Unbranded Content Marketing

Posted by

Everyone is all excited about content marketing.

While the tickertape parade and confetti may be over for the excitement about social media in business, there’s a cold, harsh reality hitting brands right about now: once you’re on social media and making yourself look busy, it’s all about the content. I’ve been a little sour on the fruits of this labor as of late (more on that right here: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Content). Just yesterday, I saw a well-respected, known and loved brand post this to Facebook: "Like this post if you like contests." Really? Is the spring of fresh ideas that dry?

The trouble with branded content.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what has been troubling me with the majority of branded content. It’s something that is on my mind as I head off in three weeks to Content Marketing World 2012 (being put on by Joe Pulizzi and his team). It’s not that the vast majority of content is vapid of any insight. It’s not that it’s vanilla in its attempt to appeal to the masses. It’s not the thinly veiled marketing blather. It’s actually, the "branded" part of it. The truth is this: once the content is branded, it may be hard (very, very hard) to make it authentic.

There are some pearls.

Would we, as a marketing industry, say that this is true of every brand? No. The vast majority? It does feel that way. Why? Perhaps too many brands are confusing the power of content marketing with advertorial. There is a distinction and it’s a massive one. How valuable would this blog be if all it did was talk about the value and merits of Twist Image as a marketing agency? How valuable would this blog be if all it did was talk about how one marketing service was far superior to another one (and, it just so happens, that this superior service is one that we offer at Twist Image)? In the end, the content is self-serving – which is a world away from content that serves to add value.

The truth (it sometimes hurts).

Does this mean, that to be authentic a brand should promote the services of their competitors? No. Does this mean that a brand should do things that run contrary to their own brand narrative? No. It’s a new mindset that the brand will need to find. Instead of constantly looking for content that can be wrapped up in the brand, why not start looking at content within an unbranded mindset?

What does this look like?

Not every post on blog is about digital marketing. It traipses into different areas of conversation like business books, presentation skills, technology, personal development, culture, entertainment and more. As David Weinberger would say, these are small pieces loosely joined that cumulatively reinforce the philosophical DNA of how I think, how our business thinks and the way that we perceive work, in this day and age. If this blog is even somewhat successful, the feeling that you get – as a reader and active participant – is one that is unbranded. It provides value to you – first and foremost – and that value-chain links back into new business for Twist Image somewhere much further down the line. If content was supposed to be a direct response mechanism, it would be direct marketing (no need to call it content marketing).

The trouble is…

Content marketing looks, acts and feels very little like other marketing channels. It’s a much slower build and it requires a very specific and tactical skill-set that also looks nothing like the marketing departments that we have seen to date. In fact, they look much like editorial departments, which – historically – have been verboten for the advertising and marketing people to hang out in. Is this going to provide a massive challenge for brands moving forward? Absolutely. The lines have become fuzzy. The content we’re seeing being produced and shared through social media is unique – in and of itself – and so to think that we’re all going to close our eyes, make a wish and blow for this all to come to fruition is crazy. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear that the content marketing initiatives are being run out of the communications department of companies, and not the marketing department. What does that tell you?

Strategy first.

I’m really looking forward to Content Marketing World 2012. I’m hopeful that people much smarter than me will be able to demonstrate how these strategies are developed and – more importantly – how organizations (both brands and agencies) are being structured to produce content that is branded… but feels completely unbranded to the consumer.

It will be interesting.


  1. Excellent post Mitch and let us know what you find out or gather at Content Marketing World 2012.
    When creating content for a brand I think we almost need to create personal content around our work experiences, thoughts and ideas. This blog for example I think is exactly that. What needs to match though are the DNA’s. Your DNA obviously matches that of Twist Images DNA – thoughts, ideas, aspirations, frustrations, books, work style, etc. So if we can write from a personal level through branded channels I think it works twofold.
    Another example is the OPEN Forum – I think this is the best example out there in terms of content marketing. Essentially they are providing the platform and allowing other professionals to speak on behalf of the OPEN/AmEx brand in addition to their own. The content being provided is reaching AmEx’s target audience. The products and services becomes second nature and surfaces when the user wants it to surface.
    The goal of content marketing is adding value and cultivating a connection now and potentially processing a transaction later. The transaction can be both monetary or advocacy. There are two things that can happen when a ‘user’ finds value in your content. 1. a user becomes an advocate of your platform/content/brand – though may never purchase from you – but they spread your message to others – we can treat all ‘users’ as leads in which we need to nurture with more valuable content and key touch points – and 2. a portion of users trickle even further down the funnel becoming a paying costumer.
    Either 1 or 2 is the goal.
    Thanks for the post Mitch!
    My apologies on the long comment.

