Don’t Get Bucked by Branded Content

Branded content can be a dangerous game. A few helpful guidelines can help keep you up in the saddle and away from the horns.

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, where summer meant the Stampede as much as it meant the ability to finally take off our winter jackets for a couple of weeks. The crown jewels of the Stampede are the bull riders – the brave men and women who climb aboard over a thousand pounds of bovine and try to hold on for dear life.

branded content can be a similarly bumpy ride.

But now, imagine that just seconds before they opened the gate and you charged out on that bull, somebody took a hot poker and burned jabbed it into the bull’s caboose – “branding” it. Things just got a whole lot worse for you, partner.

As soon as you attach your brand’s name to a piece of content, the stakes are higher. Do things wrong, and consumers’ guards go up – they’ll see you coming from a mile away, like a car salesman beelining in their direction. You’ve got an agenda that they’ve been trained by years of advertising to want no part of. The fall from grace can be severe.

Despite all the statistics saying that consumers “want to engage with brands,” they want to do so on their terms. Want to avoid the bull’s horns? Here are 4 guidelines to keep in mind when creating branded content:

1) you’re so vain, you probably think this content is about you

Let’s look at two different attempts at marketing a brand through content. First, this absolutely excruciating attempt by Samsung to sell us a watch…phone… thing:


Did any part of that narrative feel natural to you? That commercial is memorable for all the wrong reasons, and it’s exactly what happens when you sacrifice narrative in order to make your brand the centre of attention.

One of my favourite examples of branded content is Patagonia’s “Worn Wear” film. It’s a 23 minute long video about the people who wear Patagonia’s clothing and the stories behind their favourite pieces of Altitude Sports gear. And it’s been watched over 200,000 times on YouTube alone. In an age where we PVR through advertisements, this is nothing short of remarkable.

Why does one work, and the other make you want to claw your eyes out? 

Because one tried to cram the story of the product down people’s throats in a manufactured environment and the other told the story of the consumer first. What many brands don’t realize is that when you tell the story of the consumer, you are telling your brand’s story (Side note: Kyra Kuik has written a great piece on brand storytelling).

While there comes a time when consumers are interested in learning about your brand, they aren’t primarily interested in you. They’re interested in themselves. They’re interested in their stories, their needs, their problems.They’re interested in how your brand makes them look and feel.

Branded content can also appeal to a value or outcome your audience holds dear. This works best when there is an overlap between your brand’s values and what your customer values. Take, for example, this incredible bit of marketing:

If you have a soul, that just made it flinch (at least). Our emotions come in to play because we’re shown a situation we feel empathy for.

Of course, branded content needn’t always take a storytelling format. For example, Red Bull’s Stratos Project (you had to know that was coming) was an incredible content effort that championed the brand’s values, as shared by their target market: Adventure, discovery, life on the edge.

It was more than content – it was a shared experience; an adrenaline rush that piqued the curiosity of thousands.

So branded content is not about your brand, it’s about wrapping your story into a narrative, perspective or value the consumer actually cares about. As you might expect, that starts by knowing the customer.

2) don’t lose your voice

Everything you affix your brand name to becomes a means by which your customers will perceive you. From that ad, to that blog post, to that sketchy guest post that you outsourced to that college kid.


We spend a lot of time talking about building out a persona for customers – but have you ever stopped to build a persona for your brand? The two are connected, of course; the brand’s should reflect the customers’, as it is the customer is who ultimately decides on your branding (you are who they say you are, not who you tell them you are).

The following questions might sound a bit hippy-granola, they’re worth answering.

If your brand was a person…

  1. How would they speak?
  2. What would they value?
  3. What would their personality be like?

If you had just met a person who was constantly different from one moment to the next, you’d find it very difficult to get to know them. You’d be unsure what to expect from them – and not in a “what a lovely surprise” sort of way.

That’s important, because branded content is not a one-shot affair; you’re going to need to publish regularly. Brands who are constantly trying to reinvent themselves in the moment alienate the audience and make it impossible for people to understand who they are. Their branded content reads like a shotgun blast of failed attempts at humour, emotion, education and humanity because they’re never quite sure where in the conversation they fall.

