Catchy jingles, front-and-center product placement beneath boldly emblazoned brand logos, and impossibly gorgeous actors posing beside their latest purchase-it's easy to tell when you're watching an ad, right?
Maybe not so much anymore.
A 2016 report by MarketingTech found that only 19 percent of consumers were able to tell the difference between marketing and non-commercial content on social media platforms. This new development is worlds away from the in-your-face tactics of marketing's past.
For decades, traditional advertisers took a product-first approach to communication, interrupting people's daily activities to present them with their company's sales-pitch. While these tactics were transparent about the fact that they were marketing, audiences found them to be overly forceful, and they led many consumers to view marketers and advertisers as deceptive and untrustworthy, concerned primarily with driving profits rather than providing a beneficial customer experience.
The solution? Marketing that didn't "feel" like marketing. Content marketers set out to provide customers valuable information and entertainment first, rather than asking them to immediately reach for their wallets. Content marketing unearthed major new opportunities for brands in terms of compound growth and quality lead generation. These new standards created a landscape rich with millions of creative takes on branded content that were often inspired by the techniques of traditional publishers and news sources, minimizing the appearance of logos and brand mentions out of a cautiousness to not appear "pushy" with their business agenda.
The shift was a huge win for both brands and audiences. Yet with this success, perhaps some marketers took the seamless, brand-lite content strategy a step too far in the other direction, overestimating the average user's ability to recognize when information was actually coming from a brand.
Today, native ad opportunities and brandless (or brand-lite) content hubs are numerous, but so are the numbers of confused or skeptical viewers. As more brands downplayed the obvious, interruptive formatting of advertising, they perhaps overestimated the marketing literacy of their average audience member.
An August 2018 study by Sprout Social found that "86% of Americans say transparency from businesses is more important than ever before." The researchers even found that people had higher expectations for honesty in brands than they did for politicians. These two trends-a call for transparency coupled with overestimating marketing literacy-together bring up an important question: Is it time for content marketers to be up-front about the fact that our content is marketing?
"I'm Famous, and This is a Commercial"
Content marketing has been so successful at revolutionizing the old relationship model between consumers and brands that marketers can now afford to be bolder and brighter with their intentions, rather than hide them entirely out of view. Companies are now learning they can still deliver great value to audiences in unison with strongly branded content-but it seems that advertisers got the message first.
Take Tide's massively popular, tongue-in-cheek 2018 Super Bowl campaign, which saw the brand hijack traditional commercial setups for products like beer and sport cars before revealing to viewers that every ad was actually a "Tide ad."
Tide's not alone in its meta take on the advertising industry. Other daring brands are now turning the entire advertising landscape on its head with a simple, take-it-or-leave-it approach to promotion that calls attention to the fact that the audience is, in fact, being marketed to.
Protein bar company RXBar launched a recent ad campaign playing off its product's all-natural, "No B.S." mission. In the 15-second ad spot, rapper Ice T appears and delivers the lines, "Hi, I'm famous. This is a commercial," before the screen fades to black.
Another brand inviting viewers to step behind the marketing curtain is Esurance. Last month, Esurance premiered the first commercial in its new "Surprisingly Painless" campaign, which AdAge calls a "self-aware brand refresh."
The first ad features actor Dennis Quaid openly acknowledging to viewers that "this is a commercial for insurance" before explaining all of the "painless" ways Esurance tackles common grievances. The meta-look at outdated business practices goes beyond the insurance industry to spoof marketing techniques, like the especially telling moment where Quaid pulls out a marketing report and displays it to the camera, announcing that he was selected for the spokesperson role after research found him to be "highly likeable."
The effectiveness of these meta-marketing approaches lies in their blunt tone and connection to the company's larger brand purpose. RXBar's target demographic (protein bar consumers) are traditionally viewed as active, on-the-go people who want to meet their nutritional needs, but don't always have the time to sit down and prepare a full meal. Thus the choice to showcase their product in this immediate, non-complicated format makes the content relatable and appealing to potential buyers.
