Branded Content: A Fine Balance

— Marcus Sorour 

As a radio presenter in the mid-1990s, I was instructed by the advertising sales team to work with prospective clients to create branded segments to generate alternative revenue streams.

I remember a weekly segment I ended up producing and presenting for a local hardware store, which involved the fun-loving owner sharing DIY advice with listeners. They were then asked to guess the type of power tool he was playing live on air for the chance to win a prize. It doesn’t sound like much, but it created buzz and was a win-win as the segment produced educational, entertaining and interactive content that resonated with listeners. Importantly, it also drove more people to the hardware store and the radio station was able to monetise an additional five minutes of the hour without overloading listeners with advertising.

That DIY radio segment was my first foray into the world of branded content. So much has changed since 1997 thanks to our ever-changing media landscape in which brands have become publishers and traditional publishing channels have been disrupted by everything from social media to advertising technology.


What hasn’t changed are the fundamentals of good branded content that starts with a deep understanding of the audience and their needs. This is followed by building a content strategy with the publisher or influencer focused on the specific context provided by the data and then mapping out a narrative that speaks to the audience needs. This could be educational, entertaining or both. Then of course it needs to be discoverable and measureable.

There is no doubt branded content is being packaged and produced better than ever as publishers, broadcasters, and content creators look to monetise their platforms while informing and entertaining readers, listeners or viewers without overtly pushing a brand. If it isn’t good enough they are likely to lose clicks, likes and trust.

But what exactly is branded content? Its definition changes depending on who you talk to, but I believe that the most fitting is outlined in this report by Branded Content Marketing Association research: “Branded content is…any manifestation associated with a particular brand in the eye of the beholder.” Whether distributed by the brand itself, a third-party publisher or content creator, branded content (that is created and/or funded by the brand’s legal owner) should be non-interruptive and provide value to the audience, encouraging them to engage.


I believe social media is where we should be focussing more of our attention in 2017. WE Communications’ Stories in Motion (SiM) research found that over a quarter of Brits (27%) are uncomfortable interacting with branded content on a social media site, followed closely by chat/messenger apps (24%). This is particularly interesting considering Facebook’s on-going development of their ‘chat bot’ functionality, the main aim of which is to bring brand’s into an intimate space that was heretofore reserved for conversations between friends and family.

The ‘non-interruptive’ aspect of branded content is particularly important and clearly something we need to work on. Our SiM data reveals that the majority of Brits (29%) are comfortable interacting with branded content on a product manufacturer’s website – where they expect to find brand messaging - as opposed to anywhere else.

How can we as marketers work to improve people’s conceptions of branded content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. and encourage interaction? Poor research, inadequate strategy, limited collaboration between the brand and publisher and restricted budgets are just a few reasons to blame for bad branded content so far.

An example of bad branded content is poorly written sponsored listicles on random subjects with a tenuous link to the brand pushed out a few times on Facebook and Twitter.

The good news is that brands have learnt from prior mistakes and some of the best, recent branded content has been in collaboration with influencers. Samsung’s collaboration with YouTube superstar Casey Neistat showed off their technology in an innovative way: via a colourful drone strong enough to carry a snowboard-riding Neistat. The video has so far racked up nearly 8m views and 27k comments.

Polaroid proved the ROI of influencer marketing (on a platform that makes perfect sense: Instagram) with impressive results: their work with content creators – via technology platform Social Native - reached 2.5 million people on Instagram within a month of its launch in 2015 and subsequently the brand has seen a 180% lift in sales.

Creating data-driven branded content that reflects the true DNA of a brand is the way to cement a long-term bond with consumers and encourage their interaction on social media.This is an opportunity public relations consultants and marketers must seize quickly – otherwise face the risk of being left behind.  

Brands that know how to deliver responsive bespoke content pieces to different audiences across myriad devices, platforms and channels that all sing from the same hymn sheet, will win.

If you have a perspective on branded content or are looking for advice, please leave a comment below or reach me at WE in London.