How Much Does It Cost To Borrow Your Brand?

My friend Chris Brogan has inadvertently caused a stir. 😀

Chris Brogan & Bill Cammack

From the little I’ve read about the situation, (you can read about it yourself, on Chris’ site) basically, he accepted a $500 gift card from Kmart to write a blog post about Kmart. He was completely transparent that he was writing a sponsored blog post. As part of the deal, he also received the opportunity to give away a second $500 Kmart gift card. Here’s what Chris says he did with the money:

“I realized really quickly that I could do two good things while satisfying the project request: I could give someone else a $500 gift card for the holidays, and I could use my shopping experience to buy toys for the Toys for Tots program. (My kids kept the jackets and my boy kept some pants.)”

This kind of thing was discussed AT LENGTH exactly one year ago, when Cheryl Colan made a post questioning Steve Woolf & Zadi Diaz‘s sponsorship & advertising practices with regard to their show Epic-FU in her post “What Up, New Media?”. Cheryl posted a video on that page speaking about her issues if you want the background on that 99-coment-long saga.

The point in both cases was whether bloggers or content creators can GET PAID and talk about products with integrity at the same time.

While I personally don’t see anything wrong with Chris getting paid to blog about something, I see the problems that some people are going to have with the situation.

First of all, people are not going to believe that a company would pay someone to make negative comments about their establishment or product. When was the last time you heard of someone getting PAID to make a post about a product and then they said it was trash? For me, the answer is NEVER. So, off the bat, whether you announce transparently that you received money or not, the perception is that you are now RESTRICTED from making a NEGATIVE post. Obviously, that’s 1/3 of your objectivity that you have to give away in order to get some money. You can now either say “eeh… it was alright” or “yay! it was great!”. This means that the company has effectively BOUGHT your endorsement.

Second, in this particular case, Chris is on the advisory board of the company who got the deal with Kmart. Again, this is going to give the appearance of a restriction against negative comments.

Now, I wasn’t even aware that Chris had a blog called Dadomatic until I started reading about this situation this morning, so I’m not sure whether he shops at Kmart at all, but that brings up a third issue, which is would he have blogged about Kmart at all if he hadn’t been paid for it? Similarly… Now that “the door has been opened”, how many more sponsored posts can the readers of Dadomatic look forward to? What frequency? What’s the going rate?

The fourth issue is probably the one people are discussing the most. AFAIK, Chris has posted, twittered, blogged tons of information about Social Media every single day since I can’t even remember when. He’s positioned himself as one of the go-to people when it comes to companies or individuals getting opinions about what to do as far as Social Media. The question some people have now, (fair or unfair makes no difference, because we have no control over people’s perceptions of what we float out into the echo chamber of Social Media) is that if Chris can be paid to blog about Kmart, how do we know that his other blog suggestions haven’t been “bought” or at least influenced?

This is the same argument Cheryl was making about Steve & Zadi. Since they had sponsors who PAID to put advertisements on their show (via their Next New Networks agreement that was in place at the time) and those advertisements were CLEARLY IDENTIFIED by the show host, how did the viewers know whether other products shown or websites mentioned in Epic-FU were there because S&Z had been paid for that as well.

Unfortunately, in both cases, “I told you up front that this was sponsored” isn’t accepted as “You can trust that every time I’m getting paid to tell you something, I’ll be transparent about it”, and this is the main problem people are going to have.

So how does a blogger or content creator get paid without the perception of being influenced / selling out?

One way would be to mention sponsors without giving opinions about their goods & services. Sarah Austin has five sponsors for her show “Pop17”. Their logos are on her site, she thanks her sponsors during the show and keeps it moving. Her content doesn’t have anything to do with her sponsors, so she’s not in the position of having to endorse any of them. If her show had been about rating airlines or public relations firms, there would be a clear conflict of interest.

Of course, that’s the problem with doing sponsored posts. You’re being paid SPECIFICALLY to talk about goods & services, so to some degree, you’re going to be seen as an agent of that company or at least influenced by them.

Another way would be to make it clear that you were doing a commercial and not a heartfelt, public service announcement post. This is one of the problems with the intimacy of blogging. Since you don’t “know” actors on television, you’re perfectly aware that they’re playing a role that they were paid to play in order to convince you to buy something. Subscribing to and reading someone’s blog, you get to feel that you have a personal relationship to them. That’s why sponsored posts feel like someone taking advantage of that relationship and “sneaking in” an advertisement.

For example… If I show up to the bar and ask Charles what he’s drinking, and he tells me the name and recommends that I buy one, I accept that as a heartfelt, honest endorsement of a brew he’s currently enjoying. I do NOT expect to see Charles receiving payment from a representative of that beer company for steering people towards their product. That would DEFINITELY change my perception as far as what Charles’ motivations are when I ask him for his opinion on something or read his blog posts. My perception would ALSO be altered if he told me ahead of time that he was being paid by McVicar Beer to recommend their product. And I use “recommend” to mean the same thing I said above, which is that companies don’t pay people to trash-talk their products. So talking about the product AT ALL, while being restricted to neutral or positive comments = recommendation or endorsement.

Interestingly enough, these perceptions occur in the opposite direction as well. I drink a lot of Foster’s beer. A LOT of it. 😀 People who know me know I drink Foster’s any chance I get. 😀 If I were to drink Foster’s in my videos or have cans in sight or talk about Foster’s, people would assume that they were paying me to do that.

So, the point is, as content creators and bloggers, we’re building our own brands. The question is “How much does it cost to borrow your brand?”. What’s your brand worth to you? What perceptions are you willing to accept? Are you willing to do sponsored posts? Are you willing to have google ads on your site? Are you willing to have pre-roll ads or overlays on your videos? Are you willing to get involved with affiliate marketing? Are you willing to sell advertising squares to companies? What kinds of companies? Are you willing to wear companies’ shirts? Show up to companies’ parties? Be in people’s videos?

