If you don’t know me personally, there’s one thing you should know about me right off the bat: I am one of the most avid readers you’ll ever meet. I consider reading an important part of my career. After all, there’s no such thing as a good writer who wasn’t first and foremost a good reader. And every once in a while, I stumble upon a book that actually speaks to the kind of work I do (that’s copywriting, by the way, in case you’re dropping in for the first time), and helps me improve the way I do my job.
As a copywriter, the most useful book I’ve read in the last several years actually isn’t about writing at all (at least not on the surface): it’s about rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. The book is Thank You for Arguing by Jay Heinrichs, and in it, the author explains the various tools and techniques that can be wielded to make an argument convincing and persuasive.
There are three modes of persuasion that Heinrichs focuses on – the same three that Aristotle enumerated thousands of years earlier: logos (appealing to logic and reason), pathos (appealing to the emotions of the audience), and ethos (appealing to the character of the speaker).
But I’m not here to give you a book summary. I actually want to talk about something else entirely: branded content.
Branded content is essentially traditional advertising’s grandchild: it knows that today’s audiences are a bit more desensitized to the old-school adman tricks, and that modern consumers care about more than just the services a brand or business provides.
(Don’t worry, grandpa, traditional advertising isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.)
Branded content is meant to add value to the reader or viewer, either by being informative or by being entertaining (or both). Branded content is not promotional: the purpose of this type of content is to increase trust and favorability among your audience.
And this is where I swing back around to Thank You for Arguing. With branded content, you can play to any combination of the three modes of persuasion (logos, pathos, ethos), but the one that really, really matters here is ethos. And more than that, it’s one particular aspect of ethos that matters: virtue.
No, not virtue in the sense of Mother Theresa (although, if you’re a large or active organization, you need that kind of virtue too, by way of a strong CSR strategy). Rhetorical virtue, as defined by Aristotle, is “a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean.”
Wait, is this a philosophy lesson? Okay, okay, let’s break that definition down in terms of how it relates to branded content:
A State of Character
“A state of character” refers to the tendency to behave in a consistent manner: people can expect you to act similarly in similar situations. When your business communicates with its target audiences, it needs to project a consistent voice. For branded content, that means sticking to a few select areas of interest or expertise. They don’t all have to be directly related to what your business offers, but they need to make sense for your brand. For example, it is perfectly on-brand for Mercedes-Benz to sponsor fashion-related content, even though the automaker isn’t in the business of fashion – whereas, if Toyota took the same approach, it wouldn’t quite make sense.
Concerned with Choice
Modern consumers hate being told what to do. Being “concerned with choice” means that you’re not authoritative: you care about letting the reader or viewer draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions. For branded content, this is where many companies fall short: they try to use it to tout the superiority of their own products or services. Your audience is consuming your content because they want information or entertainment; leading them on before segueing into something that’s essentially an advertisement will only destroy their trust. With this type of content, you have to project an image of selfless disinterest: all you care about is informing and entertaining your audience, with no concern for your bottom line.
Lying in a Mean
This means that you need to be seen as moderate: somewhere near the mean, or average. When developing branded content, you need to understand how your audience feels about the topics you choose to home in on, and you need to meet them on common ground. If your audience consists primarily of doctors and medical professionals, for example, you wouldn’t create content about the latest homeopathic trends, because the average doctor wouldn’t connect with that kind of information – and probably wouldn’t view it as moderate or mainstream.
The trick to making branded content persuasive, therefore, is to focus on demonstrating your brand’s added value: what can you give your audience beyond the products and services your business provides?
How does your business attempt to demonstrate its rhetorical virtue? Share your own tips and stories in the comments!