I suggest you go through the exercise of defining the things I outlined above and documenting them in a style guide; creating reference documents to remind you of where your brand fits in the great scope of things.

Not sure how to define your tone and voice? I just wrote about it.

Not sure how to write up a style guide? There’s a guide for that, too.

3) have nothing to hide

This ties in to the previous point, but it’s a little different. Wear your agenda on your sleeve, because your customers aren’t going to be fooled. They know that at the end of the day, brands want to separate them from their money – and they can be okay with that, but not when you try to dupe them. Take it from a guy who’s responsible for some of the most prolific branded content on the web, Jonathan Perelman:

“If you trick a consumer, they’re not coming back.”

Now, let’s have a bit of fun with this idea by introducing one of the most horrible, cringe-inducing failures in transparency I’ve ever come across:

“Let me beam them to your T-Mobile Device!” – totally unscripted entrepreneur guy

How fast did your BS detector go off? If you were watching the show, would you EVER have seen that as anything other than a cheap attempt at marketing a product? As the end of the clip alluded to, most consumers will respond to this fiasco like this:

Recognize: the consumer holds the cards now. They get to choose the information they consume. Trying to pull a fast one is bound to get you bucked off that bull and trampled underneath for good measure.

If your ad is an ad, say it’s an ad. If you sponsored the piece, make it known (even a “Sponsored by” mention should suffice). But wait – won’t identifying that your marketing is marketing immediately put the viewer’s guard up? Not necessarily.

In fact, telling the customer you’re trying to sell them something can actually remove the elephant from the room and let them enjoy your content.

To illustrate, let’s look at everyone’s favourite poster boy of an advertising brand, Old Spice:


Not only do people immediately know this is an ad, but it works to Old Spice’s advantage.They seek these ads out, even while knowing they’re ads because the value of the content – entertainment – usurps their desire not to be sold to.

This is the ultimate success for branded content – Old Spice is now a “Content Brand”. Their market knows their voice. They know their message. They know their style. They go looking for it.

You needn’t beat people over the head with the fact that your brand is behind the content – you can be transparent and subtle at the same time. Puma is pretty forthcoming with their Dance Dictionary. General Electric puts their logo right on the page of their surprisingly interesting Tumblr. Mountain Dew gives themselves a little hat tip on Green Label – and then gets right out of the way.

In all cases, customers know it’s a brand delivering the content – but they don’t mind, because the brand has taken the time to be interesting, relevant and charismatic  (sort of like our favourite people). Lack of transparency is often what happens when a brand has no personality or voice of its own to fall back to. When brands can’t be interesting and likeable, they try to be covert. It doesn’t work.

4) Think about your future, kid

One of the things that is toughest for brands to wrap their heads around is that great content marketing can sometimes mean creating content that isn’t intended to result in an end sale right then and there. In this world, “Always Be Closing” does not apply. As commenter “Bill Crandall” so eloquently explains:

“Whereas advertising is generally created to “sell” or prompt some immediate or short-term brand inquiry on a rational end-benefit basis; branded content is created to provide a broader, more emotional and social context among consumers in order to facilitate the aforementioned marketing objective at some point in the purchase cycle.”

It’s not wrong to ask for a sale, but part of branded content’s importance is in building rapport. What’s interesting about Mountain Dew’s Green Label project is that it has nothing to do with direct sales and everything to do with positioning the brand as a hip, cool curator of awesome content relevant to an audience of art/skate/music enthusiasts.

As Yahoo and BDDO found,82% of consumers will ignore a brand if it is viewed as being intrusive.

It comes back to the customer buying cycle. 

Branded content has a chance to play high up at the top of the funnel – the awareness stage. At this stage, people are still gathering information about their need – or encountering a need they may not even know they had. They’re forming their opinions and preferences, so you have a chance to help them shape those.

Here, this might help.

Be a Brand: Act Like A HUman

What it all boils down to is the well-worn adage, “Give the customer what they want.” – and do so without coming across like you’re trying to pull off the world’s most patronizing heist.

Tell their stories. Keep it consistent. Be transparent. Look at the long-term.

Don’t get bucked.

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