The Internet is awash with content.

There’s so much content we need pipeline for it, almost like it’s water out of a tap. Or, content is the blood that flows through the Web’s veins. In a way, it is. GIFs, memes, videos, cat photos (and videos), long-form articles, multi-part oral histories, tweets, short-form writing, blog posts like the one you’re reading right now. It’s all content and we all engage with it on our laptops, workstations, and mobile phones every day.   

Some content is even branded.

Before you get pictures of hot irons in your mind, think of all the brands out there. The BMW brand, the McDonald’s brand, the Star Wars brand. To promote these brands and get products in front of your eyeballs, the companies behind those brands typically use advertising—TV commercials, radio spots, and clickable Internet ads. Pretty conventional.  

Branded content is a little bit different. It’s like advertising, but not. It’s entertainment first, and an ad second. The product or service is secondary, while the entertaining imager or story takes the forefront. Branded content is like walking a fine line between a traditional advertisement and content designed to entertain. So long as it’s associated with a brand.

And it works because prospective customers aren’t immediately aware of the ad-like nature of the content. Normally, they would just turn the ad off immediately, or mute it, or turn AdBlock back on and continue on their way. But a slick, well-produced short film that’s aimed straight at the intended audience’s sensibilities? Now that’s something worth paying attention to. Maybe even something worth spending time on and recommending to others, sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and emailing to friends and family.     

The Hire, a series of short movies from A-list directors like Ang Lee, Tony Scott, and John Woo, is one of the first and best examples of branded content. In 2001, before anyone cared about online video—before YouTube—the luxury car company made a series of successful, entertaining shorts with top-notch talent and soaring production values, without making the product the sole center of attention—while still keeping it an essential part of the action. The movies worked. They won awards, BMW sales increased 12 and a half percent from the previous year, millions of people visited BMW’s site, and viewers recommended and shared the films until nearly 100 million people watched them.   

Another fascinating example that errs on the “viral” side of things is the “I Love Bees” alternate reality game, which premiered in the early 2000s, not too long after The Hire, and served to get players interested in Halo 2, the hit video game from Microsoft and Bungie Studios. Millions of gamers solved a series of hidden messages across multiple web sites, in-real-life cell phone calls, and email messages, that culminated in a chance for players to check the game out before launch day.

Those are special, innovative examples from the early days of the Internet. But good branded content can be almost anything. A series of award-winning films, a mysterious puzzle, an 8-bit video game, or even a piece of old media like a newspaper article. If there’s a product, service, or personality (personal brands are a whole other thing) at the center (while not at the center), that’s branded content. Even absurd tweets full of anti-comedy and pop culture references from Arby’s and Sonic the Hedgehog have leveraged massive fanbases and ten of thousands of shares among regular, non-brand people. They’re brands come to life.

In short, if there’s a joke or idea or story to share, and the opportunity to link it up with an attractive, successful brand for the right audience—that’s branded content. And it’s one of the most effective forms of content marketing that’s out there. If you want to find out how your brand can take advantage of branded content, connect with us and find out how we can help your brand get more attention (and more customers) online.


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