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Why We Should Take the Brand out of Branded Content

shared posts-red backgroundCould you describe the company you work for to a potential client in a hundred words? How many words would you have left if you deleted references to your company name, any of your brand names, and all the superlatives you’ve used? What remains is what I call independent content — a good story that’s authentic, focused, and relevant. It’s exactly what good content marketing should be.

It’s easier said than done, of course. Legions of marketing and communication professionals had their training during the era of mass communication, resulting in the belief that the best way to attract attention is to talk long and hard about themselves. This approach is frowned upon in content marketing.

As Garret Moon says, “Using content marketing to sell without asking makes everything else look like begging. Begging doesn’t create movement; it usually has the opposite effect.”

What’s the media doing?

Articles or videos that mention a brand name just a little too often are often seen as a form of advertising, making them lose out on credibility. But how do you create good branded content? I’ve learned a lot about this by looking at what’s happening in the media world. That’s where you’ll find the “content brands” — brands with content as their core business. The media produces content the public wants: Content that gets read, viewed, or listened to. Content that’s not simply pushed into the faces of its target group but, rather, where the target group has made a conscious choice to engage in the content. 

So how does a diehard marketer create independent content?

Generally speaking, marketers don’t often like spending money on an article in which their brand name or product isn’t mentioned at least once. Marketers taking their first steps on the road to content marketing will typically choose a safe route: brand journalism. But unfortunately, this usually means more “brand” than “journalism.” The term brand journalism suggests, or perhaps even encourages, the infection of the journalistic productions with branding and product placement.

However this doesn’t apply to all branded content. Here’s an example which makes my point abundantly clear: AllSecur, an insurance agency in The Netherlands, has come up with an idea for drawing people’s attention to modern methods used to steal cars. Fine idea. And there is nothing wrong with having Tim Coronel, a famous Dutch car racer, tell the story.

For those who don’t speak Dutch, here is what happens in this short movie: Tim is trying to explain that car thieves can steal your car by breaking a window at day 1, then they copy the data on your on-board computer onto a hard drive. As it happens, your on-board computer also holds the keyless entry code for opening your car. You think nothing was stolen and have your window fixed…  A few days later the car thieves come back with a new key and just drive off with your car. Interesting, you would think, and it’s very helpful information for an insurance company to provide. But here’s what’s wrong with this video:

It’s obvious here that a traditional marketer or CEO has looked over the shoulder of the storyboard creator and thought to themselves, “If it’s going to cost us so much money to produce, we should show off our logo more often.” So what do we get? The logo in the bottom left corner and the top right corner, on Tim’s cap, on his shirt, as an intro and outro, as well as being mentioned several times in the script itself. The first thing the audience will pick up on is that it’s an ad and will decide to watch it or not based on that observation.

On top of that, it’s really irritating to watch logos and names coming constantly into view. That just distracts from the main story. Imagine you’re watching a movie and everywhere you look there’s the director’s name: on his cap, his jacket, at the top of the screen… And the ironic thing is, none of it’s needed if your aim is to fascinate or entertain your viewers with your content. It’s fine to take the credit for a story well told, but do it with a little subtlety.

Independent content works far better

Good brand journalists and content marketers alike are aware that brand-hype-free content works infinitely better than overly self-serving efforts. Especially if you are publishing it on neutral platforms like YouTube, or on your own channels like your website or blog (which are already sufficiently “branded”). So to create independent content, you have to first break free from the demands of CEOs and managers who get off on watching the name of their company come by. Independent content transcends all egos and puts the audience in pole position, answering key questions like, “What is relevant, interesting, and entertaining for my audience?” and “What content can we offer to help them?

In fact, this is how the very first content marketing came about. In 1895, John Deere was the first to use content marketing as a marketing tool: The company started producing The Furrow, a magazine for the farming industry full of information and tips for farmers on how they could increase their profits. What could be more relevant and practical than that? German food product company Dr. Oetker was also a content marketing pioneer: In 1891, the company published recipes on the back of its packaging for flour, and in 1911 it produced a cookbook teaching people how to cook. The recipes were created in the kitchens of Dr. Oetker.

Benetton has also been making use of content marketing for years. But its aim is not to help clients. Instead, the company wants to provoke discussions on controversial topics, which gives the Benetton brand a specific charge. A striking aspect of its way of working is that its brand magazine, Colors, is produced by a creative agency — completely independent of the brand’s influence. I’m convinced that marketers and communication professionals can learn a lot from this approach: Just define your content and perspective, and leave the rest to people who know how to attract, fascinate and retain an audience’s attention.

That’s the way to create independent content!

