Branded content is like the "demilitarized zone" of advertising

Feb 1 2020, 6:44 pm

Content is like the demilitarized zone of advertising.

It’s not editorial. It’s not quite ad copy. The in-between nature of it causes confusion and debate between clients, agencies, and publishers alike.

Should it be in the brand’s or the publisher’s voice? When is the right time to publish? And what topic should we write about?

Without alignment from the start, this often leads to less-than-stellar creative ideas, more revisions and, subsequently, a mad rush to be in-market on time. At the end of the day, the results we’d all hoped for might not come to be.

While everyone has their own opinion on the matter, there are three content best practices I’ve seen over the years that can help bridge the gap between publishers and brands.

The ultimate goal is to help your content perform its best and maximize engagement, no matter which side you happen to fall on.

Timing matters


The PR world knows this best: timing is everything. You pitch your client’s message, hoping for valuable earned media, and suddenly it’s blown apart by OJ Simpson’s white Bronco careening down the freeway. Your client’s message never saw the light of day.

The only way to get ahead of this? Brands must use this classic principle to their advantage. With so much content being consumed every day, whatever you create has to be relevant to the exact moment your customer interacts with it. If it’s not part of the current conversation, your audience might not feel any urgency to stop and click.

We’ve had clients take advantage of this principle brilliantly. One decided to align their brand with every single editorial article we published about the Toronto Raptors during their championship playoff run. Another launched their article about buying your old smartphone the same day Apple’s newest iPhone was released. 

Thanks to simple (yet strategic) timing, both campaigns benefited from massive amounts of extra-value traffic.

Trust the publisher’s creativity


Having worked many years on the agency side, I understand how many gallons of sweat and tears go into establishing a brand’s voice. I also understand how the idea of handing over the keys to a publisher’s creative team sounds ludicrous.

That said, the benefit of using branded content is not just its reach. It’s about building connections with an audience through a publisher they already have a relationship with.

But those relationships weren’t created by default; you need to be incredibly brave in order to relax your brand framework and align with the publication’s voice and tone. Alternatively, you risk alienating readers, which may create the opposite desired effect. 

For example, your billboard might have a ™ symbol next to your brand name. But trust me, it’s a bad idea to place it in one of our article headlines — no matter what your legal counsel advises.

Publications have a journalistic knowledge of what their readers care about, and they can advise on the best way to connect with an audience, be it through social, written, or video campaigns. Even if it means creating an article that comprises nothing but photos of dogs.

Be compelling

Climate action/Unsplash

The idea of being “compelling” sounds great. But what does that mean, exactly? 

It’s a bit of a buzzword. It could mean a lot of things. But one way to be compelling is with purpose-driven content. 

Daily Hive’s audience comprises millennials, primarily (myself included). Our generation has a lot on our minds. Climate change, affordability, health care — the list goes on and on. 

With that in mind, there has never been a better time for brands to create content to show our readers that you’re thinking about the same issues by producing content that talks about them.

But, proceed with caution. If you decide to create purpose-driven content, it’s vital that you avoid the temptation to talk about how your brand is solving the problem up front. Lead with the problem (for example, the prohibitive cost of buying a new cell phone) and dive into the details (that you can recycle your old phone for cash back). It’s already implicit that your brand cares about the issue, and most readers are smart enough to make the connection.

Audience expectations have shifted dramatically, and publishers and brands are racing to keep up. Content can be an incredible tool to reach your target audience, and by aligning on key strategies, you’re only setting your brand or client up for success.

To see the work Hive Labs has created with brands and agencies and to learn more about working with us, visit

Neil MalikNeil Malik

+ Hive Labs