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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