And is it a bad thing that we can’t tell the difference?

Before we get going, watch this movie. I will warn you in advance that this movie will tug on your heartstrings so hard you might need a few moments to compose yourself once you’re done.

I hope you paid attention to the credits. The short film is “made possible” by Patagonia with “generous support” from First Descents, Ruffwear, Snow Peak and Cliff Bar. If you watched the film, these brands make sense (and First Descents is a charity, just to be clear); they are connected to the filmmaker and his own work and without diving too deeply, you can figure out that all of these companies had probably used the filmmakers’ talents and/or supported him at some point in the past. (And even if they hadn’t, their brands align with the filmmaker and the film perfectly).

My colleague had sent me a link to the video calling it an example of “brilliant branded content.” While not questioning the brilliance of it, I wasn’t sure it was an example of branded content. I asked, “Is it branded or merely sponsored?” A little later I asked “And what’s the difference?”

There was a third person on the email chain, and she decided to look it up. She did what any sane person would do to answer a question quickly (or at least start a larger discussion, which is what I was attempting to do as well): she Googled it. And at the top of her search came this: “Branded content lives on brand-owned properties, while sponsored content is integrated into the publisher’s site. Branded content is produced in-house. Sponsored content is produced together with the publisher’s editorial team. Branded content reaches the brand’s audience.”

You might also be interested in The Coming Wave of Audience Empowerment.

First things first: I don’t agree with these definitions. At all. And it bugs me that this was the top definition on Google (I genuinely salute the people who managed to put it there). Secondly, the definition is obviously digitally focused. But reading it, I also realized my initial question had been wrong. I shouldn’t have asked if the film was branded or sponsored (which kind of feels like a detour on a semantic country road) but whether what we had just seen was an example of Content Marketing.

It could be: the movie has been seen on YouTube over 1.5 million times (I’m sure it’s been viewed on other platforms millions of times as well). Assuming most viewers make it to the credits (a valid assumption because that’s a beautifully composed closing shot, and two, there’s a good chance you are just too emotionally exhausted to gather up the mechanics necessary to do, well, anything at that moment), that’s a lot of people taking in the brand logos. And seeing them in an emotionally vulnerable state. Nothing up to that point informs the viewer about the sponsors. Most people would come into this knowing nothing more than this is a movie about a man and his dog.

Content marketing implies strategy. Without strategy, content is worthless. (Or as I have been quoted repeatedly: without strategy content is just stuff.) Content has to reach someone and inspire that person to some kind of action. Perhaps not right away. Content is a long term play (as opposed to advertising or traditional marketing), which is the very definition of strategy. It works one customer at a time. And it builds on other media, other forms of marketing, part of a continuum.

There are a lot of “content” words used almost interchangeably by marketers and advertisers alike: integrated, sponsored, branded, native… What is what? And are they really interchangeable? Have they retained their initial meaning? I’m not so sure. But I’ll get to that in a later post.