When I was growing up my favourite section of Vogue was the thick wad of pages at the front: glossy, double-spread campaigns for titanium watches and ethically-harvested pearl earrings. Looking back, bit weird for a kid to be into, but my aesthetic appreciation of advertising has carried into my adult life. I think half the products in my house were purchased because of their packaging. Does this make me an idiot? No, it makes me a millennial.
For young people, being adverse to advertising is an outdated attitude. The ‘90s MTV version of “selling out” doesn’t exist anymore.
Instead, musicians partner with brands to elevate consumer experience. Campaigns are a petri dish for creativity. Take the recent FKA Twigs x Spike Jonze ad. In this equation, Apple is the facilitator and talent takes precedence over product. In fact, young people’s conditioning to the omnipresence of advertising forces brands to adhere to stratospheric standards. We’re the most visually clued-in generation that has walked this hot spinning rock. If a brand puts themselves in front of us, we demand something in return: beauty, subversion, cinema, tension, knowledge, humour. Whatever the value exchange is, young people are actively pushing brands to harness creativity in new ways, rewrite the rules, and use their big budgets to impress and inspire. And that, in itself, is cool.
I’ve been working as an editor and writer since I was 18, for ten years, oscillating between subjects such as fashion, music, and culture. But I finally feel like I’ve found The One with branded content. The wild, wild west of media, branded content is evolving at a rapid, exciting pace. It’s the sweet spot between the slick world of advertising and the unbridled freedom of editorial. Audiences are open to it, brands are getting better at it, and youth publishers - like Vice - are embracing this massive opportunity to benefit themselves, the client, and the consumer alike.
To distill it into three main points, these are the key reasons why I love branded content and why you should too:
Established brands wield influence and power. If I can leverage my position to help blue chip clients walk down a road to align with issues of social importance that matter to young people, then that’s only a good thing.
Of course, this can backfire and be done badly. One word: Pepsi. Young people can see straight through it when brands gauchely attach themselves to culturally relevant moments purely to seem “woke”. Let’s not go into the barrage of International Women’s Day content that clogged our feeds on 8th March from companies without female representation in the boardroom or who utilise dubious production methods. We also want to see follow-through. This is our part of the trade-off for considering your product. If a brand is associating themself with issues concerning the LGBTQIA+ community, for instance, we want to see them take concrete steps beyond the shelf-life of a campaign to facilitate change. “Selling out” might be antiquated, but the concept of “posers” isn’t.
A brand who does an excellent job at this is Absolut. Around Mardi Gras their best-selling bottle wears a rainbow, but their connection to this community goes beyond what’s trending. In the early ‘80s, amid the panic and prejudice of the AIDS crisis, Absolut began their marketing to gay consumers. It was a pioneering decision at the time, and is reflective of their ongoing strategy of targeting niche but hugely influential subcommunities to build brand credibility. Over the last thirty year Absolut has celebrated and supported the LGBTQIA+ community in tangible ways, at scale, around the world.
Bringing it back to branded content, a way to ensure this sort of authenticity is by having branded content aimed at young people, created by young people. Articles should be written by journalists, not copywriters—and publishers need to make sure that their branded content offering is balanced by a plentiful, flowing stream of editorial so there’s an equilibrium.
We know that by demonstrating a social conscience, brands earn the trust, support, and dollars of young people who are increasingly altruistic. The pay-off for the audience? Receiving content that isn’t just a listicle, bunch of cat GIFs, or a repurposed press release, but something that is truly situated in a wider cultural conversation, which genuinely adds value to their life.
Across all companies, editorial is tough. Budgets are spread thin, resources are tight. Working with brand partners opens up new revenue streams and sources of income to help publishers achieve their mission of creating meaningful content. Having more money to play with than an editorial budget allows publishers to bring in new contributors and engage fresh talent, creating a richer tapestry of voices; as well as allowing us to experiment with new content formats like interactive articles and Instagram experiments. Capitalism: love it.
The Golden Standard
When I first started working on branded content at Vice, in 2015, my creative director Royce Akers and I came up with a mission statement: our branded content would be published whether it was sponsored or not. Take away the display ads, the brand attributions, the money, is this article, social video, or Instagram post strong enough to exist by itself in the Vice ecosystem?
To me, this is the universal litmus test of branded content. It has to live natively in-feed, it has to adhere to the same editorial standards of the publication, and, most importantly, it has to add value to the consumer.
Working with brands has its challenges—balancing their objectives with the stuff publishers, and the people who will work on it, actually want to make. But we’re at an exciting time in media where youth publishers are paving the path, and positioning branded content not as a necessary evil, but an opportunity.
Vice AUNZ native editor Ingrid Kesa