June 27, 2017

Branding in the age of Content

How is branding different for a content-first business?

I’m in the middle of two projects right now to re-brand content businesses and I’m thinking through the nuances and differences vs branding a traditional business. Here’s some things I’m thinking about right now. I’d love to hear your thoughts. @tomcritchlow or comment below.

First - what do I mean by a content business? The definition is broad but any business that generates a large amount of content, and where content is the product. This could be anything from a media site like or an affiliate business like There’s obviously a large range in the middle too.

The primary difference is that content businesses are often horizontal vs vertical. A vertically integrated company like for example Warby Parker or Allbirds has a much easier time branding because they own the whole consumer experience, from the brand awareness top of funnel content, to the retail experience all the way down to the packaging and unboxing (and customer support and loyalty post-purchase).

This type of branding is the type of branding we typically talk about when you read case studies and learn about branding.

So how do the rules change for a content business?

Typically a content business is horizontal - i.e they aim for a large surface area of touch points and generate large amounts of content. But the typical experience with any piece of content is shallow and transactional. Take Nerdwallet for example. They’re a dominant force in the online personal finance space and cast a very wide net. They write on anything from the best credit card to 5/1 arm mortgage rates to small business loans (and much more!).

A user experiences content primarily through organic search - Nerdwallet has ~90% of their traffic from organic search. This traffic is mostly transactional - users are looking to get an answer and get out (ideally through an affiliate link which is the Nerdwallet business model).

That’s not a bad thing - Nerdwallet has a strong business. But it poses challenges for branding because Nerdwallet owns so little of the user experience.

So for a horizontal content business how would you think through a branding project? These are not answers but rather conversation starters:

  • The same as any other branding project it’s still critical to figure out who you are and why you matter. But the end result of a typical branding project with a tightly controlled landing page and/or a hero video ad campaign simply isn’t relevant. There are too many touch points for consumer to tightly brand each one.
  • The obvious answer here is that any horizontal business should be looking to own more of their audience. This typically means building an email list (something Nerdwallet has pursued more aggressively in the past 6-12 months via email signup for credit score information). You can learn a lot about building a brand and audience from content sites where email is the primary channel e.g. or Key here is to carefully consider your calls to action to build the list - what language, branding and position are you taking with your audience? Putting a pop-up on the site and calling it a day is not enough here.
  • Think through the experience of interacting with the content on your site. Words are cheap but you can still design unique experiences at scale. Think interactive content formats, unique video styles, branded information boxes
  • Highlight and integrate strong author personalities across your content. Faces and personalities are strong ways to stand out and define a position in the market.
  • Define a point of view for your content and ensure that your tone of voice, style guide and writing style reflects this. A lot of content is overly generic online and the luxury of most horizontal content companies is that they can adopt a casual writing style that is unique and quirky. Of course, casual and quirky is not always the right approach.
  • Design and layout play a part here but frankly so long as you’re clean and nicely designed it’s relatively hard to actually stand out here. You can define a visual aesthetic that works and for sure some are better than others but the emotional resonance of your visual aesthetic is a smaller factor than for a vertically integrated business.
  • Flagship “hero” pieces of content that are shared far and wide (either organically or via paid distribution) can set the tone and define what your brand is “known for”. In the absence of vertical owned product, your pieces of content that get the most visibility are your product so work hard to ensure your brand is polished and consistent there.
  • The context around how people share your content and talk about it (either on-site in comments or off-site on social). So a key hire for horizontal content businesses is a community manager / social media manager. The experience of content is intrinsically linked to the discussion of it so brand plays a very strong part here.

What is your experience with the brand of content? Any good examples to share? Would love to hear your thoughts below or on twitter. Holler at me!

Update - my friend Elan from design strategy firm Midnight had a great quote “every page is the about page when users discover your content from search” which I think is a great way of putting it. Don’t underestimate the number of people who land on your content and have either no knowledge of your brand or a very limited understanding of it.

Update 2 - Sean Blanda just posted a great thread on content + brand. Good food for thought.

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: