By Joe Pulizzi published October 6, 2015

Can We Please Stop Using Branded Content?


I’m going to be honest with you. I loathe the term “branded content.”

Branded content gives content marketing a bad name. It’s a word created by the world of paid media … by advertisers, agencies, and media planners.

First off, let’s look at the Wikipedia definition:

Branded content is a form of advertising medium that blurs conventional distinctions between what constitutes advertising and what constitutes editorial content.

Sounds disturbing doesn’t it?

But Madison Avenue loves branded content, especially in our new-found world of native advertising. Branded content gives agencies permission to keep talking about themselves, adding a bit of storytelling to product pitches.

At this year’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity, there were 1,394 total entries in the “branded content and entertainment” category. The judges awarded NO grand prize winner (same as 2014), citing no single piece of category-defining work.

I took a non-scientific stroll through some of the entries. In general, here is what I found:

  • Most of the entries are campaign-based. They are not ongoing editorial products serving an audience.
  • There is heavy usage of product placement. It’s amazing how often the product becomes the central character of the story.

In an interview with Advertising Age, Mark Fortner, jury member and head of innovation and branded content at Mediacom, said, “Many of the entrants in the branded content and entertainment category just slapped a logo onto something, or made an integration just for the brand’s sake without any larger narrative or natural partnership.”

Simply put, branded content looks and feels like advertising. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, well …

Content brands: A better way

Andrew Davis, author of Brandscaping and Town Inc., has been promoting the use of content brands instead of branded content. “Content brands are created for an audience, while branded content is created for a business,” he says.

This is an important distinction. With a content brand, you are always focused on the needs and pain points of the audience first. The goal is to build a loyal audience, and then leverage that loyalty to drive a business goal.

Branded content, on the other hand, is about getting the product or service out there in some way, albeit in a more entertaining way than just straight advertising. This is a quick-hit strategy. There is no need or want to build a relationship through content.

Content brands, if given the right amount of time and patience, work. Just look at John Deere’s The Furrow content brand. Over 100 years, and John Deere has mentioned its products and services just a handful of times. The print and digital magazine just plainly helps farmers be more successful farmers. It’s now delivered to 1.5 million farmers in 40 countries and 14 languages. No, it’s not easy, but it creates a real asset for the organization. Commitment and a focus on the audience (not the product) make all the difference.


So if you mean branded content, say branded content.  But if you are talking content marketing, please don’t say branded content.  The terms are different, and we need to treat them as such.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly print magazine.

Want to learn about entrepreneurs who started the businesses with content first? Read Joe’s latest book, Content Inc.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Joe Pulizzi

Joe Pulizzi is the Founder of Content Marketing Institute, a UBM company, the leading education and training organization for content marketing, which includes the largest in-person content marketing event in the world, Content Marketing World. Joe is the winner of the 2014 John Caldwell Lifetime Achievement Award from the Content Council. Joe’s the author of five books, including his latest, Killing Marketing. His third book, Epic Content Marketing was named one of “Five Must Read Business Books of 2013” by Fortune Magazine. If you ever see Joe in person, he’ll be wearing orange. Follow him on Twitter @JoePulizzi.

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  • tpldrew


    I’m so glad you’re writing about this. It’s such an important distinction and deserves the attention you’re giving it. Thanks for the shout out.

    Long live content brands!

    Nothing has fueled consumer demand more than the Content brands we love. Nothing.

    – Andrew

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks for the inspiration my friend.

    • cliffmeans

      Andrew, I wanted to speak to you about an article you wrote about podcast a couple years ago. You mentioned that most podcast are not well done; or they rely too much on a personality. How would you apply that to ‘talk podcast’? Based on the article it seems like youre saying there is only hope for podcast done in a storytelling format no?

      • tpldrew


        Even an interview podcast should tell a story. It has to have an arc. Thanks so much for the question.

        As podcasts explode, the overall quality drops. Only the best, highest quality (not production value) will really rise to the top.

        (That’s my opinion, anyway.)

        Happy to chat more about it.

        Have a great week!

