nike colin kaepernick ad

The Difference Between Branded Content and Marketing10 min read

Branded content is not marketing. It’s not advertising, either. So, what is the difference between branded content and marketing? And why do businesses need to know about it? It’s imperative to a brand’s story-telling. Branded content is how marketers can connect with their audience through the power of stories.

By nature, human beings are driven by story-telling. Since the beginning of our existence on this planet, we have communicated our heritage, our fears, our hopes, dreams, the lessons we want our children to learn… all through stories.

When we encounter someone new, we exchange stories with them in the hopes of better understanding them, and hope to forge a connection with them in return.

But how does this tie into business and marketing? Let’s first start off with defining exactly what branded content is.

Branded content is content that isn’t designed to sell to consumers; it’s content that’s designed to talk to and connect with human beings.

Advertising is a sales message. Its success is measured in its ability to push consumers to buy, directly increasing revenue and brand awareness. Yet the primary objective of branded content is not to push the sale, but rather to make the viewer question current events and how we live day to day in society.

Branded content is different from marketing, it’s not a thinly veiled product push, and it’s designed to not be intrusive to a viewer. It’s loaded with value, not that the brand itself brings, but the value of human connection.

new york city people crossing road

Branded content isn’t designed to replace advertising, it’s a relatively new field in the world of marketing that allows brands to take a stand. It’s not afraid to rustle feathers.

It isn’t easy to create branded content as a marketer, as the fear of a poorly executed branded content campaign can have an immense backlash on its perception.

Yet branded content is about stepping outside of what’s expected from businesses so that they use their platform to challenge everyday thoughts and beliefs.

A few famous branded content campaigns we can see here…

Volvo – The Unseen Ocean


“These children weren’t going to want to truly protect something without loving it.”

In a short film by Volvo and Sky Atlantic, we see a passionate teacher take children who had never seen the sea to inspire them to become guardians of the oceans that are continually being mistreated and filled with trash.

Moving and beautiful, anyone watching the video can feel the teacher’s desire to connect with younger children and bring them to be advocates for ocean conservation. The 5-minute clip concludes with the statements:

“1 in 5 children in the UK have never seen the ocean.”

And the quote from author Aldous Huxley,

“We can only love what we know.”

volvo ad branded content

Where does Volvo come in? Apart from a brief product placement of the teacher driving the kids in a Volvo on their way to the water and a credit to the brand and Sky Atlantic at the very end, no part of the video’s message is about Volvo itself.

That is branded content. Not about the latest model, not about its safety features, the video is touching and makes the viewer pause and think about the preservation of our world’s most bountiful resource.

Nike – Dream Crazy

The incredibly popular Nike short, Dream Crazy, went absolutely viral with nearly 30 million views on YouTube after being released in September 2018.

Again, what the viewer sees here isn’t a BUY NIKE advertisement. The viewer is presented with a challenge:

“Don’t ask yourself if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.”

The video pushes people to play at the highest level. While Nike is, of course, a sportswear brand, even the least athletic person in the room can connect with the challenge. It doesn’t matter where you’ve started, what matters is your journey to be the best.

But it was also highly controversial.

The video concludes with a cameo of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback that protested the National Anthem several times, telling NFL Media he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color”.

Kaepernick’s protest received an immense amount of criticism from those all over the country, including the President of the United States.

donald trump nfl tweet
donald trump nfl us flag tweet

The fact that Nike took on Kaepernick as a multiyear face of their campaign was an immense risk to the brand, as the U.S. is their biggest revenue source, amounting to nearly $15bn in 2018.

But this is what branded content is about.

Nike used their massive platform – 982k YouTube subscribers, 87m Instagram followers, 33m Facebook fans – to take a stand through their branded content.

Why Brands are Taking on a Higher Meaning

skyscrapers branded content

Of course, one would be naïve to believe that any effort put forth by a business doesn’t have the end-goal of improving the beloved (or dreaded, depending on who you are) bottom-line.

