It’s almost too easy to categorize the two magazine covers below as belonging among the ranks of Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and GQ. And if you did, then that’s exactly what their publishers want. The Red Bulletin and Porter are widely read publications owned by energy drink company Red Bull and luxury fashion retailer Net-a-Porter respectively.

branded content image.001

Publications like these represent the blurred lines between journalistic content and branded content—a line that is only about to get blurrier as more brands enter the space and decide to take content creation to a new level. We’re pretty excited about this trend, and will be exploring how brands can adapt their business to new creative workflows in a webinar, “From Content Marketing to Customer Acquisition” that we’re hosting with Forrester next week.

When brands create this kind of content—if they’re doing it right—the immediate goal is to inform and entertain their audience. What the immediate goal is not, is to sell a product. If such content often doesn’t reference the brand, where’s the sales potential at all?

96 percent of US consumers say they trust brands that provide useful information without trying to sell them something. By investing in the expertise and infrastructure to build out a dedicated content unit, brands can engage consumers like never before. This might look different for every business, but at its core are some key factors to keep in mind. Here’s our case for a dedicated content team.

1. Turn intellectual property into revenue

It is possible to think of branded content in terms of its market value—according to researcher Byron Sharp, marketers must make investments that build the brand’s assets and deliver returns to their marketing budgets in the future. Producing content that builds associations with your brand makes it more likely to come to mind in buying situations — or building its physical and mental availability, in Sharp’s terms. In marketing terms: Red Bull Media House’s managing director Warner Brell describes the ROI as “a mixture of value, engagement, and dollars”. Essentially, the more extreme sports videos Red Bull puts out, the more its brand is physically and mentally available to consumers who will share its content and grow its brand reach.

2. Shift from talking about something to talking to someone

Investing in branded content requires marketers to push the product aside and put their audience front and center. Some of the best branded content contains no reference to the brand, but thrives on the brand associations that consumers retain long afterward.

“It’s about getting out of your own way [for brands],” says David Beebe, Marriott’s Vice President of Global Creative and Content Marketing. “Provide value first.” The hotel chain is leading the charge in the hospitality industry with its thriving content ecosystem. It’s marrying its brand of hospitality with points of consumer engagement: travel, lifestyle, and entertainment. Marriott’s branded content calendar includes short films (below), webisode series, and travel publications featuring Marriott properties around the world.

3. Own the channels you distribute to

Great content can’t take off without equally good distribution. It’s about “testing everything and doubling down” on what works, according to Contently’s VP of Content, Sam Slaughter. When you’re the world’s largest hotel company with over 4,000 hotels, it’s a no-brainer that you already own the distribution power of a small country: Marriott distributes and promotes its publications, short films, webisodes, and videos across owned digital and social channels and broadcast on in-room TV network and its Marriott Rewards loyalty program member base.

4. Centralize the creative expertise…

The biggest challenge to CMOs making the business case for a dedicated content studio is resource allocation. It requires a rebalancing across the enterprise, from recruiting priorities to robust training. For brands for whom driving revenue has historically been top-of-mind, such reprioritizing can be difficult especially for creating content that might not have an explicit call-to-action. But centralizing the “content people” within your company has its wins: according to a BCG study, it improves efficiency, quality, and adaptation of content across channels.

5…and tear down the barriers to brand-agency collaboration

Marketers have long been stuck in a model of collaboration that can often be insular and transactional, where the brand “writes the check and the creative team does what it wants in service of the brand”, according to BuzzFeed CMO Frank Cooper III. And the brand-agency relationship is changing, as we have found: agency tenures have dropped, and brands are shifting focus from large, seasonal campaigns to always-on marketing.

6. Attach key experiences to your brand

One metric of success for brands is consumers associating it with a set of experiences, and better still, with a kind of lifestyle. The already noisy market doesn’t make it any easier, but through their branded content endeavors, Red Bull is now associated with adventure and daredevilry, Marriott with the global traveller, and now, Chipotle with organic, non-GMO food. Its four-part web series “Farmed and Dangerous” hammered home this unique value proposition. This isn’t as easy an undertaking for big brands looking to humanize their messages. General Electric’s Garages is most tech geeks’ dreams come true: a roadshow of the latest in innovation and manufacturing, with a dedicated website that houses its projects. With content as vehicle, brands can orchestrate shifts in public image from industrial manufacturers to pioneers of innovation.

So does this mean brands are becoming journalists, and all content you see might be sponsored or created by a brand? Far from it. “There is still a difference between lowercase-J journalism and capital-J Journalism —one is news and investigation, and the latter is information and entertainment,” says Contently’s Slaughter. For now, at least. Brand publishing, brand content, content marketing –whatever you choose to call it— is a thriving, buzzing space, and it’s wide open for all the brands that want to play.

We’ll be in conversation with Forrester this coming Wednesday, August 26th, in a webinar titled “Moving from Content Marketing to Customer Acquisition”, discussing the ways businesses can adapt to these new workflows.