behind a less-branded approach to content marketing.

People or sites that share content are much less likely to do so if they feel like they are being roped into endorsing a brand. Huge brands, such as Coca-Cola or Nike, can generally be excluded from this theory because their brands are so entrenched in our culture that people don’t even feel as though they are promoting something when they share brand content from these companies.

Red Bull is another great example when it comes to content marketing. Its content campaigns encompass what its brand is all about, yet rarely use any calls to action.

image of sky jump-free fallTake the brand’s Supersonic Freefall stunt. Imagine if Felix Baumgartner did a sky dive from space, and once he touched down to earth, he drank a can of Red Bull straight to camera. It would ruin the whole concept and likability factor of the campaign. Shockingly, this is what many companies are doing with their content marketing — admittedly on a much smaller scale — by making it too self-serving and obvious.

Key takeaways

1. Don’t get content marketing confused with old fashioned call-to-action advertising: Call-to-action advertising (like the example below from Volvo) obviously does have its place in the marketing mix. However, when it comes to developing a content marketing strategy, you should ensure that your idea, tone, and layout stay away from this type of format and more toward the British Airways example.

volvo ad

british airways-ad

2. Find out what your customers are sharing:

  • Develop a list of personas. Consider consumer personas and personas likely to share/link.
  • When planning brand content, discuss why you think personas will share, link, and eventually convert.
  • Use tools such as Buzzsumo, Topsy, and Twitonomy to search for most socially shared key terms within your industry and gain more information on competitors/influencers.
  • If you think your niche is “boring,” then try finding a niche that is tangentially related, or build on other successful content ideas you‘ve found.
  • Identify key influencers within the industry (using a tool like Followerwonk) who hold a large social following of your target personas. Then look to build a relationship and social community with these influencers. This can be particularly helpful if you have a weak social following of your own.

3. If it’s branded, then make it innovative:

  • Take a cue from British Airways and Red Bull: Consider how your targeted personas will benefit from your brand content. Is it educational, useful, or entertaining, or does it simply push product?
  • Content doesn’t have to directly relate to your primary industry. Consider the interests and passions of your target personas.
  • Consider what your brand essence entails. What messages do you want to give through your content?
  • Use different media formats for your content, and don’t be afraid to mix them in the same campaign.

4: Ensure your brand content has an approachable tone:

  • Limit your use of salesy, call-to-action language, such as “buy now” or “request a quote.”
  • Avoid cross-selling items or services unless it’s done in a relevant, organic way.
  • Talk like a human being. You can’t engage an audience with content that speaks in an overly corporate tone.
  • Don’t insult people’s intelligence. They want interesting content and will sniff out self-serving promotion a mile away.

Looking for more killer content marketing ideas? Find them in the Ultimate eBook: 100 Content Marketing Examples.

Author: Luke Cope

Luke Cope is a Content Marketing Executive at Quba, a digital agency based in Sheffield which specializes in strategic search & content marketing. Luke is passionate about great content and he writes for several online publications as well as the QBlog. You can find his content musings on Twitter.

Other posts by Luke Cope

  • Henley Wing

    Great insights Luke. And thanks for mentioning BuzzSumo, hope you’re finding it useful to discover what content people love to share.

    • Luke

      Thanks Henley – and yes its my favourite toy at the minute

  • Hashim Warren

    Luke, do you think it’s still content marketing if applied to the bottom of the funnel, where a prospect wants enough information to convert?

    If the buyer’s journey has three stages – Awareness, Consideration, Decision – it seems that you’re saying content marketing plays best in the first bucket, and maybe the second.

    I’d say it can play in all three.

    That’s why you can’t take one piece of content out of a program and say “This isn’t content marketing”.

    You can’t take Joe Pulizzi’s announcement about CMI’s courses, or awards, or conferences and declare it isn’t content marketing done well. That’s because Joe has been using content in the other stages to get people to this point.

    Marketo uses content marketing brilliantly at every stage of the buyer’s journey. So does Copyblogger.

    The GatherContent, quite honestly could use a MORE salesy approach. I’ve been reading there blog for months and had no idea what they sell or how it will help me.

    What do you think, Luke? Can a brand create content that’s promotional and valuable in the same program, and even in the same piece?

    • Luke

      I see where your coming from Hashim. I have focused more from the perspective of the first and second bucket here.

      I think content that helps to convince potential buyers and eventually convert them definitely has its place in the mix. When it’s put in with a content strategy that incorporates educating and entertaining content at the first two stages of the buyer journey then it can work perfectly.

      From my experience, there are a large amount of brands who solely focus on content that aims to promote a product or service and dont consider the value that other types of content can bring in the first two stages in particular. In some cases these brands attempt to create content that aims to grab the attention of a particular market and the idea itself often isn’t bad but then they try and un-tastefully weave in promotions or a tone that bares no self awareness and it kills the content.

      I think it’s just about getting the right mix like the examples you gave of Marketo and Copyblogger.

      • Hashim Warren

        I wish I could give your reply 10 upvotes, rather than one. Thanks for the high quality discussion.

        • Luke

          Thanks Hashim

  • herr dennehy

    dear luke, couldn’t agree more!

    and if you want to see a storytelling project that has been following exactly this credo of british understatement of brand presence within the stories told. check this out. it’s called “/answers”, you can watch the videos here: or the community activities behind it at

    a little background info:

    Siemens’ leading storytelling customer magazine “/answers”
    (,,, asks renowned documentary filmers, journalists and
    authors from around the world to take their personal look at people who
    benefit from pioneering technology, mostly unknowingly.

    Every author is asked to find true heroes for a true, authentic,
    un-staged story, people who have or have had a major challenge in their
    lives which they manage(d) to overcome. The authors produce a piece of
    authentic story (not always necessarily film) in their own style and
    tone of voice, no Siemens branding, no Siemens control of the creative
    process or outcome. Siemens and its solutions are merely the hidden
    hero, the deus ex macchina, bringing in the element of surprise on a
    short text screen at the end of every story, subtly outlining the
    Siemens involvement behind the scenes of the just-seen drama.

    The essence of this initiative: Deliberate loss of control for the
    benefit of fresh perspectives on how Siemens helps people change their
    world for the better. British understatment re: Siemens’ involvment in
    the hero’s drama.

    Results so far: Over 50 very individual, inspiring stories, primary
    examples of great storytelling, over 3.9 million story views, 45
    thousand subscriptions, average conversion of over 10% leading
    interested viewers from the story to the Siemens product, multiple
    awards … and lots of fun and inspiration for me as project lead.

    • Luke

      I like the idea – I contributed a few articles to the Siemens Lifestyle Magazine last year and that followed a similar distanced approach when it came to branding

  • Robert Halper

    Terrific article and one with which I strongly agree. I think companies have to get away from the “selling” template and become useful PARTICIPANTS in social media.

  • Sarah McIntyre

    Nice article Luke. I think the thing that makes content marketing particularly hard for some companies is the mindset change necessary. You can’t approach it looking for immediate results… with the thoughts of “I need to get to those people” You must approach it from your customer’s point of view and think, how can I bring people to me by being educational, helpful, remarkable and not self-serving.

    • Luke

      Thanks Sarah, totally agree.

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    Favorite Brand in Emerging Markets, Even Though They Can’t Afford It,

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  • Chef LeeZ

    Good stuff! Including humor in ads is a challenge.

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