Is every definition of branded content wrong?

- in 2016, ARTICLES
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Back in 2014, I wrote my WTF is branded content. It’s complicated post for Contagious that explored why the term ‘branded content’ seemed poorly defined and the difficulties involved with judging the award category. This was prompted by the Cannes Lions Branded Content & Entertainment jury failing to agree/award a Grand Prix, which happened again last year and now seems to have become a trend at other awards where the category is judged.

Funnily enough, my Contagious post is now one of the top research results on Google for ‘branded content definition‘. This only goes to show that nobody’s nailed it yet and that’s possibly because Everybody’s definition of ‘branded content’ is wrong! as Copyranter points out on Digiday.

I’ve seen 2 more definitions recently, and I am not sure they’ve nailed it either, but what was more interesting to me was that both framed branded content as a type of marketing output or deliverable rather than as a specific discipline. That actually makes sense, particularly if, as some believe, that content is now simply what marketing is and does.

One of these two definitions was developed as part of the second phase of the Defining Branded Content in the Digital Age collaborative research project commissioned by Andrew Canter at the Branded Content Marketing Association’s (BCMA), which was conducted by Bjoern Asmussen and 
Serena Wider at Oxford Brookes University (OBU), and Ross WilliamsNeil Stevenson and Elliot Whitehead at Ipsos MORI London.

We’ve covered both the progress of phase 1 and phase 2 of this research project as part of Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) series I curate. It’s the team’s second crack at defining the term, but sadly the latest one below doesn’t seem to be resonating with experts any more than their earlier one (read my Contagious article mentioned above):

From a managerial perspective, branded content is any output fully/partly funded or at least endorsed by the legal owner of the brand which promotes the owner’s brand values, and makes audiences choose to engage with the brand based on a pull logic due to its entertainment, information and/or education value.

I think it is safe to say this unlikely to become a definition that’s widely used by industry, or get cited by academics other than to highlight better ones. I also think the methodology used on this project is limited by being based on qualitative research using a relatively small pool of industry experts given the breadth of the territory (disclosure: I was one of them). This is highlighted by the narrow and uninspiring range of the examples of ‘branded content as deliverable, tool or outcome’ that they include in their chart below:



At the same time, the key and emerging themes that have been identified from the interviews with 30 or so experts just seem like common wisdom now (possible even group think). That’s because there’s nothing significantly new about the research collaboration’s findings, which are themes you’ll hear being discussed at the ever growing number of content marketing conferences around the globe and have been for some time now.

The report will be launched next month, but you read a (ahem … regurgitated review in The Drum and a sneak preview of its findings in last year’s edition of BOBCM. But here’s my quick summary of the key themes they claim to have identified or at least my interpretation based:

  • Brands have lost control
  • Branded Content is a response to changing media landscape and how we now consume it
  • Branded Content is not clearly defined
  • Branded Content is about engagement
  • Branded Content is about creating content that consumers seek it out, i.e. about pull not push
  • Branded Content is the Deliverable and Content Marketing is the Discipline (really?)
  • Dig Deeper to understand more about audience’s needs, wants, interests and/or passions
  • Branded Content needs to be more aligned with Brand Culture and Branding, i.e. Cultural Strategy not just Communication one and the rise of (social purpose)
  • Branded content still needs to be based on business objectives
  • Branded content needs to stand out to cut through with more compelling narratives, engaging editorial, high quality content, greater interactivity
  • Multi-channel distribution and promotion of branded content not clearly understood or developed yet (skills gap)
  • Measuring and evaluating the success of branded content and content marketing is still in it’s infancy and needs to evolve

Check out my Expert Predictions report on the Future of Branded Content Marketingfrom the 2014 edition of BOBCM, which seems to have already highlighted most, if not all, of same one and also uses quotes from experts to illustrate them.

Perhaps the most cringe worthy part of this report was the new branded content ‘Value Formula’ that is presented:

V (BC) =V (BCA) + V (BO) + V (CP)

V = value
BC = branded content
BCA = branded content audience
BO = brand owner
CP = content platform/channel (platform)

This reminded me of Intellectual Impostures (1997) book by physics professors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont that ridiculed the use of mathematics in the writings of post-modern philosophers/literary critics and its superficiality. The same could be said about the ‘Branded Content Value Formula’ that’s little more than a slogan masquerading as a truth. It’s the kind of thing you see in Shampoo commercials or emanating from think tanks like Demos, and not what you’d expect to be presented as part of an academic and industry research collaboration that expects to be taken seriously.

Given the above it’s difficult to see how the BCMA’s CEO Andrew Canter – who commissioned the report – thinks these insights will lead to more effective branded content campaigns. This belief highlights the confused purpose of the report, which seems more like an extended abstract for an academic paper rather than anything that will have much impact on industry (not least because of the tortuous terminology being used).

