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Branded Content: Getting It Right

Updated Sept. 7, 2022

Branded content as a paid promotion tactic holds power and possibility for content marketers. It grabs consumer attention and showcases the brand’s value without appearing overly pitchy or promotional.

Its non-salesy appearance combined with the capacity to deliver deeply immersive stories, both entertaining and educational, branded content may be the best vehicle to bridge the gap between awareness and ongoing affinity.

Branded content also has given rise to a new business model that eases publishers’ reliance on revenue from traditional advertising with the addition of internal creative agencies to execute these feature-rich, customized paid campaigns (more on that point later).

In the name of brand love

To understand what branded content (also known as branded entertainment) entails, let’s start with a basic definition offered by the internet’s default dictionary, Wikipedia:

Branded content is the practice of marketing via the creation of content that is funded or outright produced by an advertiser… (it is) designed to build awareness by associating (the brand) with content that shares its values.

As definitions go, it’s a good start. Still, it doesn’t get to the heart of what distinguishes branded content from other paid promotion tactics like native advertising, influencer marketing, and sponsored social posts.

It also falls short of clarifying the valuable purpose branded content can serve for content marketing or when it makes sense to include it in your content marketing mix.

For answers to those questions, look at some hallmarks of branded content initiatives executed properly. Branded content:

  • Takes an immersive, sensory-driven approach to storytelling. Branded content typically uses rich multimedia formats like audio and video and can include interactive features. These features can enable deeper topical conversations and more emotionally resonant experiences than text or static images alone.
  • Builds connections through mutual interests and shared values, not sales goals. These content pieces often establish thought leadership, raise awareness, and generate positive brand perceptions. They are more likely to be viewed as worthy of the audience’s trust and attention as compared to more product- and pitch-driven formats like digital ads.
  • Contributes across the funnel. Branded content campaigns expand a marketer’s reach and capture new audiences’ interest. Yet, these stories are also well-suited for lower-funnel goals. In fact, 2021 research from Advertiser Perceptions finds 31% of brands use the technique to increase product consideration, and 29% use it to drive sales.
  • Enables on-the-go engagement. It’s easy for brands to publish branded content campaigns across multiple social networks, owned media properties, and other external websites. Furthermore, these efforts are well-suited for mobile consumption because they are primarily audio and video-driven.
  • Is often produced through a media partnership. Branded efforts are highly customized. Both the brand and the target media platform collaborate on content creation. Compared to native advertising’s paid placements, co-producing stories with publishing properties that share your values and interests makes it easier for your brand’s messages to gain traction. It also gives both sides a vested interest in ensuring the content succeeds – a benefit that may not exist when working with paid influencers.

At their best, branded content campaigns create marketing experiences almost indiscernible from the content the audience seeks from their favorite personalities and properties – including film studios, TV networks, and streaming media services. Not only does this make the content experience more immersive and entertaining, but it can contribute to lasting brand value.

For instance, as CMI founder Joe Pulizzi pointed out years ago, The Lego Movie entertained audiences and earned millions in revenue as a traditional feature film. Still, it also performed strongly as a marketing vehicle by winning the hearts and minds of a new generation of prospective Lego consumers.

Consider the recent #SmellWorthy branded content campaign. Created through a partnership between Old Spice and Marvel Studios, its behind-the-scenes story unfolds through a series of “outtake”-style clips shared on Twitter.

Each cheeky spot features Luke Hemsworth who portrayed “Actor Thor” in the Marvel film Thor: Love and Thunder. (His brother Chris Hemsworth is Thor in the Marvel movies.) Thus, the funny “next best thing” reference in the Old Spice tweet. As Luke as Actor Thor says, “Thor has his weapons. I have my Old Spice”.

That alone makes them entertaining promotions for the film Thor: Love and Thunder. But by giving Old Spice a featured role in the action, the content extends Thor’s story beyond the Marvel Universe – and into a real-world space where “mere mortals” (i.e., consumers) can relate.

Content outstanding in your brand’s field

Of course, not all branded campaigns are created alike in terms of their quality, transparency, and ability to inspire consumers to engage and interact. The additional time and expense required can put these efforts out of reach for some marketers.

You don’t necessarily need A-list talent or Hulk-sized budgets. You do need to make thoughtful decisions about what brand story to tell, which media to partner with, and whether the potential benefits make it worth the effort.

These carefully crafted campaigns exemplify how to make this technique pay off. While they don’t all follow the official definition to the letter, each strikes a balance between powerful media positioning and compellingly persuasive brand content.

Birkenstock treads lightly into a healthier purpose

Media brands have invested heavily in building their branded content production capabilities. Some – like The New York Times, Disney, and The Atlantic – have launched internal content studios. They enable branded content production and publication under the high-quality standards their audiences expect from those trusted media sources.

Birkenstock recently partnered with The New York Times’s T Brand Studio for its first paid global marketing campaign.

