What makes branded content different from regular old content marketing?

There’s a lot of disagreement online about branded content in general, but the consensus is that branded content acts as an unconventional experience for the viewer rather than traditional marketing that outright mentions the product or service.

In branded content, such as BMW’s old series of short films The Hire, the car is barely mentioned or emphasized. Rather, the focus is on Clive Owen doing crazy, cool stunt-driving while rescuing kids from Gary Oldman or whoever the villain might be. There’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and usually there’s emotional catharsis—when it’s all over you feel something, strongly.

The result of basically telling a story or making a movie instead of blatantly slapping a logo in the viewer’s face? The audience feels an affinity towards the brand. The story sticks with them, because they experience something on an emotional level, a feeling of awe, happiness, sadness, or nostalgia. They’re not bombarded by an obvious “Eat Fresh” slogan at the end. The difference between branded content and regular advertising is delicate, but potent. (Heck, you could argue that scene, and that entire AMC series, is branded content series for Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, Kodak, and all the other brands that appear in it.)

Here are five quick branded content strategy tips to get your storytelling started:

1. Know Who You Are

Sure, that sounds easy. Protagonists have struggled with issues of identity for entire novels and movies. But you shouldn’t have that problem. You just have to answer these simple questions:

  1. What is your brand?
  2. What does it do?
  3. Who is it for?

Once you’ve figured out your identity’s various aspects, put them together in a brand style guide where you can specify factors such as the brand’s name, colors, formatting, style, and tone. Whatever your choices are, be consistent about them and have good reasons for choosing them. For example, Arby’s knows its commercial voice-over voice (of Mission: Impossible actor Ving Rhames) is deep and lower-pitched—because audiences think its sandwiches are larger than life. And Burger King knows it’s a creepy plastic party-crashing king guy—because, well, we’re actually not sure. Is anybody?

Once you know who you are, know who you’re targeting.  

2. Know Your Audience

This maxim gets repeated often, but if you’re going to tailor some entertaining branded content to someone you better know who they are and what they respond to. To find out, you should audit your data. Find out where your website visitors are from, what their jobs are, their work titles, education level, preferred social media channels, and more. Surveys are pretty good at gathering this type of data too.

Netflix, which commands three-quarters of the streaming world, is a natural at knowing its audience. Consider the streaming giant’s original TV shows, which are absolutely examples of branded content. A quick glance at their menu—The Santa Clarita Diet, End of the F***ing World, The Punisher—will tell you they’re mostly dark, violent, suspenseful shows that appeal to the age 18 to 24 and 25 to 39 sets. Basically, anyone who likes dark humor and Breaking Bad.

Once you know who you’re catering to, decide what you’re going to make.

3. Decide Your Content Type and Your Narrative

It’s time to set aside content marketing’s blog articles, infographics, and white papers. Branded content requires media with more visual panache and emotional punch: Videos, short films, newspaper articles, music videos, even podcasts are all viable content types suitable for telling an emotionally driven tale. If you’re Lego (or Marvel) and you’ve got $150 million to spend, you could make a feature film or video game (good luck!).

No matter the medium, the method is (almost) the exact same. A story involves a three-act structure: A beginning that introduces your characters and their plight, a middle that sees them struggle to solve their problem, and an end that ties everything up. Most major, popular movies (and stories in general) follow this seemingly simple sequence, from Star Wars to The Terminator, so just re-watch a few favorites to see how it’s done.

We also highly recommend Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud for a wonderful primer on visual storytelling.

Once your story’s figured out, it’s time to make sure people can find it.

4. Remember Your Keywords

Every branded content strategy should have its keyword research sorted out, along with a solid distribution strategy for your branded content. You could have the most tear-jerking Kurosawa-like short film about Kleenex ever imagined put to film, but what good will it do (for your return of investment or your content-seeking audience) if no one can find it? That’s where SEO, and a fully-fleshed out content distribution strategy comes into play.

To be found, target the right keywords in your video or podcast description and title. Also consider long-tail keywords, or phrases that people search for such as “Where’s the best pizza near me?” If you can incorporate natural-sounding questions, even better, since voice search is how most people will be searching soon—voice-enabled speaker search (think Amazon Echo or Google Home) jumped nearly 129 percent last year. What a perfect way to stumble upon your branded podcast. 

5. Throw Caution to the Wind

You could say branded content is another form of commercial art, or art used in advertising or marketing. So, y’know, most modern art! For that reason, we say throw caution to the wind. Yes, you should keep all the above in mind when creating a branded content strategy, but to quote composer Giorgio Moroder: “Once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and music being correct, you can do whatever you want.”

In other words, take risks. Color outside the lines if that means the result will be engaging and shareable. Look at this exceedingly charming series of Japanese candy commercials. It nails every aspect we talked about—knowing its audience, knowing its identity, color choices, style, and tone, a three-act structure, an emotional pay-off—while throwing its own unique twist towards the end that rewards long-time viewers (of commercials!) and ends with a funny, inclusive message. Let’s all be like Long Long Man.

Coming up with a branded content strategy can be difficult. The above few tips should set you on the right course. Need some more tips and tricks? Contact S&G.  

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