But a brand’s ability to connect with its audience will bring it so much further than a cold-faced business. Why is that important?

Because people like to buy from other people, not businesses. Consumers are increasingly searching for meaning, and the brands that can tap into this innate desire are the ones that succeed – both commercially and socially.

Branded content allows for a business to be seen as more than a money-hungry institution. It adds a layer of depth to a business which a consumer can relate to and feel connected to.

Marketers know that people don’t like ads – it’s foolish to think otherwise. Ads are intrusive and often seen as a necessary evil to belong in the online world.

Of course, there are the ads that leave an impact and make us stop and think, but their function is still to inform a viewer of their product or service and entice them to buy. Branded content tells a story. And all good stories have meaning at their core.

Brands that understand this hunt for more meaning and execute it successfully attract more buzz around their brand, increasing their brand’s awareness. And yes, increasing their bottom-line sales as well!

How Can You Create Your Own Branded Content?

fireworks branding blog

At Adversent, in nearly every single lesson we teach, we constantly stress the importance of understanding your ideal customer, your target market, the human being you’re trying to sell to.

By understanding what the deepest emotional desires of your target audience are, you can begin to build the premise of your brand’s story-telling. You build and create content that focuses less on what you sell, but more on your higher purpose – the reason that you’re in business in the first place.

The internet is flooded with beautiful, high-production content that lacks true meaning. More and more of the same jam-packed information, less and less connection and real emotion behind it.

This is why the brands that can foster and maintain the element of humanity with their target audience are the ones that stand out… and get purchased.

6 Steps to Meaningful Branded Content

So now, let’s talk about how you can create branded content for your brand.

  1. Understand what your audience craves. Maybe they’ll never tell you, even in a focus group or one-to-one interview, but if you can find out what your target audience feels is missing or wanting the most… you’ve got your first nugget of information to base your branded content off of.

This isn’t a new tactic. Since its inception, marketing has always theoretically revolved around understanding the consumer. But it’s when you stop viewing your target audience as a consumer, and instead see them as a human, where you can truly understand where they come from and what they desire most of all.

  1. Conduct an internal value audit. You know what is desired, but what is it that your brand can provide? What do you as a business owner, entrepreneur, marketer, or student truly, truly believe in? What are your brand’s values?

It is only when you can be truly reflective of yourself and your brand that you can realize the meaning your brand can offer.

  1. What does the world need? Your audience may crave to be successful, be beautiful, be strong, be the best, be truly happy, be in love… your brand may also value one or all these things. But how can you create a story that aligns with their wants, your values, and the world’s needs?

After all, creating branded content that appeals to materialistic desires isn’t exactly challenging existing beliefs. Branded content is meant to make viewers stop and think.

branded content stop sign
  1. Double-check, is it about you or is it about people? As you begin to gather inspiration and ideas for your branded content, make sure you’re always checking in with yourself and your team and asking the question “Who is this really about?”

While you can do very subtle product placements, remember that branded content is about people, it’s not about your brand. This isn’t the place to promote yourself.

  1. Choose your medium. Our two examples we showed above were both videos, but your branded content doesn’t have to be. Branded content allows for lots and lots of originality and imagination! It can be a literal story in book-form, an Instagram account, a blog, a mini-series, it’s completely up to you.

Branded content allows you to flex your creative muscles. You can partner with local artists or influencers as well.

  1. Get it out there. Just because you have created branded content doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t share and promote it on social media. After all, it’s how you’re going to get the content seen and shared in the first place!

Create an email series, develop a social media campaign, and use Facebook Ads Manager to promote it and get your content in front of people that may have never even heard about your brand.

Final Thoughts

In our Digital Age, brands have the opportunity and (arguably) responsibility to use their platforms to take their relationships with people to a higher level and initiate conversations that can push boundaries and ask hard questions.

No longer can brands sit back and expect to excel and be profitable by simply listing off descriptions of the features of their product or service. Branded content gives a channel for brands and people to see eye-to-eye.