It had to happen sometime. Now 2012 is shaping up to herald the wide-spread adoption of brand content marketing in the minds, if not yet the hearts of marketing pros everywhere. Last year brand content was around, but not front of mind. Now agencies of all sorts are falling over themselves to call what they produce “content”.

The Coca-Cola Company’s Content 2020 videos posted to YouTube about seven months ago might have something to do with it. (If you haven’t seen it yet, the two episodes (1/2) are worth watching throughout. In it Jonathan Mildenhall, vice-president, global advertising strategy and creative excellence at Coca-Cola gives a fabulous explanation of innovative strategy, delivered in a straightforward and engaging way. Just like great content should.)

What is interesting to note about the players jockeying for position in the new brand content marketing world is that traditional advertising types are clinging to campaign-based content work focused on digital video online, while editorial (intellectual) brand content practitioners favour magazine-type brand content that mixes valuable written stuff with video across platforms, including print. (The content marketing industry has its roots in customer magazines.)

This means “content” from a marketing perspective can really be divided into what we’re calling “advertising content” and “editorial content”. Both have its place, but should not be confused. (Also, whatever brand content type is created, it’s in addition to other marketing communication disciplines, not instead of these activities.)

Most traditional advertising practitioners, including media agencies (that, essentially, exclusively plan and place media and do not participate in the real creation of either advertising or editorial content) currently still view brand content marketing as only relating to advertising content. One reason could be that they can understand a “campaign”, because it’s like advertising. Create something specific, distribute it, end. Roll out the next campaign, placed in external media only. (No real place for owned media then.)

From an editorial content mindset the idea is to create a long-term, continuous and engaged relationship with consumers that provides them with something of informational benefit and a platform for a conversation in which they participate. Thus it goes way beyond a fixed, campaign-driven approach and requires an always-on strategy. Such an intellectually driven approach is hugely valuable, as it creates brand content assets over time, just like existing external media.

A brilliant example of intellectual content that builds a real content asset is Johnson & Johnson’s You’d be hard-pressed to see any direct link to J&J, who bought this independent site back in 2001 and oversaw its growth and massive success. But look under “About Us” and this appears: BabyCenter … is a member of the Johnson & Johnson family of companies. (Also check out its Facebook Page, under Info: “BabyCenter works with some of the world’s most prominent brands and institutions to bring them life-stage marketing solutions and a direct line to highly engaged moms.”)

Traditional creative advertising agencies are scrambling to enter the content marketing field too. Understandably, as their old way of only creating “spots” is outdated in a world where consumers are creators themselves. But these guys lack media disciplines and editorial understanding. They continue to drive a campaign mindset, even in instances of brilliant advertising content.

This absolutely groundbreaking advertising content campaign for Chevrolet Sonic is fantastic. More advertising than real content, it created massive earned media after it launched as a traditional commercial during the recent American Super Bowl. It’s also a good example of how traditional TV advertising can promote a brand’s advertising content. Based on entertaining stunts as a basic concept, with a ground-breaking music video by OK Go thrown in for good measure, the Sonic campaign doesn’t really offer much by way of informational or editorial content and is just an old-fashioned campaign at heart.

Another group that now claims ownership of a brand’s content creation activities is public relations agencies, usually also in a campaign format.

But to build powerful content assets over time, a long-term content strategy should not only include campaigns or short bursts of activity, but assist in creating credible owned media channels for brands. A place to start is to offer consumers a lot of free editorial value within the brand’s broad category (for J&J, it’s babies), rather than just hard-sell campaigns. By treating their brands as content brands in this way, marketers can lessen their dependence on external media and be involved in consumer conversations directly. Brand engagement and real conversation is the result. Sales follow naturally.