So Joe Pulizzi loathes the term Branded Content?


I’m a big fan of the work Joe Pulizzi and his colleagues at the Content Marketing Institute do to educate the industry about content marketing, including their Content Marketing World event and Content Marketing Awards. So I was a little surprised to read his Can We Please Stop Using Branded Content? rant today about how he loathes the term Branded Content. After challenging him about this on Twitter, I wrote a response that got tweeted by LinkedIn Pulse.


After an email follow-up and comments, which included Velocity Partners’ Doug Kessler, I think Joe and I are on a similar page, and given that Brandscaping and Town Inc. author Andrew Davis is suggesting a Blab then the discussion might continue. But in meantime, here’s my response:

So Joe Pulizzi loathes the term Branded Content

So Joe Pulizzi of Cleveland-based Content Marketing Institute loathes the terms “branded content”. In his recent Can We Please Stop Using Branded Content? post, Joe explains why he thinks the term gives content marketing a bad name:

It’s a word created by the world of paid media … by advertisers, agencies, and media planners.

That’s interesting given that the IAB UK’s Content and Native Council are developing a framework that would seem to place content marketing very firmly in this space and even akin to native advertising.

And having recently served on The Drum Content Awards‘ jury then it would appear that many practitioners that claim to be doing content marketing are in fact doing what Joe claims is branded content. This includes winners of his Content Marketing Awards!

Joe supports his case by citing the following Wikipedia definition, which he thinks is a little disturbing:

Branded content is a form of advertising medium that blurs conventional distinctions between what constitutes advertising and what constitutes editorial content.

This definition was put forward in the Journal of Marketing Management way back in 2006. But how about this more recent all encompassing definition developed by the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) in partnership by Oxford Brookes University and Ipsos:

Branded content is any content that can be associated with a brand in the eye of the beholder.

This definition form parts of the ongoing Defining Branded Content in the Digital Age research programme supported by the BCMA that has involved extensive input from industry professionals around the globe. It would seem to include the content marketing that Joe seems to think is worthy of putting on a pedestal.

That’s why Joe’s following claim seems like pot calling:

Branded content gives agencies permission to keep talking about themselves, adding a bit of storytelling to product pitches.

As Doug Kessler points out in his very funny and polemical Crap. The Content Marketing Deluge presentation, every man and his dog is now claiming to be a content specialist:

  • SEO Agencies are becoming content shops
  • Social media agencies have discovered content as a social lubricant
  • Every B2B agency is cramming the word ‘content’ into everything they do
  • Copywriting agencies are now content farms
  • Video production companies are now “rich content creators”
  • Contract publishers are now rebranding themselves as content marketing experts – even their UK trade group is now called the Content Marketing Association

Interestingly, Joe mentions that there was no Grand Prix awarded at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this year for their Branded Contentment & Entertainment BC&E award category. This is not the first time either, and it’s something I have written about in The Drum and Contagious.

The problem runs deeper than Joe’s “non-scientific stroll through some of the entries”, and it goes well beyond agencies carpet bombing categories in an attempt to win some tin at an award show – hence why so many of the entries look like advertising in the BC&E category.

As such, Joe’s uses of the old ‘if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck’ idiom is a cheap shot:

If branded content looks and feels like advertising, well…

Erm… how about applying Doug Kessler’s prediction about how we are about to get buried in content marketing crap:

If content marketing looks and feels like crap, well…!

Perhaps Joe should be looking closer to home because as Doug argues the Single biggest threat to Content Marketing is Content Marketing, which reminds me of an old adage about throwing stones in glass houses.

What really surprised me was that Joe seems to be basing his attack on the following claim by Brandscaping and Town Inc. author Andrew Davis:

Content brands are created for an audience, while branded content is created for a business

I don’t recognise this at all, or the following distinction for that matter:

With a  content brand, you are always focused on the needs and pain points of the audience first. The goal is to build a loyal audience, and then leverage that loyalty to drive a business goal.

Branded content, on the other hand, is about getting the product or service out there in some way, albeit in a more entertaining way than just straight advertising. This is a quick-hit strategy. There is no need or want to build a relationship through content.

These are just catchy slogans masquerading as truths, which seem like they’ve been made up on the hoof.

The Point being is that I have spoken to literally 100s of industry professionals around the globe about what branded content is and isn’t (e.g. how is it is different from branded entertainment, content marketing and other related approaches like native advertising), as well as the problem that content-based marketing approaches solve for business, and is this how this different from advertising.

Well, as they like to say on Facebook it’s complicated and there seems to be no consensus, so I’d like to see Joe and Andrew’s research supporting their claims above.

One of my favourite responses was from PJ Pereira of multiple award winning Pereira & O’Dell:

I think [Branded Content] is about what makes something the audience would seek out and engage with, rather than something that works well as a piece of interruptive communication.

As I pointed out in my recent article for The Drum, this stretches the definition of branded content too far for some, because it could include a 30-second spot. Yet the secret to Pereira & O’Dell’s multiple award-winning success – including one of only two BC&E Grand Prix awarded at Cannes to date – is that they play through lines rather than create work that fits neatly into award categories.

Their The Beauty Inside social film project for Intel & Toshiba strikes me as no less of a legitimate way of telling a story than the more editorially-based The Furrow magazine content from John Deere that Joe advocates:

At the same time, PJ’s definition of branded content is no less audience-centric than the content brands concept that Andrew and Joe seems to praise so highly.

The real issue here, however, is summed up by BBDO Worldwide’s Chief Creative Officer David Lubars, who was president of this year’s Cannes BC&E jury. He thinks that we’re looking at something that transcends category, which is also true of digital and even social – now they’re just part of what marketing is and how it’s done:

It’s a hard category to define, and one that is inherently messy and foggy with no clear horizons because it’s horizontal.

That’s because we’re talking about the future of marketing and content-based marketing approaches represent what the industry now does in response to the way our consumption of content has changed and continues to do so. This means that there won’t be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to solving client problems with content.

As I mentioned in my recent article for Edition Digital, it also means that clients are unlikely to find any one supplier that has the answers to all their challenges, which suggests that the days of generic content experts are likely to be numbered as the industry begins to fracture  and divide into more specialist areas.



Illustration by renowned Slovenian artist Marusa Kozelj from Edition Digital

What’s now needed is new language to describe the different areas, rather than the current confusing array of terms being used interchangeably by practitioners (e.g. branded content, branded entertainment, brand publishing, content marketing, etc), who are reminiscent of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant as they  try to articulate what their offering represents.

I have a lot of respect for the great work that Joe and his colleagues at the Content Marketing Institute are doing, but I can’t help thinking that client confusion would be better solved through collaboration on this new lexicon rather than the pitting of one term of against another.

About the author

Justin Kirby is a consultant, educator and thought leader with a 20+ year career in industry as a digital strategist, producer and entrepreneur. He chairs and speaks at conferences around the globe, judge industry awards, and advise brands and agencies.