Brands as publishers: This movement has basically promised to save brands, journalists and marketers alike, and with so many companies jumping on board, it's transformed from a trend to a survival tactic.
From Red Bull’s Red Bulletin to OPEN Forum by American Express, brands are shouting from digital rooftops that they have useful or entertaining content for their readers, all of which is perfectly aligned with the brands’ agendas.
Some brands, though, are taking a different approach and creating lightly or non-branded sites where the brand affiliation goes nearly unnoticed, most often tucked away, out-of sight.
BadassDigest.com movie blog, for one, uses completely different branding than its parent company, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and offers just a simple link to the company and its affiliates in the courtesy navigation. And you'd never guess which household brand runs Tablespoon.com unless you really do some digging.
So why are brands drastically reducing their presence on their own content? Most are starting to understand that consumers prefer information rather than promotion, generosity rather than a sales pitch.
But can't brands tell educational and entertaining stories, like Red Bull and American Express, and still have their brand's affiliation be present and clear?
Of course, and more brands are doing it every day. However, some brave brands understand even more so that consumers don't care about businesses and products, but rather their individual wants and needs. These brands believe their audience will enjoy their content more—and revisit it more often—if the brand affiliation is dismissed from the spotlight.
For example, Tim League, CEO and Founder of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, TX, wanted to create a news site that reported honestly about upcoming movies, so he acquired and barely branded the site Badass Digest, convinced that light-branding was the best way to build an audience and earn its trust.
League wanted to build his brand as one that, unlike other outlets, is unwaveringly honest and unbiased with its patrons in terms of reporting on movies. “Most movie chains that have an associated news website only write positive news about upcoming movies,” he says, “and we all know that isn't always the case."
Now, if you're wondering how Badass Digest can be so honest without irritating its distributors to the point of a bad business breakup, the site provides two answers:
First, it includes a clear disclaimer in its footer: "The opinions on this site belong to the authors and do not reflect the views of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas."
Second, it describes what a badass is and sticks to its guns: "A badass is someone who is unique, uncompromising and dedicated to following their vision. A badass is someone blazing their own path, someone setting the standard. Fashion and fads come and go but badass is forever."
But would a clear brand presence really deter consumers from having that conversation if the content was still strong? Red Bull and American Express have proven strong branding on content sites still works. Conversely, several other big names, including L'Oreal, Procter & Gamble and General Mills, insist their audiences prefer little to no branding with their content:
You'd never know Makeup.com is run by L'Oreal unless you scrolled all the way down to the footer and read the fine print. With no brand logos, Makeup.com reads more like a beauty magazine where readers can easily "Shop the Story" if they wish. It even has its own social presence on major channels, still without L'Oreal branding. So how does it benefit the brand? By using products within the stories, suggesting a certain nail polish or eyeliner to help readers get the look.
General Mills also followed suit with Tablespoon.com, a non-branded site offering recipes and how-tos. While the site doesn't exactly hide the fact that is belongs to General Mills, it doesn't boast it either. Users will find a list of brands contributing to the site via the navigation if they want, but otherwise, they can simply enjoy party ideas and food hacks without feeling bombarded by branding.
Then there is BeingGirl.com, a product of P&G geared toward young girls experiencing puberty. It isn't a stretch to say this mega-brand knows its audience. Millennial girls are searching for answers and advice—where else?—online. In BeingGirl.com, they can find the information they seek along with a voice that feels like a friend's. And the branding is subtle enough that using Always or Tampax products seems like their idea, not one forced upon them.
While the number of brands executing lightly or non-branded sites increases, so do the concerns. Does a lack of branding mean a lack of conscience? Beauty advice from a makeup company, period advice from a tampon company, what's the harm in coming out and saying it? In fact, if a brand is creating great content, shouldn't it be proud to put its name on it? Perhaps. But doing so requires a degree of loyalty from readers, and brand names can drastically limit the content’s reach, no matter how valuable it is.
Finding the right balance between brand, value and promotion will be a challenge for brands as they move forward with content sites of their own.
How to Make Barely Branded Content Work for You
Most importantly, content must be useful for your audience. “If you think a non-branded content site would be beneficial to your brand, make sure the content you hope to deliver will be something people want to read,” League instructs.
Once you have discovered what readers want and need, set specific goals for your content, one of which should be creating a niche resource that does not exist elsewhere. This is key for engaging your target audience.
League considers Badass Digest a success for that reason: “My favorite aspect of BAD is that the comments are sometimes as interesting as the original articles. The core readership loves to thoughtfully debate about the issues being raised in the editorial content.”
He continues: “I believe that when BAD increases its readership, it is paving the way for people to know about and seek out the films we release at Drafthouse Films and for people in other cities to get excited about the prospect of an Alamo Drafthouse coming to their town.”
What are your thoughts regarding non-branded content sites? Share your thoughts on the topic in the comment section below!
Originally published Jan 29, 2014 2:00:00 PM, updated October 20 2016