Last month, The New York Observer ran an interesting article called, “Journalists Take Refuge in the World of Branded Content.” A year ago, a good many readers wouldn’t have fully understood what this title meant. Branded content was pure digital marketing jargon, as indecipherable to the masses as attrition rates or black hat SEO.
When branded content found itself on virtually every marketing trend forecast list for 2013, traditional publications started taking notice. For a while it felt like the mainstream media had infiltrated our secret club: would it get where brands were coming from, or take the work out of context? For publishers like The New York Observer it was the former: in fact, it pointed to branded content as a reliable source of work for legitimate journalists. An assistant editor at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “It’s funny that at the same time that journalism is having a hard time holding on to an audience, advertisers are moving into that space…but maybe people are more attached to Old Spice and Doritos than to The Wall Street Journal and The Denver Post.”
Branded content, it seems, is getting its due respect.
It’s also getting a lot more attention from brands. Branded blogs have been popular for close to a decade and continue to generate interest (among the newest players are Urban Outfitters and SAP), but now we’re seeing the emergence of branded magazines – “owned media” in the form of online publications created and produced by brands and their agencies to directly compete with traditional magazines. Like branded blogs these magazines are long on content, but there’s more of an advertising divide. Branded magazines are about delivering valuable content first and promoting products second. If that content leads to a sale, all the better.
Branded Magazines Outshine Brand Sites
Since launching in 2011, Degree deodorant’s “The Adrenalist” site has produced content and videos on the “coolest adventures, extreme sports, speed, gear, and gadgets,” often featuring adventurer and TV star Bear Grylls. To date, Degree has racked up nearly 800,000 followers on Facebook and more than 5,000 followers on Twitter.
What’s most interesting about this initiative, though, is that Degree is actively driving consumers to the magazine instead of to its brand site. The Unilever brand’s @DegreeMen Twitter profile links to theadrenalist.com rather than degreedeodorant/men. This strategy may balk at convention, but fresh content far outweighs stagnant product information. A brand is better off with a loyal, long-time fan base built on a common interest than with the single sale a visit to a product page might produce.
Ad-Content Ratio and Quality
Call Procter & Gamble’s “Home Made Simple” one of the original branded magazines, and one of the most successful. The site has been running since 2000 and has morphed into a TV show, a book, and even an affiliation with Oprah.
What’s P&G’s secret? I wrote for the Canadian version of Home Made Simple when it first launched, and the concept of delivering instructive advice without smothering the reader with branding was paramount right from the start. P&G has decrypted the ideal ratio of advertising to content. The ads throughout the Home Made Simple site promote products, with articles routinely including “Quick Tips” from brands like Mr. Clean. More than a dozen logos stretch across the bottom of every page. But because Procter & Gamble prioritizes the quality of its content, consumers don’t seem to mind. If two of the 30 unique and practical tips in a story about getting organized mention a specific product, who’s to complain? The reader still gets a ton of information in a fun format free of charge.
Content, or Catalogue?
A challenge brands face when making the leap to a magazine is ensuring that their offering isn’t misconstrued as a catalogue (or other form of pure marketing content). A company’s customers might enjoy these and even anticipate them, but reading an online magazine induces a different kind of mindset.
Luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman does an excellent job of going beyond the glossy catalogue with its “5th at 58th” site. More of a New York lifestyle magazine than a blog, it features interviews with designers, runway collection reviews, and beauty and fashion advice akin to what you’d find in Vogue. The site also relays the culture of the brand with photos and descriptions of its famed store windows, and cleverly ties content to the offline store; in addition to the magazine name – which represents the store’s actual location – Bergdorf features a “Seventh Floor” section where consumers can find gourmet recipes (in the offline store, this floor is where the restaurant is found).
The magazine publishing industry already has its hands full competing with digital media. One has to wonder how it will fare now that brands are appropriating its format as their own.