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We are 30 pieces into our collaboration with BuzzInContent. As a result, we have analysed more than 80 examples of branded content. That is a lot of learning scattered over seven months. So, we feel like this is a good place to pause and look back on all the insights we have gathered. While the examples we have analysed have been largely varied, the takeaways from them have usually enforced similar thoughts. Similar ideas about what branded content is and isn’t, and how it can be used best once its potential is realised.

For today’s piece, we have posed those ideas as five question-and-answer sets that you must address as a creator of branded content. You can see them as similar to FAQs. Or you can think of them as the five stages you are bound to pass in your journey to creating meaningful branded content. Either way, they are fundamental to your planning and conceptualisation of content.

Take a look.

Why do brands need to shake off the advertising hangover before creating branded content?

This is the one we have discussed the most through our study of branded content. It is also probably the first and most common mistake that brands make when creating content – they try to carry over the qualities of advertising into it and end up creating some kind of hybrid.

You might wonder what is wrong with a hybrid. Isn’t it ideal if a brand can bring together the best qualities of advertising and content to create communication that sells a product and simultaneously connects with people? How does it matter if the content features an overt product mention for a solid few seconds if the viewer can get back into the narrative right after?

But it doesn’t work like that. The point of branded content is to bypass the interruptive nature of advertising when communicating with audiences. It is to connect with them at a deeper level by resonating with their larger lived reality rather than just their experience as a consumer. It is to acknowledge that people have concerns and interests beyond, say, how fast their phone charges or how good their choice of ketchup tastes.

While subtle brand mention is necessary in content, any more than that completely defeats its purpose. It creates a hybrid that never fully lives up to its potential as either content or an ad – even if it manages to make do in the name of audience engagement.

A great example of a brand having found the sweet spot is Facebook’s Pooja Didi. It turns the platform’s key feature – the possibility of rapid amplification across an endlessly connected network – into small yet significant plot detail, without ever taking away from the bigger message. It places the product as secondary to the story and treats it as one of its many details, rather than treating its placement like a guest appearance on a TV show i.e., with much fuss and spotlight.

How can brands avoid turning their content into a typical celebrity endorsement?

This is the second common mistake we see brands making with their content. The conceptualisation of their content suggests that they view celebrity collaboration as an easy way to capture eyeballs for themselves or their products. They seem to bank upon receiving attention from the celebrity’s fan following rather than investing in the narrative of the content to make it engaging.

This approach makes for a weak branded effort because it turns an opportunity for a renewed and meaningful partnership into a one-off endorsement. By using the celebrity as a spokesperson and having them pointedly/repeatedly highlight the product/brand, it exhausts the celebrity’s use in one go. Nor does it frame them in a way different than how fans are used to seeing them in ads, social media and interviews. The approach doesn’t nurture memorability.

What brands need to do instead is to create a narrative that is larger than the brand/product and involve the celebrity as a character within it. Just as Asian Paints has done with its digital series ‘Where The Heart Is’. The show is based on the narrative of how a home is a true reflection of its inhabitants and a space to share with loved ones. And it reinforces this narrative by having a different celebrity introduce viewers to their home in each episode. 

Why should brands look beyond human-interest storytelling and cause marketing when creating branded content?

Many brands seem to equate branded content with human-interest storytelling or cause-marketing. This might be because both these styles resemble the emotional/thematic style of advertising that brands used to rely on before branded content came along. Or because both the styles are tried and tested in generating brand love.

Whichever the reason, simply sticking to these and not looking beyond amounts to a serious underutilisation of branded content. Because unlike advertising, branded content doesn't come with fixed parameters of structure, duration and storytelling format. It is not meant to stand out as an interruption through distinct and standardised communication codes, like an ad. It is meant to merge with the other sources of engagement in consumers' lives – whether it be a music video, a podcast or even a book.

So, branded content can take on any form and adopt any communication codes, given that they are preceded in the non-branded world of content. With such boundless potential on offer, why restrict branded content to human-interest storytelling and cause marketing? Why not try a fresher style that allows your brand to delight its audience with novelty and a renewed sense of resonance?

Just like how Swiggy Instamart has done through its Better Half Cookbook. An innovative take on the traditional cookbook, it encourages gender equality in the kitchen by dividing each recipe, with its ingredients and cooking duties, into two equal halves for the modern-day couple to follow. Or how brands like The Man Company and PGIM Indian Mutual Fund have employed performance poetry (a style of sobering monologue) to rally action against toxic masculinity and delayed financial planning, respectively.

How can brands tell if they are making a relevant contribution to culture through branded content, or simply riding a trend for visibility?

There is nothing wrong with leveraging a trend. It is a sure-shot way to connect with audiences because it allows brands to capture interest around a subject or style of content right when people are at the height of experiencing it.

But it is important to consider whether the trend can be convincingly executed in the first place. That is, can a relevant connection be created between branded content and the trend to create something authentic and fresh? Simply picking the key markers of the trend and superficially imposing them onto the content doesn’t work. Counterproductively, it makes the brand seem like it is trying too hard to appear relevant.

For instance, ever since the release of Gully Boy, brands have been employing rap to communicate with their audiences. Perhaps because they believe that they can both leverage a trend and target millennials and gen-z, the art form’s primary audience, by doing so. And that’s fair. But ever so often, the result ends up looking more like the tropes of a rap music video stuck together without a deeper thought tying them together.

Unacademy’s rap anthem ‘Let’s Crack It’ is a great lesson in how to avoid doing so.

The brand has conceptualised the anthem in such a way that its purpose comes together harmoniously with the essence of rap. As Gully Boy demonstrated, one of the primary objectives of rap is to give a voice to the underdog and allow them to reclaim agency through the expression of their struggle. This objective seamlessly ties in with Unacademy’s branded content. It amplifies the brand’s representation of students from middle-class families who can’t afford to buy their way into opportunities and have to solely rely on their hard work to compete in an increasingly competitive environment.

How should influencer marketing juggle brand speak and cultural relevance?

The pitfall that brands experience with creating influencer content is similar to what they experience when collaborating with celebrities. They end up turning the influencer into a conventional spokesperson for the brand and its product.

With such an approach, the product is not organically knit into the post to resemble the other content put out by the influencer. Instead, the post becomes hinged on the product, with the influencer using and endorsing it almost like they would for a traditional testimonial video.

This error is an important one to consider given how widespread the use of influencer marketing has got. Brands need to ensure that while their product mention finds its way into the influencer’s content, it doesn’t overtake it. The influencer’s content must retain what people enjoy about that creator’s work to continue to be relevant to them.

Take influencer Dolly Singh’s content for the Durex Invisible campaign, where she continued with her style of skits even while featuring the product. Or Spotify’s campaign to promote its playlists, where comedians stuck to their style of comedy to roast peer Tanmay Bhat and balanced out product mention by tying Spotify’s playlists into the roast.

Wrapping up

Our opinion doesn’t come from having been in the trenches these last 10 years – the period during which branded content has taken off. Like you, we haven’t had to face the pressure of ROI in the creation of content. We don’t have to undergo the day-to-day rigour of commenting on all that is topical through branded content. Our opinion undoubtedly comes from a bird’s eye point of view.

That said, a bird’s eye point of view is exactly the advantage that a Marketing Semiotician holds. Whether the goal is to understand the consumer’s mindset or find the right formula for branded content, our broader perspective allows us to study all the relevant material influencing its creation.

With branded content, we can tell what works and what doesn’t because we consider each example alongside three kinds of texts – other examples in that space, the non-branded content that the example is trying to imitate and the advertising/PR predecessors that it shares qualities with. So, for instance, when studying a branded rap anthem, we would compare it with similar content from other brands, rap videos from music artists and the conventional advertising jingle. This helps us decide whether the example is meeting its purpose as content.

It is with this professional profile that we have offered our findings.