Should Brands Own Their Own Content?

The-Makegood.com_LynnseyIs it better to rent or own? When looking for a home, most people are faced with this daunting question. Owning a home gives stability and the free reign of being able to customize your living quarters, but also comes with a higher price bracket and more responsibility. On the other hand renting gives more flexibility to move around with no long-term commitments, yet you’re at the mercy of a landlord.

When it comes to branded content, where advertising meets entertainment, advertisers ponder the same question – is there more value in owning content or partnering with a publisher?

Initially, owning seems like the most plausible choice. Ownership is associated with entitlement and exclusivity, thus making it more appealing. An advertiser would have direct control over the messaging, design and delivery of their content. For instance, in the latter half of 2012, Coca-Cola took on the role of publisher by revamping their corporate webpage, Coca-Cola Journey, featuring compelling stories to engage their ever-growing audience. The site is set-up more as a digital magazine with original stories on topics such as entertainment, environment, and sports while still promoting the Coca-Cola brand. They’ve made the stories that may not have otherwise been told readily accessible in a creative and engaging way.

Another example of owned branded content is Dove’s long running Real Beauty campaign. Most recently Dove had a FBI-trained sketch artist draw women based on how they see themselves. He then drew the same women based on how others saw them. The end result was a side-by-side comparison of both sketches, where the images based on others descriptions was more flattering than those of the self-described images. The campaign with the tagline “you’re more beautiful than you think” went viral and reinforced Dove’s belief that women should feel comfortable in their own skin. However, with ownership also comes criticism. There are many who are skeptical of Dove’s true intentions and accused the brand’s parent company, Unilever, of being contradictory across their product lines. While Dove encourages a positive self-image, Unilever’s Axe campaigns deliver a different message on body image. Unilever and Dove were ultimately forced to defend their actions.

The commonality between Dove and Coca-Cola is that they’re both already well-established brands. Their branded content efforts are more so a tactic to reiterate their brand values with the aid of owning and creating custom, relatable content that appeal to their customers. Owned content gives the brand control of what they produce, where it runs, and how much they are willing to spend. As a result of ownership, they’re also responsible for how the message is perceived in the media. Brands may have the best intentions to establish a positive image, but consumers still see them as advertisers; the people trying to sell them a story.

What about the brands that are still growing, or haven’t established a “brand value” with their audience? Partnering with the YouTube’s, Demand Medias and Buzzfeeds of the world would be logical. More and more brands are looking for publishers to help them create content around a theme relevant to their brand, in hopes that readers will find it valuable enough to share. And publishers are more than willing to solve marketers’ “if you build it, they will come” problem.

The Huffington Post, for example, has become the staple of how brands and publishers work together to enhance, reinforce or shift a brand image. They are recognized for their editorial integrity and respected reputation, making them a popular choice for advertisers looking to integrate their brands in a news website’s content.  And it’s the programming that wouldn’t exist without the advertiser and the money they put into production. This is why “partnership” is a more appropriate term than “sponsorship” as there is still some degree of ownership from all parties involved.

When General Mills launched the website, they joined forces with The Huffington Post and Everyday Health, with both publishers supplying lifestyle and wellness content. Each stakeholder involved in the site’s existence contributed in some way or another, forming an ideal partnership. General Mills provided the display ads promoting their brands, while the content had the look and feel of the Huffington Post.

In some ways partnering with a publisher, or multiple publishers, is the soundest way to go. As consumers demand quality from branded content, it’s in the brand’s best interest to move their messaging to trusted digital networks. And building a closer relationship with those trusted networks enables deeper engagement from the desired audience. Additionally, partnering with a reputable publisher allows an advertiser to share their brand values through a larger platform, thus garnering larger reach. However, a common drawback from not owning content is the lack of control for the advertiser. It’s unlikely the advertiser has much say in the development of the content, creative or positioning. Also, brands must take a backseat since visitors are mainly viewing content because they are loyal to the publisher.

With that in mind, The Huffington Post has been on a mission to help advertisers become publishers where they, instead of creating content for a brand, aggregate articles from around the web on a topic chosen by the advertiser, which are then featured on the brand-owned channel. This is what they did with Johnson & Johnson’s Global Motherhood campaign. J&J was able to position itself as an expert on maternal health without having to be overshadowed by any one publisher’s content.

In the end the main purpose of branded content is to give a brand the opportunity to engage with their target audience in an original way, establishing an on-going dialogue that will eventually lead to customer retention and brand loyalty. And as long as advertisers keep the consumer top of mind, in tandem with the right strategy to drive consumers to view the content, owning content or partnering with a publisher can prove successful.

Lynnsey Rijos is a contributor at The Makegood and Media Supervisor at Underscore Marketing, a boutique firm that creates and manages digital marketing programs. Look for Underscore Marketing’s column the second and fourth Friday of every month.