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The Hard Truth About Branded Content

You cannot become a great content brand unless you are already a great brand.

This should be self-evident.

But apparently it is not. Or maybe it is getting lost in the noise as more and more brands feel the need to produce original content.

When a brand publishes, it is asking readers to consider it to be a trusted source. When readers sift through the nearly unlimited information choices, they filter by how credible they view the source to be.

These are the tough facts of publishing.

If you want to make a case that you belong on that very short list of trusted sources, then you must first be known for excellence--excellence in your products, excellence in your service. Simple, undisputable, excellence.

Then you can make a credible claim as a trusted source of content. I say “make a claim” because it is not a given. Being a great brand is just the ante. Meet it and you can take on the difficult task of building a content brand on top of that foundation.

For 10 years I was lucky enough to be the publisher of the McKinsey Quarterly, McKinsey & Co.'s online and offline journal of business management. McKinsey is a great brand, a knowledge brand; it can credibly claim consideration from business readers. Our challenge was to cross over from the closed world of corporate publishing to compete in the broader marketplace of ideas, to transition the Quarterly from a controlled-circulation, print-based, client-development tool to an open, online destination.

While there is no doubt that the power of the Quarterly comes from the McKinsey brand, our work was to convey independent editorial credibility by focusing 100 percent on knowledge, not marketing.The McKinsey Quarterly is carefully crafted to be of the firm, but not to bethe firm. It explores the complexity of problems that businesses face, rather than offer the firm's solutions. It rarely talks about McKinsey at all.

In today’s world of content marketing, the focus appears to be more on marketing than content. In fact, the very term “content marketing” is leading brands astray. There is the content, and there is the marketing of the content. When you conflate the two, you get something that is not focused on the reader.

At the Quarterly we found that when we got the content right--distinctive, useful, and relevant to our readers--the marketing would follow. And the best way to get the content right is not to think about it as the solution to a marketing problem. Rather, think of it is a product first, one that will need to be marketed. Here are three guiding principles to getting the content right:

1. Treat editorial talent like the professionals they are. Yes, there is a glut of displaced editorial talent available--and any number of ad agencies, PR firms, and consultants hanging up their content shingle. But editorial talent is not a commodity. These are thought partners, there to help work on an entirely new problem, and they bring a new perspective to the team. Listen to their editorial judgment; protect their editorial independence. Be thoughtful about where they fit in the organization and how they are positioned to the rest of the firm.

2. Keep editorial decision-making independent. Once you set a firmwide knowledge agenda, give the editorial professionals the authority to set standards--and to hold the entire firm to those standards--by giving them the right to say, “No.” There is a straight line between just where decision rights lie and the quality of the content--and, not incidentally, your ability to retain and grow first-rate editorial talent. Creating a culture of editorial credibility--both inside the building and out in the world--requires making some tough choices about the organization. Give it the attention it deserves.

3. Compete. You’re not in the publishing business, but you are asking readers to displace those who are with your content. To do so, you need an aspirational content strategy and impeccable execution. And you need a business plan, one that takes a hard look at where you fit among content providers. At the Quarterly, part of our plan was to create a paid, premium product. It was targeted to compete directly with a very specific publisher in order to help keep us true to our positioning. While paid is not the answer for most brands, the idea of treating your publishing like a true product, one with a market value, certainly is. By being able to compete with the best business publishers in the world, we opened up marketing possibilities, such as content syndication, that are normally unavailable to branded content.

It takes tremendous thoughtfulness and hard work to build your brand. Treat your content like you would your next great product, and it will be.

 by Jeff Pundyk Vice President, Content Marketing and Strategy The Economist Group