  2. I believe the answers have not been developed. Just figuring out the question and realizing the bulls eye is not being hit. Drastic changes need to be made.
    Always get the juices going with your posts Mitch. Look forward to your report summary upon your return. I hope I’m wrong but…..

  3. Thank you for sharing this post. The idea of marketing content is a very interesting world. Specifically, as an author, I think it is imperative to brand your work. Still. I am interested in learning more about the “unbranded” way of thnking. I intend to pay more attention to this conversation as I grow.

  4. Perhaps one of the problems is that authentic content cannot come from a brand, which is an abstract concept, but rather a brand ambassador and ideally, a real person. I understand the essence and goals of Twist Image because I get to read the thoughts of the man behind the brand. This is why I find this blog so engaging, to the point that I care about the future of Twist Image even though I do not have any business or stake with the company (quite fascinating now that I think of it!).
    Depending on the type of company, the ambassador could be the CEO, a spokesperson or the fictional character that is used in the advertising. I think the role is currently relayed to a young online community manager who is hiding behind the brand name. And this is why content falls so flat.
    However, stepping into the realm of conversational and truly authentic content will probably result in heated discussions with the legal team. It requires a lot of skill to engage in a conversation with a consumer that is both “true” and “branded”. More than just someone who is tech-savvy, you need a good writer, a creative thinker, knows the brand in and out, someone who understands social media, is aware of trademark infringement, etc.
    I don’t think the majority of the freshly cropped Online Community Managers is there YET. They could do it with a good entourage and legal advice, but then you lose the spontaneity of the dialogue. It is daring for a brand to “show” its humanity, but I do believe the pay-off is worth the risk.

  5. Hi Mitch…
    This statement is the zinger for me: “Perhaps too many brands are confusing the power of content marketing with advertorial.”
    Too true, but no mention of storytelling?! My goodness, Mitch 😉
    Jokes aside, I’m glad you wrote this because I’ve been less diplomatically screaming from the rafters about the content-brand-marketing problem for a long time. My fundamental belief is that, internally, brands don’t understand their story, and externally, they have little understanding of how to tell it, or, why companies should tell and support stories that might not directly involve their brands.
    Mind you, this isn’t really the domain of marketing (can we please nix the terms ‘content marketing’ or ‘branded content’?) — it’s the domain of investigative journalism, anthropology, economics and art (among many other elements), the amalgam of which puts brand managers on their heels and CMOs struggling with the idea that they don’t have to push messages out to the masses.
    It’s also the reason, I would argue, that so much content distributed through social media, has taken on an ugly, broadcast-laden face — salacious headlines, some juicy little rinds, not enough substance around market and consumer context.
    In the content platforms I’ve been developing, a few equivalents remain throughout:
    STORY — (What fictional or non-fictional elements can be leveraged to build a narrative around a market or consumer need? What brand elements are involved, or not? How can it at once entertain and delight?)
    CONTEXT — (How does a product or service satisfy that need, and how is it the story around it told within market and consumer context? Does the story/content serve a communications function, or a larger intention such as managing a community?)
    INTELLIGENCE — (How are we leveraging the responses and interactions of readers-consumers to tell new stories? To make better products and services?)
    I’ve gone into detail about what this means for businesses; here’s just one article (citing AMEX Open Forum as one example, per Eric’s mention in this thread):
    I look forward to hearing about your own discoveries from the conference, and hope to see you soon.

  6. To do branded content right, you have to think of the content first and the brand second. The problem is that agencies and marketing departments are filled with marketers – not writers, directors and actors. So it’s no surprise that the content they generate sounds like marketing.
    Companies need to think more like Red Bull and hire people who make content for a living. But this threatens the status quo so likely won’t happen any time soon.

  7. When I think of branded content I don’t just think of a video or post followed by “This video brought to you by…” Nor do I think of explicit messages that try to sell. The ultimate goal of any content from a brand is obvious and doesn’t need to be stated “buy our stuff.”
    Good branded content to me is content that was produced from the soul of the brand, where you can feel the brand’s attribute come through in style, language, and quality. As much as you can know an Apple ad when you see it, the same should be true in content.
    Michael Assad’s example of Red Bull is a good one.

  8. Is there even such a thing as unbranded content? Even traditional journalism ultimately serves to keep the name on the masthead viable and recognizable. Likewise, branded content will still presumably (hopefully!) be produced for brand-identifiable products. Varying the content is absolutely necessary to drive and retain audiences, but all content paid for and produced by brands is – necessarily – branded.

Comments are closed.