10 ways to create terrible branded content

27 March 2023

At the beginning of November, a delegation from iO went to Web Summit in Lisbon. One of the most inspiring speakers was Graham McDonnell, Vice President Brand & Creative at TIME. His talk focused on all the many ways branded content can go wrong. Copywriter Jan Schuddinck summarised his talk for us, so that you never have to make these mistakes again.

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1. Keep your goals as vague as possible

Or not! Vague objectives lead to vague content. On the other hand, always ask yourself what you actually want to achieve with your branded content. Which brand values do you want to promote? Which KPIs do you want to increase? This may seem like obvious questions, but they’re often overlooked, and it is absolutely impossible to assess whether a campaign with poorly defined expectations has worked afterwards.

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2. Create widely divergent visions between brand, maker, and audience

That's just asking for trouble! If the brand, target audience and creator of branded content – for example, an agency – are not on the same page about what they want to achieve, there is scant hope of the campaign becoming a success. Neglecting to properly research the intended audience’s interests kills campaigns before they even begin. Naturally the campaign has to deliver value for the brand, and align with their creator’s goals, values, and norms. So always aim for the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram below.

3. Be overly fixated on a particular format

Often a brand or content creator is fixated on a specific format or medium and doesn’t think to question whether that format or medium is a suitable vessel to deliver the message. Are you writing a blog, making a video, or recording a podcast? Start by taking the time to figure out exactly which story you want to tell and only then decide which medium is best.

4. Pretend branded content niches are the same as classic advertising

Ridiculous! Branded content is not classic advertising. With branded content you can't get away with just throwing some facts, figures at it, or generating a certain atmosphere or image. You always need a story.

5. Don't take your target group into account at all

Quite a few brands write branded content to and for themselves. Big mistake! What's interesting to you isn't necessarily interesting to your audience. Make sure you understand your audience and tailor your content accordingly.

6. Constantly pat yourself on the back

The most terrible branded content over emphasises the role of the brand. While it's very tempting to position your brand as the hero of the story, it's crucial that the audience sees themselves as the hero. The role of the brand is only ever to enable the public to be the hero. Branded content is like a first date: if you talk about yourself all the time, there will be no second chance.

7. Expand endlessly

Don't! Try not to ram too much content down your audience's throat. Make sure your content is clear and unambiguous, without too many sidesteps and distractions. According to McDonnel, we shouldn't see branded content as a maze with several options and confusing choices, but rather as a labyrinth where you automatically get to the exit if you just keep following the path.


8. Exaggerate with branded design

Brands not only tend to talk about themselves too much, they also impose their design language too aggressively on their branded content. It really doesn't have to be a test card for your entire brand book. Keep it simple. Remember branded content is not classic advertising.

9. Disregard all the basic rules

Not at all! Content creators sometimes tend to jettison proven, sound ground rules in order to stand out. However, such attempts can quickly look grotesque. Respect Best Practices, use common sense and learn from your mistakes.

10. Come up with a boring, meaningless title

Once you've developed your story and chosen a format, you need to capture your audience's attention. An engaging title does wonders here. McDonnell recommends using one of the so-called six journalistic questions in your headline (who, what, why, where, when, and how). Research demonstrates that titles with numbers attract more clicks. Finally, your title should also contain the promise of what the audience will learn from your content.

Jan Schuddinck
About the author
Jan Schuddinck
Senior Creative Copywriter - iO

As an experienced conceptual copywriter, Jan is iO’s jack-of-all-copy-trades. From senior-level snappy taglines to ever-lasting elaborate blogs, Jan’s value comes from what he does best: taking in the complex and putting it in words your audience can really get behind.

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