        – Andrew

  • JuzzieKirby

    Can’t stand the name Content Marketing myself, which is also guilty of giving the industry a bad name with the deluge of crap being created by B2B marketers that Doug Kessler talks about. But then you have an angle here don’t you!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Hey Kirby…there is no perfect name for what we do (that’s why there has been dozens over the past 50 years). But if we can start using the proper terms and the appropriate times, that’s when learning occurs. I believe one of the reasons we’ve seen such amazing growth in our industry is because we are “starting” to talk the same language. Anyone can use any term they want, as long as they know what it means. That’s my take.

  • Silva Danilo

    Great Job! Thank you to explain this important distinction about branded content!

  • David G. Jones

    Many thanks for the shout-out, Joe…and for your ongoing support. We’re pretty proud of what we do, and are thrilled to have ‘fans’ outside of agriculture.

    David G. Jones
    Editor, The Furrow & Homestead magazines

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks David…as you know, The Furrow is my all-time favorite case study. Keep doing your thing!

  • Mike Allton

    I love that you’re attacking this topic head-on, Joe. Such discussions also help brands and marketers understand how to avoid creating branded content when that’s not their intention.

  • Cledson de Lima

    Here in Brazil , Content Marketing and Branded Content is ” sold ” as synonyms , which note that really is not , but the market bought the idea and many “professional ” propagate it. Unfortunate!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Cledson…and there lies the issue we have right now. Thanks so much for the feedback.

  • Joan

    Great article Joe. Would love to see more people take on the subject and speak out. Often there is so much integrated jargon that simple folks like me just don’t get it. However, after reading this article I do get it.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      Thanks Joan…appreciate the kind words.

  • Elvina

    Great Article Joe! With Content Marketing considered to be the top most priority for businesses and marketers, people are often seen mixing these terms. Its time people should learn to differentiate between the two. This will definitely help in getting the desired results sooner! Thanks for sharing your views on this!

  • Vikas Prabhakar

    This is an important distinction and thanks for pointing out the difference Joe. Its a telling comment that at Canne there was no worthy winner. I think the Canne jury should revise their categorization and demand more from the industry to generate truly useful content brand entries.

  • Paul Mattioli

    Good stuff as always Joe… Thanks for pointing out the thin veil most content organizations and marketers use to extend their product pitch. Being that I’m on the sales side and interact with agencies and clients around this distinction on a daily basis – I can say that part of the problem stems from marketers and agencies supporting poor execution with their budgets. Often times – holding the line and asking clients to consider flying at higher altitudes leveraging quality content solutions does not win the day or the budget. With that – poor execution and random acts of content still dominate. Time to change the conversation!

    • Joe Pulizzi

      So right Paul. I met with a large agency yesterday. Simply put, most project ideas from brands are tactical not strategic. I get it, but I’d love if more agencies would push back. The brands would be better off for it.

      • Paul Mattioli

        As would the customer… I think brands need to hold their agencies accountable for upping the stakes here too. Always love your content Joe.

  • David B. Thomas

    “The Furrow” is the greatest name in the history of publishing.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      You could be right about that.

  • Hitesh Parekh

    Hard hitting article Joe about today’s content distribution. One thing I learned from content marketing week 2015 was that “Content Marketing, it’s not about you” it’s about content that audiences will find useful.

    • Joe Pulizzi

      100% correct sir. Thanks!

  • Cas McCullough

    Here, here! I just read an article yesterday on Mumbrella, a popular media blog here in Australia, where someone was having a real go at branded content. He basically lumped in content marketing with branded content as you’ve described above and many commenters agreed with his stance that is was pretty awful. I love what you’ve said here about John Deere. They are a fantastic example of how content brands can work to meet the informational and entertainment needs of a community. I am currently working with a large client helping them develop ideas for content, so this is really timely. Thank you!


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  • mobileHolly

    Joe, you’ve got the distinction between helpful content from brands and empty product placement pieces exactly right. People appreciate helpful information from brands, but they can smell an ad a mile away.

  • pascal somarriba

    Interestingly enough we have had that debate in France years ago (specifically Daniel Bo and myself) and we have adopted the term “Brand Content” which includes basically branded content, Brand entertainment, Brand journalism, Content Marketing, etc. and which has helped a lot developing a more integrated thinking towards “strategic Brand content” in this country. Based on my experience with Benetton on Colors years ago it was always clear to me that the real benefits are when a Brand develops and is the voice of high quality content. On that approach if you understand French, you may find this reading material interesting: