Brands wrestle with how to make their content not seem like advertising. As much as people dislike ads, at least a couple of things are generally clear: who the advertiser is, and what they want from us. To overcome audience resistance to ads, brands create content that hides either who they are, and/or what they want from us. It is doubtful such subterfuge delivers long term benefits. Audiences are too skeptical to be fooled for long.
Brands need to ask:
- When is it appropriate to talk about yourself?
- When should you let others talk about you?
- When should you highlight who you are in your content?
Many brands lack reliable answers to these questions. To avoid awkward questions about their purposes, they skirt transparency. Brand journalism is a prime example.
The Reputation Problems of Brand Journalism
Brand journalism goes by several names, including native ads or sponsored content. The essence of brand journalism is to talk about yourself — without appearing to talk about yourself. You don’t call attention to the fact you’ve paid someone else to present content about you. It’s similar to the stealthy product placement in films, where brands spend money to make sure their beverage or other product appears on the screen.
Brand journalism is justified in the name of content quality. Brands argue their story is good enough to be featured with leading stories from a well-regarded publication. They buy access to an audience of a publication, much as they do with advertising. But they dress up the content to appear as if it’s content from the publication itself. They disguise their primary role in the content. They make it seem as if it is a collaboration between them and the publication, and that they have a broader public interest motivating the creation of the content.
For the moment, the tactic works. Audiences still don’t have a clear understanding of the source of content, and generally assume the publishing platform produced the content. While Google bars sponsored content in its news feed, its search results don’t distinguish native advertising published in the Guardian from content produced by Guardian staff that is not paid for. And the area is still lightly regulated. The US Federal Trade Commission has started looking into the boundaries between advertising and sponsored content, but hasn’t produced any rules that are slowing down the practice. None of these factors will necessarily continue, however. Native ads are already getting a grilling by comedians such as John Oliver, so public scrutiny is bound to increase.
Because brand journalism is really public relations, it tends to attract firms with public relations problems. These are the new advertorials: trying to persuade people who wouldn’t normally be interested in the topic, or the point of view offered. It’s an uphill battle, and firms that do brand journalism run the risk of being seen as firms with reputation problems.
Reputation Building: Making Your Brand Explicit
There is a difference between letting people know you who are, and talking about yourself. The basic problem of advertising is not that brands reveal who they are. It is that advertisers talk excessively about themselves. A basic tenet of trust is being able to evaluate the credibility of a speaker. Unless the speaker’s identity is revealed clearly, people can’t be sure they are getting unbiased information.
Content marketing promises to remove the hustle from the content. Ideally, it offers advice that is not a one-sided advertorial. The content takes into consideration the range of needs of the audience, and addresses various concerns. Brands that offer audience-centered content boost their reputations. They become known for offering objective advice that is not focused on their products. The goal of content marketing should be to become known as helpful, not pushy. And any brand that hides behind another will be viewed as pushy — trying to buy influence instead of earning it. Transparency is non-negotiable.
Endorsements remain powerful. Audiences judge content credible when endorsed by a source they consider credible. Brands need to earn credibility from others, not try to buy it by pretending to have news organizations write about them.
Transparency and endorsement are not conflicting goals. They are mutually supportive. Brands promote their interests when they endorse other brands with whom they share interests.
Lessons from Ingredient Branding
Ingredient branding is about making the invisible, visible. It does exactly what content marketing should be doing: bringing greater transparency and information to consumers.
Ingredient branding is a tactic used for marketing consumer products, but generally isn’t associated with content marketing. With ingredient branding, a brand explains the features of its product that rely on the technology or know-how of another.
We encounter ingredient branding in many products, including our computers. “Intel inside” is a label on many computers that indicates who made the microprocessor. The information reduces uncertainty for buyers about the provenance of the product. Intel offers computer buyers additional information about its components. The computer manufacturer is endorsing Intel, who has an opportunity to explain the capabilities and benefits of its product.
Other prominent examples of ingredient branding are information about the capabilities of Gore-tex treatments on clothing, or Teflon coating on cookware. Ingredient branding makes something that’s not visible to consumers, more evident to them — for example, Dolby sound. Good ingredient brands can spark curiosity about a product that might be otherwise seen as unremarkable, such as when the Pink Panther cartoon character represents Owens Corning building materials.
Ingredient Branding and Content Marketing
Historically, ingredient branding has been limited to point-of-sale content: providing a sticker or an informational tag. But the concept can be extended to all phases of marketing for a range of products.
All kinds of products and services rely on a complex web of partnerships. The more complex the product or service, the more bewildering it can seem to buyers. Products appear as a black box that defies understanding. People may worry that important aspects are outsourced to contractors of uncertain reliability. The business pages are filled with stories about product recalls due to faulty third party components, systems crashes due to poor contractor performance, and disruptions due to supplier bankruptcy or supply chain bottlenecks.
Many products and services are built on a stack of components provided by different sources. Perhaps a critical element of the firm’s operations relies on the abilities of a supplier. Will they continue to modernize and accommodate new requirements yet to emerge? A service might seem slick right now, but how well can we count on it a year from now? What’s under the hood?
Content marketing can use ingredient branding to demystify a product or service, and surface stories about the development of the product that answer concerns of buyers. What challenges are suppliers and customers trying to solve together? Do they have a common roadmap for the future? Stories can demonstrate a reliable relationship, in contrast to the more fragile arms length relationships that exist elsewhere.
Suppliers and their customers can reciprocate in sharing stories about each other. Suppliers can highlight the use of their products by others. Those using the products can mention their use and the reasons for their choice, and link back to the supplier for buyers wanting more detail. For the supplier, it is a chance to show they work with astute customers. For firms relying on the supplier, it is an opportunity to affirm their belief they are using the best available resources for the benefit of their end customer.
Greater transparency is gained through illuminating relationships. Trust is increased when brands don’t talk only about themselves, but about their partners. They show they are invested in the success of their partners.
Buyers don’t just rely on a supplier: they rely on an ecosystem of suppliers. They deserve to understand what that package offers. Brands have an opportunity to endorse others in their ecosystem, both those who they rely on, and those using their product. By focusing on the wider picture, they expand the conversation, and attract a wider audience.
— Michael Andrews