In the World of Branded Content, Original Always Wins
Hmm ... wait. I can't think of any, either.
Okay, let's try this: Name a brand that creates amazing original content.
I can think of a dozen. Red Bull, Gilt Groupe, GE, BirchBox ... the list of memorable branded content campaigns surely goes on.
As the deluge of content that gushes from our screens intensifies, the odds of a brand standing out get dimmer all the time. Couple that with the storm of brands now starting to do content -- whether for native advertising, as owned media or for social-media flow -- and the noise is only going to get worse.
If branded content is indeed about gaining attention and respect, perhaps we should look less to direct marketers and automators for cues -- as the small business "content-marketing" crowd has advocated for the past few years -- and instead find parallels in traditional media. Some media companies gain massive respect and mind share. But most "publishers," including bloggers and social media users, struggle perpetually.
At the top of the respect spectrum, we have media like The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Verge and Bloomberg (and of course, Advertising Age!). These publications invest in high-production-value content. They hire top talent. Their reporting is thorough. Their videos are crystalline; their stories are quadruple-checked. As such, they've become authorities in their respective fields: general-interest news, culture, gadgets, finance, advertising.
Below that, individuals with powerful personal brands gain our respect, perhaps with a bit less weight than a large organization, and often by being published by those organizations. Gary Vaynerchuk video-blogs on his own, appears on CNN for guest commentary and commands massive respect in marketing circles wherever he speaks. Jim Romenesko's personal blog is one of the most respected go-to resources for journalism industry news analysis.
Then we have low-production-value publishers, budget operations that write and record with cleverness and voice, though they're more off the cuff with things like fact-checking, sensationalism and/or grammar, to put it tastefully. I'm talking about folks like Gawker, Reddit and BuzzFeed. They often collect other news and ideas and mash them up, but they have original voices and put thought into their publishing. They've built massive audiences who rely on them for interesting content. (Note that when BuzzFeed's founder, Jonah Perretti, writes about the industry, his posts get massive respect, putting him in category #2).
Then we have the unoriginal publishers. The followers. The inane Twitter accounts posting, "Who loves New Years?!" Aggregators, so-called curators and blogs that rehash top-10 lists and focus much more on the SEO robots than on the humans who will read them. Needless to say, they get little respect from audiences of any mentionable size.
Unsurprisingly, the brands that have managed to achieve mind share with content are the ones who produce original, tier one through three, content.
Red Bull produces feature films about snowboarding and other action sports that blow away anything a media company's produced. FacebookStories.com produces magazine-quality written stories and custom illustrations to rival The New Yorker. Brands like Boeing partner with top-tier media companies like The Atlantic to cover brand-aligned topics like innovation, and Gilt Groupe combines content with commerce at Jetsetter.com and other properties, all produced professionally for maximum trust.
We see the second tier all the time (this guest post itself might be an example). When brand leaders like Mike Lazerow of Buddy Media take time to publish personally, the respect gained for their brands can be enormous. In fact, in B2B, this tier is often superior to high-production-value storytelling.
Finally, low-budget brand publishing operations can gain respect, but only if they are incredibly original and consistent. The best examples I can think of are long-running and thought-provoking company blogs like Signal vs Noise by 37Signals and the KISSmetrics Marketing blog. The myriad amateur bloggers hustling for the beauty and baby brands that make up networks like BlogHer probably fall under this category as well. It's not Hollywood-level, but it's original and engaging.
At the bottom of the budget-production-value bucket, I'd also put brands that do original social media and short-form content. Converse posting pictures of graffiti to its Facebook wall. Burberry with its Instagram and Pinterest campaigns. Cost-benefit may be dubious, but at least it's brand repetition.
However, I can think of no brand that makes a mind-share dent with unoriginal content. Those that brute-force traffic to unoriginal content through paid links may as well be pouring water on a plastic ficus tree.
The kind of content that will build a brand more effectively than a drumbeat of CPM advertising is the kind of content consumers will want to share with each other. The kind media companies will pick up and talk about. The kind Longreads will feature.
Internet advertising is shifting from interruptive to native, from distracting users from the content to being the content. As brands continue to engage in content-as-advertising, the winners will wake up to the futility of robo-targeted SEO strategies or social-media campaigns that pump out "curated" links like sewage. The supposed cost savings of unoriginal or uninspiring content are, simply, costs.
Indeed, original is the only brand content strategy that moves the needle.