Guide To Branded Content – Part 1: The Basics

February 01, 2017

This is Part 1 in Polar’s Guide to Branded Content Series:

Branded Content is not the same as native advertising. It is easy to convolute the two, but native advertising at its base is a format, one of many formats that direct users to branded content. And branded content itself is not so simple, but instead a spectrum of executions which align with varying brand and advertiser objectives, much like a traditional marketing funnel.

The Marketing Funnel

Broadly, the marketing funnel serves two objectives: Upper funnel objectives which aim to raise brand, logo, product or messaging awareness and lower funnel objectives attempting to bolster lead generation, decision making, retention, and product purchases.

The executions for these objectives mirror their placement in the funnel. Upper-level objectives are accomplished through content, social and video marketing, while deeper lower funnel objectives attempt to get readers and potential customers through more direct search, social, and performance-based marketing.

Where Does Branded Content Fit?

The different categories of Branded Content mirror this funnel. While Custom Content is top of mind for premium publishers, branded content encompasses much more than that, from light sponsorship of existing independent editorial content, to advertiser-created post-click destinations.


Sponsorships sit near the top of the funnel. They showcase light brand association with editorially produced content and there is usually no direct brand integration.

Topic, event, and channel sponsorships are the most common example of sponsored editorial, such as when brands present sports highlights and footage, award show coverage, political event coverage and commentary, concert rebroadcasts and other compelling content experiences which afford a brand the top-of-funnel marketing opportunities which align with any of these distinct events.

Sponsorship based branded content can be further broken down into two types:

  • Editorial – which leverages existing editorial content and re-promotes it with an advertiser’s sponsorship.
  • Built-If-Sold – some sophisticated publishers package the above editorial example on a “built-if-sold” model. They create an editorial calendar or concept in advance with the intention of creating it if an advertiser sponsors it.

Below are some examples:

Sponsored: Editorial
Hannaford Supermarkets sponsors “How to grill fish” infographic with SheKnows

SheKnows, a US-based women’s lifestyle publisher, posts an infographic before the summer season on how to grill your favorite types of fish. The content is clearly sponsored by Hannaford, a grocery chain. The brand does not appear in or influence the content, but disclosure elements are present nonetheless. The Hannaford logo appears before the infographic and on the infographic itself. It was also sold with companion display ads.

Sponsored: Built-If-Sold
Huffington Post produces a series of sleep and wellness articles with Sleep Number

The Huffington Post produces a series entitled Sleep+Wellness in partnership with mattress manufacturer Sleep Number made up of short articles and videos related to the topic of sleep.

Branding for Sleep Number only appears in the byline area of the Huffington Post’s article page, and at the beginning of the publisher-produced video. This program was also sold with matching companion display ads.

Custom Content

Custom content is branded content that is produced in partnership with an advertiser. It is often produced by a separate commercial content team within the publisher organization. A brand’s messages or products are, at varying levels, integrated into the content.

Custom content placements are the what most people refer to when making generalizations about “sponsored content” or “advertorials”.

Custom Content can be further broken down into two types:

  • Integrated – where the content integrates a brand or product throughout the piece, but the subject matter focuses on a separate topic or issue which aligns with the advertiser’s values.
  • Promotional – where the content’s main subject matter is the benefits associated with the advertiser’s brand or product.

And here are some examples:

Custom Content: Integrated
Nikon and Mpora partner on documentary style article

Mpora, an adventure-sport style magazine created a custom video and accompanying article with camera manufacturer Nikon. The documentary-style video follows skateboard photographer Daniel Wagner as he talks about his relationship with the sport and photography. Nikon’s logo and disclosure elements appear near the byline, the specific Nikon equipment used for the photo shoot is mentioned, and a Nikon camera is visibly shown in the frame of some shots but the brand is never directly mentioned during the storyline. The theme of the relationship between sport and photography is aligned with Nikon’s brand.

Custom Content: Promotional
BMW partners with The Telegraph for celebrity test drive.

The Telegraph produced a BMW product review with test-drive style video. The video and companion article features British actress Jodie Kidd reviewing the BMW i8. The content is focused on the car’s features and benefits and ultimately urges readers to sign up for a test drive while helping find a local dealer. The car is featured prominently throughout the video, article, and images. A clear label at the top of the content page contains “Brought to you by”.

Advertiser Content

This is a fast-growing segment of branded content, with marketers themselves producing more and more content but looking to partner with trusted publishers to drive distribution of that content.

Specialty thought-leadership topics, video and photos are the most common examples today. More often than not, the audience consumes the partner content within the publisher’s environment but will sometimes click-out to a marketer’s environment as well.

Advertiser Content can be further broken down into two types:

  • Hosted – advertiser produced content which appears on a publisher’s site.
  • Destination – advertiser produced and hosted content which uses a publisher’s resources (such as social, native ads, and display inventory) to direct their audience to the advertiser content either on their site or hosted elsewhere (i.e. YouTube, Vimeo, a one-off site, etc).

Here again are some examples:

Advertiser Content: Hosted
Palo Alto Networks partner with Business Insider

Business Insider often partners with partners to provide its readers with excerpts of upcoming books and whitepapers which may be relevant to their business-based interests. In this example, a short blurb at the beginning identifies the brand as Palo Alto Networks and discloses the following content is from their downloadable guide to navigating cybersecurity. The bottom of the article the brand again, and contains a strong call-to-action to download the rest of their content.

Advertiser Content: Destination
Tommy Hilfiger utilizes GQ’s brand and distribution

Looking to attract fashionable male consumers, Tommy Hilfiger partnered with men’s magazine GQ to direct their readers to content hosted on, the clothing brand’s retail portal. Though the content was produced in conjunction with GQ, it features real life applications of the Tommy product. Potential customers are able to compare and purchase the exact products they are reading about or chat live with a representative from the brand about any questions they may have.  

Branded content types will adhere to these types in most cases. That being said, as publishers and advertisers evolve with these formats, so too will their executions – some will cross and fuse the lines between these types as they create new engaging experiences for their audiences – and sophisticated premium publishers will use a mixture of these “shades” to serve different potential clients.

Need to know more about how Branded Content aligns with the marketing funnel? Check out Part 2: Content Creation, Part 3: Pricing Models, and Part 4: Disclosure & Distribution in Polar’s ongoing series.


JULY 2017

Polar’s Snapshot of Global Branded Content Performance presents the complete picture for major markets and publishers this past quarter.