As interest in content marketing swelled over the past few years, old-schoolers have struggled with the urge to turn out thinly disguised advertorials, or to spike helpful content with vinegary product placement. Transparency is something they have tried to avoid.
But this approach doesn't work well in a world ruled by the social-media-empowered masses. We saw a number of early brand publishers burn money on self-centered social campaigns with very thin content. Smart brands like Mint and American Express acted less selfishly, creating content that people loved.
Many marketers and publishers argue that native ads should look as much like editorial content as possible, with the brand identified at most by a small text disclosure at the top of a page or an icon in the footer. But some think brand-sponsored content should contain design traits like different fonts and backgrounds that tell consumers who's behind the content.
The Federal Trade Commission is considering whether to force transparency standards on brand publishers, to protect readers from being deceived. But, regardless of what the regulators decide, those who argue against transparency are shooting themselves in the foot. Here's why.
It doesn't matter how good branded content is if the brand doesn't get the credit. A brand should proudly claim the stories it sponsors. If our branded content is worthwhile and ethical, how do we expect to build relationships as anonymous benefactors?
One of my favorite branded-content properties is the online magazine DarkRye.com; however, the brand behind it, Whole Foods, gets little credit for the fantastic stories it offers. Similarly, many media companies that offer sponsored posts do their advertisers a disservice by essentially selling banner space around those posts instead of boldly insisting that brands put their name on that content.
Consumers don't have a problem with heavily branded content, as long as the content is good. The largest action-sports publisher in the world is an energy-drink brand. Red Bull Media House is a revenue factory that creates loyalty and relationships across the globe. Sports fanatics have no problem with the fact that Red Bull's content comes from a brand.
American Express's OpenForum.com, with millions of visitors each month, is proof that readers will come to content even if heavily branded, so long as it's good. In light of this and other such success stories, the fear of being branded seems quite silly. Indeed, the $200-million box office hit that is "The Lego Movie" shows that heavily branded content can be some of the most desired.
The less you hide, the better you look. In the early days of Twitter, brands like JetBlue gained massive loyalty by behaving in surprisingly un-brand-like ways. JetBlue contacted travelers who'd had bad experiences over the Internet, bending over backward to help them, and in doing so turned angry customers into lifelong advocates. Part of that is because people didn't expect the brand to act that way.
Brands that produce amazing content are likely to produce extra delight among consumers because they're not expected to. Chipotle's boldly branded Scarecrow campaign, which produced millions of views and downloads for Chipotle's branded app, and its new Hulu series, "Farmed and Dangerous," are excellent examples of this. I think we'll start to see more and more brands do high-production value stuff like this, and people will appreciate the transparency.
The choice should not be, "Should we hide?" but instead, "Does this help the user more than it helps us?" Wonderfactory Creative Director Joe McCambley has argued that brands should be proud to see their brands on their content. Indeed, they should demand to.