Should Brands Spend Millions to Underwrite Other People’s Content?

“This is the canvas for progress,” a voice says as the camera pans across an abandoned building filled with debris, old tires, and rusting iron bars. “These are the stories of the local, the driven, the determined, whose ambition and dedication stretch from sea to shining sea.”

So begins the trailer for “This Built America,” the new web series from AOL that explores companies that are rejuvenating American manufacturing over the course of 50 weeks. Of the seven released so far, each episode includes high-quality videos, slide shows, and feature articles, which showcase the history and processes of a local business.

While it may look like a typical documentary series, it is actually a piece of strategically crafted sponsored content. Both the trailer and the homepage contain the text “Brought to You by the All-New 2015 Ford F-150.” Ford Trucks reportedly spent a little under $10 million sponsoring the series.

Just because a brand is involved, however, does not mean that they are pushing in-your-face marketing. “I don’t see this as traditional ‘branded content’ because Ford has almost no editorial oversight into the companies we cover. And we aren’t creating any content for them as is the case in much branded content,“ explained Fara Warner, editorial director of “This Built America,” in an interview with IVOH.

What Warner is describing instead is underwritten content. Even though it contains a bit of branding, the publishers retain their editorial independence.

How exactly does this arrangement work, and what are brands getting out of it?

Learning to be hands-off

What separates purely underwritten content from other types of sponsored content? Underwritten content means that the brand mainly buys into the content project itself, and usually this is something that the publisher or media outlet was going to produce anyway.  In this arrangement, the brands aren’t buying broader exposure or messaging—they are buying an idea. As a result, not only the publishers maintain an editorial independence, but also the production team.

“I maintain editorial integrity and independence because I set the tone very early on,” Warner said to IVOH. “I was in the room to pitch the concept behind ‘This Built America’ to Ford’s agency, Team Detroit. Definitely a different role for me as I’ve always been a journalist, but in this case I believed in the journalism and the project and I didn’t want to leave it to someone else to ‘sell.’ I’ve been very clear about what is acceptable and what is not in regard to Ford’s involvement.”

This direct involvement of the brand in the content creation is either limited or nonexistent. They don’t even get to see the content before it goes live, and editorial decisions are not discussed or shared with them.

Ford does have custom pre-rolls made for 12 of the 50 “This Built America” videos, but AOL’s editorial team isn’t involved at all in creating them.

Embracing the “halo effect”

Given that the brand does not directly control the messaging or content of underwritten projects, why would they choose to be a part of it at all?

“In that case, that’s almost like the advertisers are looking in general for a ‘halo effect’ to be associated with the content, not necessarily any sort of specific messaging,” said Kelly McBride, senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, and a specialist on media ethics.

This “halo effect” seems to apply to ‘This Built America,’ especially since Ford’s 2015 F-150 truck is marketed as “Built Tough”, and Ford also labels itself as “America’s Brand.” These values are very similar to the “revitalize American manufacturing” message behind the documentary series.

According to McBride, brands want to invest in this type of underwritten content—even if they have very little control over the final output—because it helps them develop a relationship with an audience. “It’s rare that a brand would be able to develop a type of relationship around content with an audience that a publication could develop,” she said. “So that’s really why they’re going to want to work with those publications and why they’re going to want to respect the editorial integrity of those publications.”

Even though there might be publications or media outlets that are willing to do anything for brands, including disguise sponsored content, this is not necessarily a great opportunity. “The problem with this is that most of the time an organization that doesn’t have great editorial standards doesn’t have a great relationship with its audience—they [the brands] just won’t get the same bang for their buck,” McBride added.

Giving full editorial independence to publishers might also lead to higher-quality productions and experimentation, since the focus will be on the story rather than the brand messaging. For example, it is hard to ignore the quality of the storytelling and the variety of media behind “This Built America.”

“We are using virtually every storytelling technique from photography to video to audio slideshows. We are working on the next phase to bring in infographics, as we want to tell the stories in whatever way we can, choosing the form to tell a specific story. So instead of being forced to tell a story only one way, we can use different forms to tell parts of these stories in video, photography, text, or infographics,” Warner said to IVOH.

Maintaining readers’ trust

The key to pulling off underwritten content successfully is to fully disclose the sponsor’s role. According to McBride, this is important for maintaining trust and credibility with the audience.

“And the thing is, it’s funny because 9 times out of 10 the reader doesn’t care. There’s an irony in this,” she said.

The research so far seems to support this idea. In a recent survey from marketing firm HubShout, most readers found equal value (51.9 percent) or more value (27.1 percent) from sponsored articles than non-sponsored articles. Native advertising has similar results, with users devoting almost the same attention to native ads as they do editorial content, according to a study by IPG Media Lab.

So if the readers don’t seem to care, why should the brands? Because on the rare occasion that readers might care, non-disclosure would ruin their relationship with the audience. This is true for both the media outlet and the brand.

“Every consumer is awash in too many choices, too many things coming at them,” said McBride. “So every consumer is developing a shortcut for which content to click on, and a lot of that is based on the brand of the content provider.”

In other words, if the reader distrusts the retail brand or the media outlet providing the content, they are likely to tune out. On the flip side, when brands and media outlets that have a great reputation that demands the reader’s attention, they find themselves at a huge advantage. “That’s valuable,” said McBride. “That’s gold.”

What’s the deal with The Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.

Image by New Old Stock

Get better at your job right now.

Read our monthly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories