Branded Content — What’s Old Is New Again

by Will Ashworth | August 3, 2012 11:25 am

Branded content in advertising has been around for a lot longer than most people realize.

Soap operas got their name in the 1930s when Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG[1]) first began producing dramatic radio broadcasts as a way to connect with their customers. Although soap operas are a dying breed; branded content is stronger than ever.

Let’s look at how companies are using this subtle form of advertising in today’s 24/7 world.

General Mills (NYSE:GIS[2]) recently launched the website[3], which will be a combination of health and lifestyle articles from AOL‘s (NYSE:AOL[4]) Huffington Post, recipes from General Mills and additional content from wellness publisher Everyday Health.

What makes this interesting is that Huffington Post will run the site as it would any other, providing readers with compelling content that they can use in their daily lives. General Mills will provide display ads for their brands in a manner that’s very similar to product placement on TV. To ensure editorial integrity — which cynics would suggest is minimal — General Mills won’t be dictating the content. Rather, the person charged with the task of running the site will take existing content from both Huffington Post and Everyday Health and reformat it to fit the visual presentation of the site.

Consider this partnership similar to a manufacturer providing other companies access to its assembly lines to reduce the amount of downtime. In this instance, Huffington Post is the manufacturer, and General Mills is paying to access its assembly lines.

As I see it, this is the wave of the future.

Crosby Noricks, Director of Social Media at Red Door Interactive, had this to say in a July 27 article in Fast Company: “Successful branded content must balance brand awareness and education with entertainment and timeliness.” An excellent example of this is Tory Burch, arguably one of America’s most successful fashion designers.

Starting with the July issue of InStyle magazine and extending two issues beyond that, Burch will be guest editor for InStyle‘s “Ask a Designer” column. Answering questions from readers, she’ll no doubt be pushing her products at times. However, Burch uses little traditional advertising, so any product placement will be met with appreciation. You don’t get to $800 million in revenue in just eight years without truly connecting with your audience. I see her IPO as the next big thing[5] in fashion.

From everything I’ve read on the subject, the best branded content is produced by journalists rather than marketers.

Ann Handley wrote an excellent blog post in April that highlights the seven reasons content marketing needs a brand journalist[6]. In the context of the blog, Handley is making a case for hiring a journalist in-house or on a contract basis to create your company’s content. According to the Content Marketing Institute, it surveyed 1,000 B2B marketers in 2012, and 41% said their biggest challenge was creating content engaging to customers. Another 20% couldn’t produce enough of it. With numbers like that, it’s clear that branded content is a workable solution for time-stressed marketing departments.

Refinery 29 started out in 2005 simply wanting to highlight great fashion. It now gets 2.6 million visitors a month averaging almost 10 page views per visit. It has become what Director of Brand Integration Anna Plaks calls a “mini ad agency.”

Two companies working with Refinery 29 that have had positive branded content experiences are Guess (NYSE:GES[7]) and Macy’s (NYSE:M[8]).

In Guess’ situation, Refinery 29 was brought in to invigorate its social media platform and ultimately to drive sales. Creating all of its own content, Refinery 29 was able to deliver a million impressions in the monthlong campaign.

Macy’s situation was a little different in that it was looking to promote its Bar III clothing line to millennials, and Refinery29 happens to have an annual “Styleblogger” contest catering to that crowd. As part of the contest, it asked readers to promote themselves, their blogging ability and fashion sense. One winner would become the Styleblogger for the Bar III line, and another would receive a blogging job at Refinery 29. The contest became the most popular page at Refinery 29 for two months running, creating huge brand awareness for Bar III.

Both projects were successful because they used professional and amateur journalists in an engaging way. Journalists understand how to tell a story with the reader in mind, whereas marketers are mostly interested in selling you products. There’s a big difference.

Advertisers working with publishers to create branded content in the proper context is always going to be a better option than pushing out self-serving drivel from the marketing department. People don’t want features, they want benefits. I give General Mills a tip of the hat for realizing this.

As of this writing, Will Ashworth did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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