And here are a few tips to help you do the same:

Translate your target group into a description of your audience: First, try to translate your “target group” into a description of your audience. Who is the content aimed at, and what interests do you have in common? The difference between a description of your “audience” and that of a target group is that the latter is often full of preconceptions about the people you want to reach. Why? Because a target group is chosen by the company, while audience members choose on their own whether or not they want to engage with your business. Therefore you need to know how to develop your audience and how to engage with its members on their terms.

So who are your audience members? What are they interested in that connects them to your brand? Well, content should be on-topic of course, and no cat movies (unless you sell cat food). Your audience decides if it wants to be your audience; if it wants to read, listen or hear from you.

So, how do you earn the opportunity to reach your audience?

  1. Look for content creators with a background in journalism: A journalist is used to creating content that addresses the audience’s informational needs and interests, while a copywriter or videographer you commission will almost always focus on reflecting your company message. It may seem like a minor distinction, but if you are looking for your content to drive audience action, it’s a crucial one. 
  1. Create internal support: The worst thing that can happen to content marketing is when a manager or CEO is brought in right at the end of the content creation cycle and doesn’t understand why the brand isn’t more prominently in view. The result is usually some kind of poor compromise — logos and other branding items get stuck on everywhere, or all the most compelling product details get removed so that potential risks to the brand can be kept to a minimum. Both result in bland, generic, throw-away content that simply won’t move the needle. 
  1. Think up concrete content formats: A practical way of exerting influence while still creating independent content is to focus on creating content in a “signature” format, which you continually fill with new brand stories.

Dutch TV program De Rekenkamer (“The Math Chamber”) uses such a format: Every week, a team of investigative journalists goes out and analyzes a product or service to establish what it actually costs to produce. Let’s imagine that potential customers are regularly telling you that your product is very expensive. You could use a content format like De Rekenkamer, with the help of real investigative journalists, to create a feature on “cost-consciousness vs. true value.”

Of course, independent content is much more effective than a magazine ad that exists solely to convince people how good your product is. Here are a couple of additional ideas you can take some inspiration from:

  • NRC Next Carriere: Earning and spending: This is a fascinating content series from the Dutch newspaper. Each segment takes a peek at someone’s monthly expense account, with content that consists of a short interview, a striking photo, and then a look at the figures. By asking questions like, “How much does she earn?” “How much does she spend?” “How much does she save every month, and for what?” it would be a great model for a bank to follow for its content marketing.
  • Abel’s cakes: This is a Dutch children’s TV program in which Abel travels across the country, showing children how to bake extraordinary cakes. While they work, Abel interviews them, and the result is a series of wonderful, moving, and exceptional stories. A food company could do well to use this format to interview a company executive or industry thought leader while creating a recipe with its products — essentially creating a series of “stories behind the function.”
  • The Factchecker: The Factchecker is an investigative journalist who checks the claims brands make. The Factchecker checks with two or three different experts and concludes with a decision of “true,” “not true,” or “partly true.”
  • 90-secondStories: A small video format inspired by where the passion of one person is captured in 90 seconds.
  1. Call in the assistance of real journalists: If you are pressed for time to create content, or are having trouble thinking up new content ideas, there are likely professional resources you can tap into, such as journalists who cover your industry and would be open to taking on writing assignments on your behalf. For example, at The Post Reporters, it’s possible to buy ready-to-use content formats. Since a lot of media companies are currently re-assessing their business models, the chances are high that a lot more of these types of initiatives will emerge. 
  1. Structure your content creation efforts: Once you’ve completed your brainstorm session, it’s time to test your ideas and answer the question, “Which stories am I going to tell, and via which formats?” A few formats will be discarded in the testing process, or you may decide you need to try some more ideas. Once you’ve got this sorted, the next thing is to plan. Just as the media works with fixed broadcasting times and release dates, you as an organization can also work the same way with your content. Plan regular publication times so that your audience gradually comes to expect great content from you on a consistent basis.

Journalists are the new marketing heroes 

So if you want your content marketing to work, put aside the company ego. That ego that wants you to put its name as often as you can in every publication. In quite some cases that ego is a metaphor for the CEO or the marketing manager that still needs to see its name everywhere to rate  a campaign as a successful one. What you really should be working on is how to develop your own audience. And you can start by looking at the media, maybe even say goodbye to your traditional advertising agency and start working with journalists. In my opinion journalists are the new marketing heroes.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from its original Dutch publication. 

Looking for more inspiration on delivering compelling branded content? Read CMIs Content Marketing Playbook: 24 Epic Ideas for Connecting with Your Customers. 

Cover image courtesy of Bind Academie