B2B Marketing Expo California logo

April 6 & 7 2022

LA Convention Center

Branded Content: Implications for Social Communications

A high-altitude jump watched by eight million on Red Bull’s owned media and millions more through licensing deals and earned media worldwide is branded content.

11 Things All Busy Families Should Make Time For, one of which is KFC’s Popcorn Nuggets, a ‘listicle’ published on BuzzFeed with KFC as ‘Brand Publisher’, is branded content (BuzzFeed 2015). Branded content is an umbrella term for very different activities with different relationships between marketers, media and users. From proudly promoted entertainment and valued storytelling to surreptitious ‘stealth marketing’, these cultural forms have different implications for social communications.

So, the questions I’d pose are whether, over the next fifteen years, some parts of the branded content industry will ask that more is done by other parts of the industry and whether they will seek to differentiate along lines such as transparency and disclosure.

The stakes are high as the values in play are precious and volatile substances: Trust, openness, permission, invitation, pleasure, interest, entertainment, culture.

Branded content covers three main areas. The first is brands’ own content (so-called ‘owned’ media) appearing on marketers’ websites, Instagram, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, publications, podcasts, apps and so on.

The creation of this kind of entertaining or informational media content controlled by brands is an activity in which many BCMA members are principally, if not exclusively, involved. Next is the ‘native’ distribution of marketers’ paid content: ads integrated into web pages, apps and news feeds in social media. Much of this is ‘programmatic’, part of the increasing automation of advertising buying, selling and placement, and it includes the sponsored stories on publishers’ websites, assembled by content recommendation companies like Outbrain and Taboola.

The third kind of branded content is material hosted by or made by, publishers. This includes advertorials in news media and magazines, advertiser-funded programming on broadcast or non-linear TV, and sponsored posts on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Above all, it includes native advertising, defined as ‘paid advertising where the ad matches the form, feel and function of the content of the media on which it appears’ (Native Advertising Institute, 2015). ‘Native’ captures the increasing variety of ways in which advertising is intermingled with content in online, mobile and social media with the aim to get users to engage with advertiser-sponsored content as readily as they would non-sponsored editorial content. Of these three main types, the first is brands’ own media, the second and third are forms of paid advertising in third-party media. It is the blurring of advertising with editorial in the latter two, and the confusion about where control over content lies, that generates most of the controversies surrounding branded content.

Rapidly-evolving forms of branded content have intensified the challenges to the separation of editorial and advertising that were already being felt across the legacy media of print and television. Historic differences in how different forms of communication are regulated remain but are coming under strain with the expansion and convergence of media and marketing communications. For instance, product placement in the UK and EU is still tightly regulated: Paid placement is only allowed in certain genres; programmes must show a universal logo; no undue prominence can be given and ultimate editorial control must remain with broadcasters. Yet there is no such equivalent UK (or EU) rules on standard identification of commercial content, or retaining editorial control, applying to publishing, or indeed radio (which is not subject to the EU Audiovisual Directive).

Branded content challenges the way communications are governed, not least by creating convergences where regulation still remains divergent in its treatment of media and advertising.

Media and marketing communications are merging. Their integration is arguably the next phase of convergence, following that of the convergence of mass media, telecommunications and computing, and is occurring at many levels.

Marketers like Red Bull and action camera tech company GoPro have become broadcasters and publishers. Media firms have responded by offering their media vehicles for branded content, but also by setting up units to create branded content themselves, such as the New York Times T-Brand Studios and Guardian Labs.

The integration of media and marketing is occurring across corporate ownership, joint ventures, operations and practices, forms and formats, and relationships with users. Increasingly, both commercial media and marketing firms recognize themselves as being in the same business, concerned with selecting and offering suitably engaging content to reach target consumers in the most cost-effective ways. Such media-marketing convergence remains conflict-ridden and contested, however. Critical concerns go beyond issues of disclosure and consumers’ identification of marketing communications. Also, to include concerns about the integrity of communications channels, editorial independence and artistic integrity for creative producers and consumers, and marketers’ influence and ‘share of voice’ in the communication spaces on which we rely.

At the heart of much debate are questions of trust. Native advertising has been described as ‘a rare win-win for the industry: More effective for advertisers, more valuable for publishers and more acceptable for users’ (Hammett, 2016).

Michael Frohlich, CEO Ogilvy UK, said that people want honesty – “Advertorials used to be a dirty word for us – but now we write when things are paid for or sponsored, it’s no longer a dirty word[…] Transparency is key, as well as honesty, so writing that something is sponsored and letting them know that is important as they are not stupid, they can see right through it’ (Davidson, 2016).

However, WARC analyst James McDonald notes that “Guidelines for advertorial content are being flouted to a degree at present. Were they enforced, consumer cynicism for the format may knock investment” (Hammett, 2016).

The reputational damage for marketers and publishers arising from undisclosed ads, as well as such things as from poor quality ‘clickbait’ from content recommendation engines, is increasing calls from within the industry to strengthen and update industry self-regulation.

I am working will colleagues to try to map what happens, and so here is my own embedded promotion: a wish, an invitation, to hear from anyone involved in or interested in branded content rule-making at any level.

From individual choices to firms’ ‘house-rules’, from specialist industry associations’ good-practice guidance to supranational regulation. This project aims to show how industry practitioners, regulators and stakeholders are managing the process of creating, adapting and enforcing rules for fast-evolving practices. It builds upon the Branded Content Research Network, a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, that brings together academic researchers, industry and civil society interests to explore branded content practices and their media policy implications.

Ultimately, aside from regulatory interventions, the durability of branded content will depend on effective measurement tools that convince clients of the longer-term benefits for ROI. Branded content illustrates the proliferation of new kinds of promotional communications forms and spaces that offer tremendous opportunities for cultural expression, rewarding exchanges and even social change, but which also have profound implications for communication industries, consumers and societies.

Jonathan Hardy is Professor of Media and Communications at the University of East London and Principal Investigator of the Branded Content Research Network.

This is a chapter reprinted from Fifteen Years, A Branded Content Story published to celebrate the anniversary of the Branded Content Marketing Association and is now available in Kindle version.