A sporting-good model for branded content

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As “branded content” continues its astonishing rise – almost every publisher of note is now putting together special online and/or print sections devoted to sponsor-aligned content – the rules of the game are anything but set.

But you could do worse than to look at ESPN The Magazine’s approach as a reasonable model for giving sponsors a cozy association with legitimate editorial while preserving old-school church/state boundaries.

As Adweek explains, a new in-print feature called “Cold Hard Facts Presented by Coors Light” nicely aligns the beer brand with an interesting, original set of sidebars written – and this is important – by the magazine’s staff without involvement of the folks at MillerCoors.

That’s the key to making branded content work for sponsors, publishers and readers. The “brought to you by…” approach treats everyone fairly. Good writers write, readers can rest assured there’s no secret-messaging or sponsor-kissing going on between the lines, and the advertiser gets a potent, exclusive, warm-and-fuzzy association with some sweet stuff.

I find one wrinkle here especially interesting: the idea, as Adweek points out, that “the ESPN edit team will have full control over the sidebars; MillerCoors won’t have final approval or get to preview the content ahead of time, according to editor in chief Chad Millman.”

Kudos to ESPN for that. It’s the gold standard for preserving an appropriate separation between content creator and advertiser. And it borrows from a time-honored tradition of selling pages or banners or in-stream video ads to marketers without any obligation whatsoever that the publisher has to expose the associated content to the advertiser in advance. You buy circulation and reader engagement, and that’s it.

Fans of custom publishing will recall that the patriarch of the category, Chris Whittle, used to offer up an alternative to ESPN’s approach for his sole-sponsor executive magazine (what was it called: Special Reports, perhaps?) that went like this: The sponsor could see the entire magazine in advance. I know: risky. But…the options from that point on were limited to two. The advertiser could bless the issue and let it roll, or choose to kill it. Either way – and this is why Whittle got richer than you or me – the company had to pay for the whole shebang.