How to Design a Brand Study That’s Ethical and Entertaining

By Emily Gaudette

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Turning academic studies into content can be a minefield. One one hand, a study with flashy findings is great for PR and data visualization. On the other hand, the desire to exaggerate the results of a study for selfish interests be very a powerful urge.

Consider this faulty story about hygiene and swimming pools that broke in May. As ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman pointed out on Twitter, the study written up by several prominent news outlets, which concluded half of Americans use swimming pools in lieu of showers, was sponsored by a chlorine company.


— Jessica Huseman (@JessicaHuseman) May 16, 2019

That’s the trouble with brand-sponsored studies: the scientific method discourages the storytelling logic that powers good content marketing. Two opposing objectives—promoting a product and analyzing an industry objectively—often produce a convoluted study. When marketers distill a study into an attention-grabbing headline, they risk sacrificing academic integrity in the pursuit of clicks.

So the question becomes, can a brand sponsor a truly objective study?

The branded study conundrum

Several academic studies from the last decade have determined that drug tests and clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies are inherently problematic, but what about in other industries? In 2016, Coca Cola found itself in hot water by promoting misleading information about sugar consumption. A recent study on the “gig economy” from Uber suspiciously concluded that gig workers are largely fulfilled, happy, and supported by their freelance work. On the other hand, though, Twitter sponsored a study in 2014 that produced some truly helpful data to marketers trying to promote their products on, well, Twitter. If you review all these examples, the idea of a brand-sponsored study starts to look pretty murky.

However, there’s always the argument against plastering a brand name all over a study’s findings.

In March 2018, Pressboard Media released a study on all kinds of “sponsored content,” and they found that name-dropping the brand involved has a huge impact on user experience. “If the brand is mentioned too close to the start of a sponsored article, engagement levels will be negatively affected,” researchers concluded. “On average, readers spent 12 seconds longer reading articles when the brand was mentioned halfway through the article as opposed to when the brand was mentioned in the first 100 words.” That means a brand-sponsored study walks a very fine line between hiding their intentions and coming off as too promotional.

But pulling off a brand study is not an impossible task. If we follow the logic of contemporary thought leadership in content marketing, a publication run by a brand can (and should) retain objectivity. The goal for this kind of content is still engagement, sure, but grabbing an audience with misleading information is an obsolete practice. If a brand is practicing ethical content marketing and sticking to best practices, there’s no reason it can’t produce an ethically sourced study. In fact, a brand’s experts are …read more

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