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The dos and don'ts of brand content marketing

As consumers get savvier about avoiding traditional advertising, companies build content libraries to establish themselves as trusted providers of information.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Reports of advertising's death might be premature. Yet, it may be time to rethink the standard...

approach, because consumers are getting better at avoiding unwanted advertising. Streaming services have weakened the reach of television commercials, while online ad-blockers suppress pop-ups while browsing.

To connect with consumers in today's multiscreen environment, companies need much more than an old-fashioned advertisement -- they need supporting content to provide value for the consumer.

Brand content marketing has grown tremendously as companies work harder and smarter to connect with their audience through traditional platforms and social media. Every consumer has come across brand-sponsored content, but when a company blends the sponsorship with effective, well-produced material, it can connect with a customer in a more personal way.

That's why companies like athletic wear company Reebok are hiring whole content teams to staff newsrooms and produce stories and videos that capture the marketing sentiment while working their way into the social conversation.

"You can click on an ad and understand how your ad buys are working, but content doesn't work that way," said Ann Marinovich, senior vice president of content partnerships and strategy at Forbes Media, while speaking at the Innovation Enterprise Digital and Strategy Festival. Forbes works with other companies to produce content, and then offers up hosting space on its platform, as well. "The idea that exposure will lead to a transaction is too linear. That's not how customers work."

Marketing by hacking the news cycle

Roughly three years ago, Reebok underwent a full-fledged rebranding. A company that was once known for its iconic Reebok Pumps basketball shoes and as the maker of NFL jerseys, Reebok shifted its product line to focus more on exercise apparel, changing its logo and appealing more to women.

Reebok developed content,
including this video, to explain to
customers the reasoning behind its
2014 logo redesign.

To help with this seismic shift in strategy, Reebok began deploying brand content marketing to help the public understand its new direction.

"Everyone is streaming everything and ignoring ads, so how do you approach and get in front of your customers?" said Blair Hammond, senior global content manager at Reebok. "The whole idea is to hack into the news cycle."

Reebok built campaigns and products around current events to highlight its new direction. After model Gigi Hadid made headlines in 2016 for confronting an overbearing paparazzi photographer, Reebok signed the star -- whose internet fame and social media reach was expanding by the day -- to replace Ronda Rousey to promote its line of "athleisure" clothing. The content included video campaigns of Hadid exercising in the company's new products.

If we come up with a great idea today, but can't execute it until next month, it's worthless in real-time content marketing.
Blair Hammondsenior global content manager, Reebok

More recently, Reebok turned the political moment between Sens. Mitch McConnell and Elizabeth Warren -- where the phrase "Nevertheless, she persisted" became a part of the lexicon -- into not only a popular product, but also a way to promote and market its new direction.

"When designing content, our rule is to keep it simple," Hammond said. "We have what Reebok cares about on one side and what our audience cares about on the other, and where those things intersect is where the Reebok newsroom exists. We don't do cat memes -- that's too far on one side -- and we don't do just straight advertisements, as journalists and intelligent audiences can figure it out for what it is."

Gaining trust through branded content

Developing successful brand content marketing isn't a one-off article or campaign, nor is it jumping into every trending topic and inundating your audience with commentary. But there is a combination of being able to move quickly with content so as not to miss the current news cycle, while also building a substantial library of branded content to gain more trust among your audience.

Forbes works with dozens of companies to help produce brand content marketing to host on its site, some requiring very little oversight, while others need help to find that sweet spot between advertisement and article. Marinovich said during her session that this is best done by building that content library and reaffirming that your company can produce content objectively on a topic because of its expertise.

As an example, Marinovich used Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., a company that has published sponsored content hundreds of times on Forbes, with one story in particular surrounding filial law that became a prominent source when searched online. Because Northwestern Mutual had established itself as a trusted source in the space of financial investment and insurance, it was able to reach vast audiences using its brand content marketing.

"When you think about the content strategy, it's not just a couple of pieces of content," Marinovich said. "You need to build that content library."

And while building a content library is a successful way to build brand trust and loyalty, there should also be a way to quickly turn around high-quality brand content marketing quickly -- before the current event you're hoping to tie into is no longer current.

"If we come up with a great idea today, but can't execute it until next month, it's worthless in real-time content marketing," Hammond said. "We're constantly finding things relevant to our consumers and creating content around that."

Know your audience

When trying to insert your brand or company into the public conversation, there can be missteps -- both big and small. PepsiCo Inc. thought it had an ad campaign that put itself in the center of a conversation America was having around the right to protest and police-citizen relations. The public perception, however, was not what the company was hoping for.

While a marketing mistake like that is an outlier, there are many more examples of companies hoping to chime in on a trending topic only to have a tweet or ad be misconstrued or offensive, resulting in the opposite reaction a brand is hoping for.

It's important for brands to be mindful and aware of what they may be posting or producing, and whether it is promoting its own message or just trying to jump into the conversation.

"Anytime we have that little voice of conscious asking us, 'Is this right?' we err on the side of caution and wait for the next opportunity," Hammond said. "There's always another news cycle."

And when creating brand content marketing, it's important to know the audience you're targeting. "Nevertheless she persisted" began as part of a political argument in one of the most polarizing political epochs of American history. While some companies may stay away, wary of upsetting a substantial portion of the population, Reebok saw it as an opportunity to speak directly to its target audience.

"We know our consumer inside and out, and that's most important," Hammond said. "When we saw this conversation happen, we saw it evolve from a political conversation to a women's equality conversation where large numbers of women were saying this applied to a lot of things in their lives. We feel confident in the decisions we make because we know who we're talking to. If we didn't, then we'd just be shooting in the dark." 

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