Brands Produce Content — Whether You Like It Or Not

It’s been a while since an article really riled me up. I’ve been wondering when something would come along to stir up some angst.

Enter this ridiculous article on branded content written by Jonathan Salem Baskin for Ad Age’s CMO Strategy newsletter.

I’ll preface it by saying that Mr. Baskin is a global branding expert and has written some solid pieces for Ad Age that I like. Yet on this particular topic, he is way off base. It’s like hiring Charlie Sheen to teach a class on stability — it doesn’t make sense (now Mr. Baskin and I are tied at one apiece for in-article Sheen references).

Despite the fact that brands have been producing solid, credible content for years (which I’ve been writing in this blog about for years) — and that experienced journalists are leaving reputable media to cross over and create content for brands – it’s Baskin’s assertion that, by default, branded content is untrue. Apparently, that means all those reputable editors flocking to the brand side check all their credibility and integrity at the door. Apparently that means no brand can tell a story that’s credible, inform customers about truthful market aspects in a creative way, or create factual market context that a product or service fits into – without it being inherently untrue.

That’s ridiculous.

Take a good, long look at his statements about branded content below.

Branding is created by people who are speaking on behalf of the business operations that pay for their efforts. Brands are lenses, so the stuff you create is biased by purposed and practice, which isn’t a crime but certainly isn’t synonymous with news or truth…It’s people talking for the brand, and there’s no mechanism within your published content that makes it true.

Aaaahhhh, but there is. The same “open communities” he mentions in the same very article are the ultimate purveyors of truth. First-hand experience, real-time feedback, customers sharing product information, and access to people who represent brands has never been easier. I argue that never, ever before has it been easier to identify and distinguish truth from untruth – contrary to the very point Baskin makes when he says:

Open online communities are to truth what the Wild West was to justice.

Again, a ridiculous assertion. Sure, opinions and untruth are easier to find online than a fifth of vodka in Charlie Sheen’s nightstand (now I’m ahead 2 to 1). Yet guess what? So is truth. As a consumer of information, one always has to apply a personal filter to distinguish qualified source from unqualified, valid opinion from meaningless rant, veiled advertising from valuable insights. The same way social media and online communities have granted a megaphone to bias and untruth, they’ve also empowered a new era of reality and truth to spring forward from the first-hand perspective of people living it. We now have access to more people who know the truth on any topic better than anyone.

In many cases, Mr. Baskin, that is more valuable than any journalist writing about it. Like it or not.

Also like it or not is the fact that many people do want to talk “with” brands. They want to consume information and judge for themselves what’s true and untrue. Not everyone wants a journalist or blogger to sift through the facts and tell them what’s true. Are you trying to tell me that Tony Hsieh isn’t credible because he represents a brand? Or Richard Branson? Or my friend Tim Andrews at ASI, who transformed a company and a whole industry partially by telling truths and granting access that hadn’t been done before. These are executives who tell stories, share information, provide opinions, and grant access for customers to talk “with” them. Should everything they say inherently be labeled as untrue simply because they represent brands?

One more time I add, ridiculous.

There may not be a mechanism within published content that makes it true, yet there’s no mechanism that makes it untrue either. That’s a decision that customers and their communities can charge ahead make on their own now.

Yet brands still have a valid, credible place and a part in the discussion (when conducted credibly and correctly, of course).

5 Responses

  1. Glenn,

    Shame on me. Either I failed to properly explain my POV or what I wrote so incensed you that you couldn’t make it to the end of my essay, since I finished it with the following graph:

    “Ultimately, your brand was always in the content-publishing business, only content used to be called ‘information’. Perhaps you should stick to the products and services about which you’re qualified to speak, and allow independent people and communities to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

    Your rant notwithstanding, I firmly believe that people and businesses need to communicate about brands — I listed ways to do so credibly and meaningfully — but that the idea of “branded content” is the invention of shrewd technologists and marketers who really have no business calling themselves marketers. Brands aren’t inherently true and they’re not inherently untrue, and my POV is that this reality requires us to communicate as much factual and defensible information as possible. Everything else is just noise and more than likely untrue.

    On a personal note, I think your belief that people are are better informed and empowered to discern truth from fiction is quite silly. Trust in institutions of all kinds (including brands) is at historic lows, and most folks’ opinions are more extreme and inflexible than ever before. Truth is a rare commodity, indeed.

  2. I saw your ending para, and I clearly agree w/ that statement. I’m not incensed, I simply disagree w/ your assertion that branded content is inherently biased. I thought you made that quite clear, and shame on me if I’ve misinterpreted that.

    Especially with credible editorial types shifting to the brand side, and even without them, I perceive the bar to be higher than ever for brands to produce proven truth. Otherwise, the result is the backlash and lack of credibility that comes with stuff like paid tweets and that nonsensical fabrication about the nuclear content you cited. For all the bad examples out there, there are many good ones too — I think your article only looked at one side of the coin and labeled all branded content as deserving of skepticism.

  3. You got it. We definitely disagree. Branded content is inane, in my experience, and the fundamental premise of online community is peer-to-peer communication, not talking “to” brands. Editorial types losing their jobs in credible media and producing stuff for brands is not an improvement in conversation or truth.

  4. Perfect example. Your truth is different from mine. Who’s right? Whose brand is inherently untrue? Depends on who you ask.

    And I for one am not comfortable letting journalists and media be the arbiters of truth. I’ve disagreed more with them than anyone! I’d read content from you, Tony Hsieh or another expert before media any day.

  5. Good luck with that.

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