Defining branded content: Does anyone really care?

Justin Drape

The definitions for branded content are evolving and broadening. Steve Jones argues the industry is confusing branded content with branded entertainment and that they are two very different things. 

It may not have been the most eloquent of definitions but you knew exactly what Justin Drape meant when he described content as “stuff”.

Asked at Mumbrella’s branded entertainment conference, BEfest, if there was “anything that couldn’t be described as content”, the co-founder and chief creative officer of The Monkeys momentarily pondered the question before saying he didn’t think there was.

“The definition of content is just stuff,” Drape then suggested as he sought to illustrate the all-encompassing nature of the word.

“Content is just so broad. What falls under that?” he asked.

The remarks were made in the context of a debate around that most perennial of questions – what is the definition of branded content?

And Drape’s response neatly articulated the fundamental problem in reaching a generally accepted answer.

Content is everything we read, everything we watch and everything we listen to. It is simply too broad a term to be categorised or have any real coherent or common meaning.

Simply by the very definition of each word, every piece of work ever produced by a brand is branded content, be it an advert or otherwise.

Branded entertainment, however, is a different issue altogether. While it, too, is open to interpretation – there is no right or wrong definition – I believe it is much simpler to define.

The problem lies when the two labels, branded content and branded entertainment, are used interchangeably when discussing the same issue. It perpetuates the belief – a mistaken one in my view – that they are one and the same. They are not.

To my mind, branded content is the all-inclusive name which covers pretty much every piece of, well, content, while branded entertainment is exactly that – entertainment. There is a difference.

“When you say branded entertainment at least that narrows it down a bit because there’s a filtration that takes place. It’s a bit more focused,” Drape said yesterday.

Anthony Freedman

Anthony Freedman

Joining Drape in dissecting the meaning was Anthony Freedman, founder and chief executive of creative agency Host.

He had this to say: “It’s content in any form. The real crux of this is that it delivers real entertainment or utility such that the audience will choose to consume it rather than relying solely on bought media.

“The value exchange is that if I show you something and you consume it because you find it entertaining and useful, the quid pro quo is that I am going to impart within that something about my brand and product that might change your behaviour and attitude towards it.”

I would largely agree with Freedman’s comments but would stop short of saying it is content in any form.  To take that to its natural conclusion, that would include TV ads. That is surely stretching the boundaries of branded entertainment too far.

Yet Danielle Long, editor of The Branded Arts Review by The One Centre, cited Qantas’s Feels Like Home campaign as one of the best recent examples of branded entertainment coming out of Australia.

I don’t buy that.


Feels Like Home was the work of the late Neil Lawrence and had the intention of restoring affection for Qantas through the emotional home-coming of a number of Australians.

It was, I thought, extremely well done, as you would expect from a creative of Lawrence’s calibre.

But branded entertainment? Not in my book.

Branded entertainment, by its very nature, should be made with the intention of entertaining. Whether it succeeds is largely irrelevant, it’s the intention which matters.

Feels Like Home was, first and foremost, an advertising campaign which carried the Qantas brand front and centre. Did it entertain? You could argue it did and, that being the case, could justifiably label it as branded entertainment.

But it was an advert at its core which had the primary intention of putting more bums on seats. It was an emotionally driven sales pitch. If you categorise this as branded entertainment, every non-tactical advert ever made could reasonably be labelled as such.

Another grey area is where a PR stunt is packaged up as branded entertainment. Certainly judges at Cannes are clear on this, having ruled that all entries in the branded entertainment category for the past two years did not meet the required criteria.

Among them was the highly publicised driving dogs experiment, a collaboration between the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in New Zealand and Mini.

Again, it was an entertaining watch – who doesn’t want to see three dogs being taught to drive? – but I would agree with the judges. It just felt more of a PR-driven exercise, a stunt purely designed to garner attention, rather than marketers and agencies creatively weaving their brand into a genuine piece of entertainment.

That’s not to say there is anything remotely wrong with the dog driving experiment. It served its purpose wonderfully. But it just doesn’t feel like branded entertainment.

Examples cited at BEfest that I feel are true to this category of marketing are GE’s collaboration with National Geographic on Breakthrough, a six-episode series on scientific discoveries to air from Sunday.

It is designed to inform and entertain and aligns GE to an insightful series but without an overt sales message.

Likewise the hour-long Hello Australia, a Telstra-produced documentary which screened earlier this year and detailed the story of the nation’s telecommunications.

Of course brands are not doing this for the good of their health – they ultimately want positive commercial outcomes. But the purpose is to produce entertainment that consumers will make a conscious effort to watch. It is not thrust in front of them.

A recent example of strong video branded entertainment came in the form of Avalon Now, a comedy series commissioned by Domain.com.au which poked fun at life in the well-to-do Sydney suburb.

On the music front, Cummins & Partners New York was involved in the creation of a music video from Sia which showcased Heidi Klum’s lingerie range.

Yet there is one key question to all of this, and it’s a salient one.

Does it really matter what any of this content is called? Do we need to wring our hands and try to categorise or crowbar content into particular boxes?

Not according to Freedman.

Acknowledging he was at risk of “insulting the topic” being debated at BEfest, he suggested it was a needless discussion.

“This is a debate that most people we are targeting have no interest in whatsoever,” he said. “There is absolutely no reason that we need to be defining what this stuff is.

“It will either be good and it will work or it won’t and what we call it really is not important. It matters to certain people who have a vested interest in categorising things and award shows would be among those perpetuating this stuff.

“But the reality is that we are not sitting around at the agency trying to determine whether this is branded content or not.”

To the consumer it matters not, that is true. If they enjoy what they experiencing, who cares what it’s called?

Yet it is probably helpful to agree on definitions if only to make conversations between brands and their agencies on this topic that much easier.

A brand’s view of branded content or branded entertainment may differ wildly from the agency. Better to start with a common understanding than risk any misunderstandings further down the track.

  • Steve Jones is chief reporter for Mumbrella. 

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