Copyranter: Everybody's definition of 'branded content' is wrong

Mark Duffy has written the Copyranter blog for 10 years and is a freelancing copywriter with 20-plus years of experience. His hockey wrist shot is better than yours.

During Advertising Week here in New York City last September, the word “content” was spoken/tweeted several trillion times, many more times than “advertising.” Even the President of the United States, Kevin Spacey, said it.

It’s become such a sexy buzzword, everything wants to be “content” now: news, ads, marketing, cat videos, porn, infographics, white papers, Brooklyn, etc.

But what exactly is “branded content”?

branded
(L) Branded content. (R) “Branded” content?

The term seems to have been hatched some time in 2001. Less than two years later, the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) formed, because the only thing marketing professionals like more than associating with each other is meeting with each other in starkly depressing conference rooms and writing the words that just came out of their mouths onto whiteboards all day.

You’d think the BCMA, of all places, would have the definitive definition of branded content. Well, they don’t. They do say this:

“The BCMA is best placed to define what branded content ‘is’ and what ‘it isn’t’ and measure the effectiveness through its investment in research and proprietary tools.”

They’re tools, alright. They may claim to be “best placed” to define “it.” But do they, in fact, define it? No, they do not.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “…a form of advertising medium that blurs conventional distinctions between what constitutes advertising and what constitutes editorial content. Branded content is essentially a fusion of the two into one product intended to be distributed as editorial content…”

Well, that’s wrong too — despite the brilliant use of the buzzword “fusion.” It’s too specific. It’s actually a decent definition of “native advertising” (which is a subset of branded content). A lot of branded content has nothing to do with editorial, or websites or print publications. For example: This literal piece of dog dookie on the sidewalk is branded content (the poop is the content; the sign is the branding). Silly Wikipedia.

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 1.05.15 PM

Maybe Cannes can help. Branded Content has been a category at the extortionary festival for two years now. Here’s their definition: “…the creation of, or natural integration into, original content by a brand.”

Well that’s extremely vague. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge won a Gold Lion in Branded Content last month, but was that “branded content?” My term for that would be “Cause Stunt.” (There you go, Cannes, I just created a new category for you thieves.)

BBDO’s worldwide CCO David Lubars was the head juror in the Branded Content category. Here’s his definition: “Branded content, to me, is where [an idea] couldn’t exist without the product.”

Shit. That’s deep and heady and confusing and not a definition.

Surely BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti has an accurate definition memorized by now:

Branded content is “native advertising for all the different platforms where people share [our] content,” he said. Wait, branded content is a form of native advertising? That’s not right.

There are several definitions — all wrong — offered in this Contagious “WTF is Branded Content” blog post, on the “total communications resource” site Contagious. One of them was commissioned by the aforementioned BCMA (though it’s not on their website):

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

Oh nice, put the responsibility on the consumer. Cowards. But what if the beholder doesn’t associate it with a brand because maybe it’s more subtle than usual?

Avi Savar, founder of Big Fuel, offered the worst definition I’ve seen, saying that branded content is “people stories” as opposed to traditional advertising which is “product stories” — completely, utterly incorrect.

Here, then, is the the only 100 percent accurate definition of “branded content” as of this moment: IT’S ADVERTISING, you Newspeak Orwellian dillweeds.