Ugly for a Reason is a three-part documentary on the history of the human foot and orthopedic science. The brand awareness initiative aims to explain why the brand’s footwear might not be the prettiest, but it could be the healthiest for both wearers and the environment.ƒ

The first two videos aired on Birkenstock’s website and The New York Times’s website (with the third scheduled to launch in late September.) Accompanying content includes interactive graphics, scientific insights from the brand’s subject matter experts, and personal stories and testimonials from athletes, sustainability experts, and others. In this image from the campaign, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Thomas Südhof is pictured alongside his quote: “Breaking free from trends.”

According to Birkenstock, print and online takeovers also drew New York Times readers’ attention to the videos. The informative, health-focused branded content should help Birkenstock reach its marketing goal – to gain a stronger footing in the marketplace by linking its products to a stronger sense of purpose.

Walmart and Yahoo add heart to holiday shopping

To spur gift sales over the 2021 holiday season, Walmart partnered with Yahoo with a branded campaign featuring interactive shoppable storytelling.

Holiday With Heart focused on turning casual browsers into buyers, providing them with gift ideas, inspiration, and purchase options inside gaming and augmented reality-enhanced video experiences. In this visual example, Walmart invites users to scan a QR code to access the mobile Play for Joy game. Players use an iconic claw-machine arcade game to collect virtual Walmart gifts.

Image courtesy of Yahoo (from their Content Marketing Awards entry materials)

Additionally, Yahoo! distributed Walmart’s shoppable videos featuring lifestyle influencers across the Yahoo ecosystem, including on Yahoo Life and In the Know by Yahoo.

Influencer Taryn Newton, as shown in the image below, appeared in the Gifting To Win augmented-reality video series featuring her holiday decor. The accompanying 3D interactive experience enables viewers to see how Taryn’s picks look in their living spaces.

Image courtesy of Yahoo (from their Content Marketing Awards entry materials)

This project is a 2022 Content Marketing Award finalist in the Best B2C Branded Content category.

Zelle and Vox Media explain scammer psychology

Financial fraud and scams frequently happen in the digital banking space. The schemes seem to get sneakier and more sophisticated by the minute, putting added pressure on financial brands to help their customers avoid becoming victims.

To tackle that challenge, peer-to-peer payment brand Zelle invested in a partnership with Vox Media. Zelle used Vox’s Explainer Studio platform to produce The Science of Scams, a series of entertaining long-form videos, fast-fact cutdown sequences, and additional related content.

Created from real-life scenarios, in-depth interviews, and insights from cybercrime experts, the stories use a lighthearted, witty tone to help consumers recognize common scammer tactics and understand the psychological reasons scams are effective.

Their urgency scam lesson, as illustrated below, uses verbiage such as “MUST ACT NOW” and  “We regret to inform you that your account has been compromised.” It speaks to the use of time sensitivity to pressure viewers to resolve the “problem” before they experience negative financial consequences.

Image source

According to Zelle’s agency, Pereira O’Dell, the paid media partnership allowed for distribution across social and digital environments in the Vox Media network. Additional content formats included an interactive hub page featuring podcasts, short-form videos, and quizzes.

The artful, impactful campaign struck a chord with consumers by hitting them where it counts – their wallets. It also helped put Zelle on the finalists’ list for a 2022 Content Marketing Award in the Best B2C Branded Content category.

HBO goes out of bounds to leave a permanent local impression

Not all branded content efforts must conform to the standard, paid digital media approach. For example, HBO Max spun components of the technique into a hyper-local live event to promote its 2022 series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.

Winning Time explores the history of the Los Angeles Lakers during their rise to fame in the 1980s. It offers a fictionalized view of the personal and professional lives of legendary team members like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and coach Pat Riley.

An enduring part of Los Angeles’ cultural identity, it makes perfect sense for HBO’s marketing team to promote it with a branded mark on the city’s future.

The brand upgraded an outdated community basketball court in Inglewood, which is in metro Los Angeles. The refurbished court, as shown in the illustration below, includes an original mural painted in the Lakers’ signature purple and yellow by California artist David Flores.

HBO scores by leaving a permanent impression on Los Angeles.

Image source

The bright, inviting space allows community members to gather and local kids to sharpen and show off their basketball skills. At an unveiling ceremony, HBO Max donated $10,000 to support Inglewood College Preparatory School’s basketball program.

While the HBO Max spot didn’t involve a traditional paid media placement, the brand did need to secure approval from the city of Los Angeles for the installation. According to Marketing Brew, HBO Max partnered with Project Blackboard – a nonprofit organization committed to strengthening local communities by restoring basketball courts and installing striking visual artworks.

A brand-building pitch audiences can’t wait to catch

Are you experimenting with branded content in 2022? These examples show how great branded content campaigns can help build rapport with a new target audience, expand business’ creative horizons, or simply entertain and engage the experience-loving masses.

I’d love to hear how branded content worked for your company and about your plans for the tactic.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute