It’s Time to Take the Brand Out of Branded Content

Behind-the-scenes storytelling trumps taking the leading role

Fumbling brand shout-outs simply won’t cut it anymore. Getty Images

A young and adored celebrity supermodel breaks free of her gilded cage (and wig) to unite a diverse but misfit group of creative souls whose intrinsic love for humanity is enough to transform an urban, socio-political clash into a moment of beautiful peace and understanding. Pretend you haven’t been on Twitter for the last month and you might agree this is a half-decent germ of an idea—you might even think it was compelling.

Molly DeWolf Swenson
Headshot: Alex Fine

Now go back and insert “Pepsi” between each word, and you’ll start to see why taking the brand out is so important.

Taking the brand out of branded content extends beyond just the more commercial web spots. A rising tide of quality has lifted all content ships, and that includes branded content. Amazon and Netflix cashed in at the Oscars, and RYOT was fortunate enough to be at Tribeca this year with two branded documentaries: one with Gatorade, in competition as a short documentary, and the other for Apple, one of 10 Tribeca finalists.

The world of moving pictures is not what it used to be, as these nontraditional players now have access to the same tech, talent and money as the big studios. Just as the newcomers have put some pressure on the traditional players, so have the newcomers had to up their game: they’re playing in the big leagues now and fumbling brand shout-outs simply won’t cut it anymore. No more mugging to the camera, Truman Show style, with your CoCoMix.

Quality storytelling and narrative matter more than ever, and must be first and foremost in your mind when approaching “branded” content. The quotes are intentional. It is an opportune time to drop the word “branded” from that phrase and from your vocabulary.

Content is content. Good content is good content. If a story is moving, no one is going to care that it’s brought to you by a brand. Rather, they’re going to be happy the brand brought it to them. And by the same token, content that is annoying is now amplified rather than ignored (because no one can resist a good call-out) and can be more harmful to a brand than ever.

My fellow creators understand the irresistible gravity of narrative (I hope), but there is work to be done on the brand side as well. Brands must truly understand their DNA to make sure the content they are supporting aligns with their deepest values and their mission. Even the most perfectly executed documentary on an Amazonian superfruit may seem incongruous coming from Cheetos, or even sleazy coming from a Monsanto. It’s not easy finding that perfect fit, but when we do, it can really sing.

Young consumers are simply too savvy about when they’re being sold to. Disingenuous attempts at elaborate “ads” will be quickly transparent to a generation subjected to the Dark Ages of branded content. Not only that, but ill-thought out efforts will pale in comparison to the brands that are getting it right, as the gap between the good and the bad will get increasingly wider.

If a story is moving, no one is going to care that it’s brought to you by a brand. Rather, they’re going to be happy the brand brought it to them.

Intentions matter. Brands must believe that a story is worth telling and that people care about it and want to hear it, but most of all that their brand should be the one to tell it. In an increasingly politicized era, brands are called upon to take moral and political points of view. We’ve seen how clumsy interjections from brands can undermine even the noblest of messages. The other side is that compelling stories in the pure and confident voice of your brand can be one of the most powerful media for some of the world’s most important messages. Let your logo take a backseat for these stories. Your logo is not your brand—your story is.

The days of nonconsumer-first formats are dwindling. Isn’t that what we are all striving for anyway? A consumer-first approach does not mean shoving logos down throats. The consumer didn’t start watching to see if there was a coupon at the end of a 15-minute commercial.

Consumers are watching because they are invested in the story that you are telling and they are involved with the narrative and want to know what every human wants to know: how does it end? And when it does, the knowledge that a brand brought this story to life for them creates one of the strongest and most genuine brand associations you can imagine.

The bar has never been higher for companies that want to produce content. Are advertisers up to the challenge of taking the brand out of branded content, and putting the humanity back in?

Molly DeWolf Swenson (@mollydewolf) is a co-founder at RYOT.

This story first appeared in the May 22, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.