Similarly, Esurance's connections between what are usually opaque marketing decisions and consumers' real gripes with the insurance industry tied their "painless" messaging to the values of the brand in an honest, self-aware way.
If we as content marketers can take away anything from these transparent approaches to advertising, it's that honesty shouldn't be treated as a gimmick, but as an asset to communicating and solving the concerns real customers are facing.
Social Media Leading the Demand for Transparency
Nearer and dearer to the content marketer's heart than advertising is the push for transparency in social media interactions. That same Sprout Social study referenced above found that "[f]orty percent of consumers who say that transparency is more important than ever before credit the shift to social-and 36% of this group also attribute this to social making transparency easier to monitor."
Unlike with other content distribution channels such as email newsletters or digital magazines, people expect brands on social media to engage in frequent, ongoing dialogues with customers. They are more likely to purchase from brands that demonstrate a commitment to total transparency on social media, whether that be having employees respond to customer questions or publicly acknowledging when their company has made a mistake.
Image attribution: Charisse Kenion
The need to establish a trustworthy social presence is particularly important when brands are involved in influencer marketing campaigns. Mediakix predicts that marketers will invest over five billion dollars in influencer-promoted content this year to drive more than a billion unique interactions between brands and social media followers. The success of influencer tactics stems from the notion that people are more willing to trust the recommendation of a person whom they admire than the claims of a corporation.
Yet some influencer strategies ignore the importance of these genuine relationships, deceiving audiences by having influencers downplay or entirely fail to disclose the paid brand arrangement. Last year, the FTC even cracked down on overly discreet influencer practices. Disclosure standards include mentioning content is sponsored within the post or caption and not solely relying on vague terms like "ambassador" to allude to a sponsorship agreement.
Social media users today are both more skeptical of all content they consume and intimately familiar with the voices of the celebrities they follow. It's pretty easy for someone to tell when a post feels inauthentic or like someone is trying to sell them a product, so it's always better for a brand to be up-front with their intentions to avoid eroding that trust even further once a consumer realizes they've been duped.
In a recent op-ed for AdAge, social media expert Natalie Zfat advocated for the clear use of the hashtags #ad and #sponsored in all of her paid postings, arguing that both marketers and influencers should embrace the practice of promoting branded content as a legitimate business transaction.
"I want the next generation (and also this one) to realize that it's respectable to make money advertising products you believe in," says Zfat.
The fear that consumers will be turned off by clear labelling of paid content is outdated and only contributes to the notion that marketers purposefully avoid providing consumers with the whole truth about what they're offering. In fact, when you consider that many audiences today feel as close to social media celebrities as they do to their real-life friends, brands may even generate more positive customer associations through announcing paid partnerships. When publishers include clear labels that a post has been paid for, they show that they value that influencer's time to collaborate with them as a business partner.
Don't Hide the Marketing From the Messaging
What steps can you take to establish credibility throughout your branded content? According to Sprout Social's researchers, the majority of audiences define business transparency as "open, clear, and honest."
Last year, a study conducted by BuzzFeed and Omnicom Media Group found that 64 precent of people surveyed felt that sponsored content "needs to be clearly labeled." The aim for content marketers moving forward should be to strike a balance in their branding between obtrusive and unrecognizable.
When we create customer experiences that demonstrate valuable information or entertainment in tandem with marketing principles, we support the narrative that marketing in itself is an enjoyable experience. When someone discovers content through a search engine, for example, they understand that the information they're seeing comes from a specific source. Knowing who that source is upfront, whether it be a traditional news outlet or a content marketing team, makes them more likely to engage with the message with an open mind rather than starting from a place of hesitation or uncertainty.
Marketers, content creators, and influencers don't have to hide themselves in the background of the content they are involved with making and promoting. Audiences prefer to see the real people in these roles and understand their true intentions.
The goal of branded content is to deliver value to the user. If your organization is confident in the value and the message your brand is creating, why would you want to shy away from endorsing it? We should be making content so good that we want to distribute it everywhere, loudly and proudly.
For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.
Featured image attribution: Priscilla du Preez