In today’s ever-changing digital world, brands are relying on innovative marketing tactics like branded content and content marketing to attract and convert customers. With 84% of millennials saying they don’t trust traditional advertising, it’s not surprising that businesses are turning to relevant and engaging content to appeal to their customers’ needs and pain points. 

But many people assume branded content and content marketing are the same. Although they share similarities, such as using content creation to reach potential customers, they still stand apart as two different methods with separate goals. 

Let’s take a deeper look at the difference between these popular strategies:

What’s the difference between branded content and content marketing

Branded content

Branded content is usually a sponsored or paid partnership between the brand and the media. These types of campaigns are typically focused on entertainment-type content like creative video advertising. For example, Marriott Hotels, a well-known American hotel chain, created a funny, action-packed video about two bellmen going on adventures in their hotel. It features parkour, martial arts, dance and music, plus big-name hip hop stars.

“Two Bellmen” – a great example of entertaining branded content from Marriott Content Studios

Content marketing

Content marketing is about creating valuable content that helps potential customers solve their problems. The content surrounds the needs and pain points of the targeted audience, rather than promoting the brand. 

It allows companies to engage customers with topics they know would interest them, rather than traditional advertising where businesses talk at customers about what makes their company special.

Content marketing is really like a first date. If all you do is talk about yourself, there won’t be a second date.”

David Beebe, former head of content, Marriott

Content marketing comes in many forms, such as:

  • Blog posts
  • Articles
  • Videos
  • Whitepapers
  • Infographics
  • E-books
  • InfoGuides
  • Webinars
  • Memes

What’s the overall goal for these types of content? 

Branded content 

Branded content aims to attract audiences to a brand through entertaining, informative or educational content. It can center around one or several emotions, such as humor, happiness, kindness, sadness or shock to strike a chord with audiences. The audience’s emotions are at the forefront of branded content, instead of focusing on a product or unique selling proposition.

“People don’t like being sold to. It’s a discomforting experience, so the challenge for content marketers is to make sure the entertainment value of the content outweighs the discomfort.”

– Mike Clear, Digitas

If performed correctly, a branded content campaign creates a marketing experience that’s similar to what the audience might enjoy from their favorite media, TV networks, streaming media services, and entertainment personalities. 

According to a USC Annenberg survey, around 75% of PR professionals said they used some kind of branded content strategies in their campaigns, mostly on social media platforms or through social media influencers. When asked if their clients would increase their spending on branded content over the next year, 67% agreed that they would. 

See also: How to create authentic branded content: Lessons from the New York Times at Web Summit

Content marketing 

The goal of content marketing is to build the audience’s trust in the brand by offering useful content that speaks to their needs. This loyalty is then leveraged to drive a business goal, such as profitable customer action. By the time a customer lands on a company’s website, they’ll already have developed a connection with the business and will be more inclined to purchase their products or services. 

In a survey from the Custom Content Council, consumers said they preferred when companies used media to attract them. In fact, 77% of consumers understood companies were trying to sell them something through content, but deemed it as acceptable since the company was providing them something valuable. 

See also: 8 Inspiring content and marketing professionals to follow

Key differences  

Content marketing is made for an audience, whereas branded content puts the business itself in the spotlight.  

Branded content uses immersive storytelling to generate an emotional reaction from the audience. This leads to the audience thinking about the brand, and will ideally result in quick, effective action from customers. 

On the other hand, content marketing is a slower process. It hopes to gain loyalty from engaged readers, and then uses that loyalty to achieve higher sales. The return on investment (ROI) is centered on lead-generation and sales. With branded content, the ROI is building a positive image of the brand. 

Real-world examples

Branded content 

Griping audiences with endless entertainment 

The LEGO Movie and the LEGO Movie 2 are perfect examples of how branded content can reap huge rewards. These feature films earned millions in revenue and entertained audiences all over the world with their humor and heartwarming messages. The movies also worked as a way to market LEGO to a new generation of customers who possibly hadn’t heard of them. 

LEGO’s two movies earned millions in revenue and touched the hearts of audiences—old and new—around the world.

Using humor to attract a younger generation of customers 

BMO Harris Bank (BMOHB) partnered with Onion Labs and Resolution Media to create a series of videos that advertised fake banking app capabilities. The videos poke fun at features millennials enjoy in other apps, such as photo filters to make their face look different (in this case, like an ATM) and swiping right and left on dating apps (or in the videos, on how good their checking account looks). The Onion and BMOHB shared the videos on their social media accounts, and the results lead to a record-breaking brand lift and BMOHB winning the 2018 Content Marketing Award for Best Branded Content.

BMO Harris Bank‘s video used humor to earn record-breaking brand lift and the Best Branded Content award.

The power of storytelling 

An unlikely pair, Heineken and National Geographic, came together to create an inspiring piece of branded content in the form of a three-minute documentary called A Wild Lager Story. The story follows biologist Diego Libkind and Willem van Waesberghe, the global master brewer from Heineken, on their trip around Patagonia. It shows the men looking for a rare yeast and going back home to create Heineken’s new beer, H41 Wild Lager. This interesting documentary showcases both of the brands, while entertaining customers with an intriguing story.

Content marketing 

Satisfying an audience’s needs 

Shopify’s blog and free tools page are filled with business resources and advice to help their customers solve their problems. They engage their customers with a host of content marketing materials, such as podcasts, guides and articles. These resources build trust with their customers, because they know they can rely on the company to answer any of their questions. 

Educating potential customers 

The main differences between branded content and content marketing, and examples of best practices.
Blue Bottle provides useful guides to customers without trying to sell its own coffee

Blue Bottle coffee does a fantastic job of offering their potential customers informative content  with their brew guides. These carefully curated guides walk customers through how to make coffee with different equipment, such as a chemex and aeropress. The guides don’t attempt to sell Blue Bottle coffee—they attract new customers with high-quality, educational content and engage existing customers with rich information. This type of content gives the brand credibility and leads to strong customer engagement. 

Engaging audiences with relevant, consistent content 

American Airlines is a great example of how to use content marketing to build trust with potential customers. They have three different magazines: American Way, Celebrated Living, and Nexos (which is in Spanish). The magazines cover topics that would intrigue their target audience, such as destinations, travel, culture, food and drink. The articles are well-written, detailed pieces by journalists, and provide intimate details of locations that make audiences want to hop on a plane and head straight to the destination—exactly what American Airlines is hoping for. 

They also use educational videos to pique audience interest in the food and sights of beautiful locations. These videos never mention American Airlines, rather focusing on useful and engaging content. American Airlines uses this content to create trust with their readers, get them excited about traveling, and ideally send them from their blog to their website. 

AA’s “Welcome to Madrid” video inspires viewers to hop on a plane—just what the company is hoping for.

Which strategy is better for your business? 

Before deciding to use branded content or content marketing, think about your company’s goals. 

If you’re focusing on brand affinity and generating a timely positive reaction from customers, you should probably stick with branded content over content marketing. This content will give potential customers a look at what it looks or feels like to be someone who interacts with your brand. 

But if you’re looking to increase brand awareness and engage customers long term, then you should use content marketing. This long-game method to selling reframes product messaging as the outcome instead of the opening act. It’ll create a connection with your readers that builds trust and ultimately makes them want to purchase your product or service. 

In a nutshell:

  • Choose branded content if you want to gain a quick, positive reaction from your audience
  • Choose content marketing if you want to build long-lasting connection and trust with customers

It’s also possible to combine branded content with content marketing. One way to do this is by  producing interesting educational content about how and when to use your product. BirchBox, a makeup subscription box, does this through videos and articles on their digital magazine The Mag

In this video, BirchBox tells viewers about one of their products, what types of events it works for and how to use it. Although it features a product, the video doesn’t come across as too salesy to customers, since it provides them with useful information. 

No matter if you use content marketing or branded content, you can achieve huge results with a strategic marketing plan that focuses on your target audience’s needs. 

Want to ensure your content marketing or branded content sends the right message? Reach out to us today to learn about how we can create customized content for your business.