Put simply, the problem the research sets out to solve seems more about trying to conceptualise branded content in order to establish it as a serious area for academic study and teaching, i.e. the basis for something like a text book or, who knows, the foundation stone for the building of a body of knowledge. That’s a legitimately worthy endeavor for an academic and industry research collaboration. However, they would need to dig a lot deeper than what’s been presented so far to have an impact in academia given the other research projects I’ve seen and contributed to (see below). The real issue here is that Defining Branded Content in the Digital Age research project just doesn’t really address the issues that are keeping business managers awake at night, so it’s unlikely to have much impact on industry either; and that’s because solving those problems will need harder evidence than a round-up of expert opinion. This brings me to the second definition and the research it stems from:

Branded Content (noun): Content that lives on its own, produced by and for the brand, as opposed to content produced by someone else that the brand affixes itself to.

This definition was used more as means for framing the territory explored in the Deconstructing Branded Content: The Global Guide To What Works research by IPG Media Lab and Google. This comprehensive branded content effectiveness study was presented earlier this year at the Advertising Research Foundation’s (ARF) conference. Rather than asking marketers, they surveyed 14,780 consumers globally to learn what branded content is, what they think about it, and determine how effective it is: looking at 50 brands, across 19 verticals, in 10 countries. Now, that’s what I’m talking about!

There’s no point me summarising the study as the team have done a great job of doing this in the infographic below, and you can also download a presentation of their report from here. I simply mention it because it provides a useful benchmark for assessing the merits of the Defining Branded Content in the Digital Age, and any other current or future academic and industry collaborations that look at this area for that matter.

Comparing the two projects confirmed my intuition that any research that claims to be defining a term ‘in the digital age’ needs to go well beyond a round-up of expert opinion now – regardless of how systematic the qualitative research methodology has been. That just seems like a very thin slice given the scope of the IPG Media Lab and Google study, which both surveys a large number of consumers and also analyses data about their content consumption behaviours; which may actually be a better way of conceptualising branded content than the group think of industry experts. It’s also focused on the efficacy issues that matter to industry, which can’t be said about Defining Branded Content in the Digital Age as it appears more preoccupied with the seemingly trivial and less interesting conceptualisation of the term branded content.

Anyway, I have been discussing these two research projects with leading academics and practitioners with a foot in academia as part of a new journal I have been trying to get off the ground with others (see more here). This included discussing some of the blind spots that we noticed in the research we’ve seen to date, and how this might be remedied. I have written this up below as guide about what’s missing and how ante needs to be upped now that IPG Media Lab and Google have re-set the bar.  But this is unlikely to be of much interest to more than a handful of those I am connected to on here, so thought I share the way more interesting infographic from the IPG Media Lab and Google Research first. However, if you’d like to connect to academics and practitioners researching this area then feel free to join the Journal of Branded Content Marketing (JOBCM) Group I have set up:

IPG Lab - Deconstructing Branded Content Infographic Final



  1. Be clear about your purpose and audience: Decide whether the research is primarily aimed at a peer-reviewed academic journal, or whether you want to have an impact on industry. In theory the two are not mutually exclusive, but in practice they often are and certainly need explaining in different ways to the different audiences.
  2. Tell a compelling story: if you really want to have an impact on industry then it’s a good idea to get someone who can help you tell a compelling story to that audience, just as brands hire those with those with skills to help them connect and communicate to their customers. A good start would be to avoiding the use of arcane academic terminology, but also make sure you answer these 3 deceptively simple questions:
    - Who you are? (what is your expertise in this area in this area/why its relevant)
    - What is your research about? (the problem you are trying to solve/question you are trying to answer)
    - Why should anyone care? (outside of academia/small group of industry insiders)
  3. Go beyond expert opinion: When speaking to industry experts it’s a good idea to view their responses with the parable of the six blind men and the elephant in mind. It’s one thing to do a quirk and dirty round up of expert opinion for a more editorial-style article about where industry is at and heading. But not enough in the ‘digital age’ to use this approach and be able to say much more then ‘further research is necessary’, i.e. due to the rapidly changing/evolving nature of the field of study and glacial pace of academic publishing.
  4. Address real problems that matter: There may not, as yet, be any accepted academic definition of branded content or even agreement about how to conceptualise it. And this may be an important first step towards establishing it as key marketing (communications) discipline that can be both taught and researched more formally. But business managers have way more important things to worry about, so why not look instead at what problems they are having now that their worlds have been turned upside down? As former Ad Age editor Scott Donaton points out, story-telling changes everything about how brands go to market and so “they’re going to have to change their processes, the skillsets of the people they hire, the timeframes they work on, the way they allocate and think about budgets, and their definition of creativity.” That’s a lot more to keep you up at night than worrying about whether branded content is a deliverable or a discipline or not, how it’s defined, etc. And way more interesting area to explore.
  5. Merge Big with Thick Data and start looking at engagement in more depth: It’s really fascinating to see that the IPG Media Lab and Google research both surveying consumers and also analysing their actually media consumption behavior. I can’t help thinking this should inform any academic conceptualisation of the branded content space, and seems way more important than expert opinion. Interestingly, the ReD Associates’ Moment of Clarity book for HBR explores the limitations of relying on both traditional market research and historical data, and suggests instead that the human sciences provide the means to solving the biggest business challenges. Yet I have seen little in the way of ethnographic research being used to understand more about our behaviour within the new media landscape that we now inhabit. One area that seems to be crying out to be investigated more along these lines would be the engagement of customers, and what it means from their point of view. Research along these lines would be both interesting and legitimately helpful because ‘engagement’ is such an overused term. It can often seem like it’s being used as short-term means in itself, rather than one that has been clearly demonstrated to deliver significant ends in order to help brands better understand how they allocate their budgets.
  6. More agile and responsive research? I have been following the Defining Branded Content in Digital Age research project for two years now, and am still waiting for the project to tell me either something significant or something I don’t already know. The marketing industry is evolving at such a rapid pace, there’s a need for a more agile and responsive research methodology to be used if findings are going to have any impact beyond academia. Perhaps participant-observer or practice-research led approaches are the answer, or almost anything that goes beyond just canvassing expert opinion and actually addresses real problems (see above).
  7. Avoids slogans (and formulas) masquerading as a truth, and focus more on story telling: If you are going to present some marketing calculus-type formula, then make sure you’ve used it to crank some hard evidence otherwise it just looks like padding for PR rather than anything that’s useful/meaningful. Focus instead how story-telling is being used and why, what works and doesn’t, etc. As Google’s Chris McCarthy points out, ‘Brands need to understand that connecting with people is a social exercise that is conducted through the messy, murky construct called culture: the stuff we consume, talk about, watch, and interact with.’ And stories are the means by which brands connect with people with culture, which makes understanding more about this important (cultural anthropologic?) consideration a better area for research from a practitioner perspective – certainly more than research that discusses branded content in terms of how it is used to make “audiences choose to engage with the brand based on a pull logic” that sometimes has to use push!
  8. Examine more cases: If content is now what marketing is and does, then it would make sense to also think about defining the territory by analysing its practice not just the opinion of practitioners. There’s no shortage of awards who could be approached for the case studies that have been submitted. That said there’s few, if any awards, that specifically look at branded content/content marketing efficacy, rather than creative excellence and craft. As such, there may not be the opportunity yet to do something along the lines of Les Binet and Peter Field’s The Long and Short of It: Measuring campaign effectiveness over time report that drew upon nearly 1,000 advertising effictiveness case studies. However, what case studies do currently exist would be a starting place for looking at the important strategic considerations, i.e. What kind of branded content is being created (or co-created) by ‘Who’ and for ‘Whom’?; How is engagement being managed?; How is content being distributed? (i.e. ‘Where’ in the converged landscape of earned, owned and paid media, and ‘When’ in the customer decision journey?); and How is the success of the different parts and their sum being measured, and How does his help us scale/replicate that success?
  9. Think about developing new lexicon: There’s a growing consensus that the terms branded content and content marketing may have a limited shelf-life as far a their usefulness are concerned, and actually may have already passed their sell by date, i.e. if all marketing is becoming based around content then why bother putting the term content in front of it unless it helps explain why it is different from other content-based marketing. Like-wise, why use the term branded content unless you can explain how it is different from other brand-funded forms like advertising. Academically speaking, it would seem to make more sense to build upon other content categories like User-Generate Content (UGC) given it is both an established area in academia and the term widely understood and used by industry. I’m not a great fan of neologisms (despite appreciating they work well as hashtags), but creating a new lexicon might be more useful way of mapping the territory, including describing the output and different approaches/disciplines (possibly by their intent). That strikes me as being more beneficial than trying to over intellectualise industry buzz words that don’t necessarily warrant being conceptualised/defined in the first place!
  10. BTW – WTF is Content? I am reminded of ad veteran David Trott’s rant in Campaign last year about how he keeps hearing everyone talk about content, but has never heard anyone define it. He thinks that’s because content is seen as just stuff… “the unimportant stuff that gets delivered by efficient, exciting new delivery systems.” That’s probably why Doug Kessler thinks we are about to get deluged in crap, which hammers home the need for more (hopefully brand-funded) collaborations between academia and industry that dig deeper into what content works well for whom, how, when, where and why. And hopefully that might help spare us from the fate predicted by Doug!

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.