The Shirtless Apprentice #27

Editing Tips: FCP – Indy Mogul “4 Minute Film School”

Another interesting aspect of this situation is that Chris’ props are based on TRUST whereas mine are based on FACTS. The only thing people need to trust about ME is that I know what I’m doing when it comes to video editing. Nobody’s looking to me as an unbiased source of information. I can sell Foster’s beer or McVicar beer or Burger King or anything else I want all day and all night, at the level of transparency that I see fit, because my reputation’s built on technical skill, not the gathering of information and the formulation of corporate strategies. I put that two-year-old picture of us in the beginning of this post because I felt like it… not because I have ANY disclosure requirements that I require myself to adhere to. That’s a luxury that I have since I’m not viewed in the same “Social Media Thought Leader / Guru” light that Chris is.

So, do I think Chris should have done it? Sure. He was handed control over $1,000 worth of merchandise for GOING SHOPPING and writing a few words about that. Is he going to lose favor in the eyes of some people for this? Certainly. Does this situation mean anything TO ME in regards to Chris’ integrity? Of course not. 😀 I’ve talked with Chris about WAY MORE IMPORTANT things than getting paid to write a blog post. Still, this has brought up an important question for bloggers and content creators. Are you willing to accept sponsorship or ad dollars from just WHOMEVER decides to offer it to you?

How Much Does It Cost To Borrow *YOUR* Brand?


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  1. As a scientist myself, this situation strikes me as similar to doctors doing medical research sponsored by pharmaceutical companies. It doesn’t mean that the research is necessarily wrong or biased, but it does bring the results into question sometimes. Especially when the researchers want another grant.

  2. @Mark: Right. It’s the type of thing that you avoid if you want to remain beyond reproach, even though the source of the funding doesn’t mean that your findings are tainted in any way.

    The “next grant” issue is paramount, because the next company isn’t going to want to hear “oh, you hired that doctor that was down with _______” when the results come out in THEIR favor.

  3. I’ve only read a few blog posts from this guy. There are a lot of folks on the “new web” that just talk about it, and a lot of them get paid to do it. So I’m definitely not surprised that this one is shilling for Kmart.

    I mean, international anti-American slave-labor aside, Kmart is just another company. This dude probably doesn’t give two shits about how awesome they are, he just saw an opportunity and jumped at it. He has kids, as I learned from the quote, and that pretty much excuses his behavior in my opinion. Just like when a band sells out and lets their song play over a Chevy ad, I think, “well, this dude has a family and a bunch of bills to pay. I’m not going to get mad at him”.

    So fuck it. It’s just words anyway. If he was making a film or something and Kmart wanted to pay him to be the setting, that would be a little different. But it’s just a blog. Let the dude buy his kids some pants.

  4. I did a video post about this last night as well, and it seems to me that the answer to this is to only accept these types of sponsorships from companies you approve of. Maybe it’s just me, but as a business owner, I don’t do business with people or companies that I dislike or don’t trust, and I certainly wouldn’t take their advertising dollars. That being said, I’m sure there will be people who have no problem doing that, but I also think that readers are smart enough to sniff out the bullshit.
    Here is a link to my response if you are interested:

  5. “I told you up front that this was sponsored” isn’t accepted as “You can trust that every time I’m getting paid to tell you something, I’ll be transparent about it”

    That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? Had the EpicFU site said on it’s about page “we always disclose paid sponsorship in xyz manner” a year ago, I’d never have questioned it. It was their wording on the about page that said they were willing to experiment with product placement that made me question things.

    Brogan was completely transparent about things and shared what he got from K-Mart with disadvantaged kids. There were no unanswered questions. I trust that he’d be equally transparent and generous with any other corporate deals.

  6. @Melissa: I watched your video. I think it would be a VERY good idea to accept sponsorships only from companies you approve of, because otherwise, as you bring up in your video, you would have the personal dilemma of taking someone’s money to write a BAD review about them.

    The main issue, IMO is whether you’re seen as “shilling”, as quirk mentioned in comment #3. The concept, as you mention in the end of your video, of “being paid to have an opinion” doesn’t sit well with everyone.

  7. @Cheryl: You bring up a good point about the ambiguity of the NNN phrasing at that point in time, which Tim addressed in the thread of comments on your post.

    I suppose that if one is to get involved with being “paid to have an opinion”, as Melissa put it, the best one can hope for is to lay all the cards on the table and hopefully end up with as spiffy a reputation as one had going in and with a few more $$$ in-pocket, to boot.

  8. I get paid to write blog posts for all kinds of people/businesses. Most of the time I’m a ghostwriter, but sometimes I have a byline. I’ve not tried to monetize my own blog (at least not very well), but that doesn’t mean I won’t. I don’t understand how people that like to read this blogs think we are going to EAT or PAY BILLS if we can’t monetize somehow.

    This whole idea of writers as homeless people because we can’t pay our bills is getting on my nerves. (See funny NYT book review essay at the back today 12/14. )

    The new media will inevitably take on some characteristics of the old media–i.e. the need to make money. Who here thinks that the clothes in the spreads of Vogue are not influenced by advertising?

    Bloggers are not “impartial journalists” in the old sense. If a blog has no voice, no opinion, no independent thoughts, it is BORING and nobody will read it.

  9. What about buying and wearing a T-shirt that says Abercrombie on it? Branding is what makes that shirt more valuable than Kmart brand. Branding makes you cool. We give money to brands and do their dirty advertising work all the time (like Bill and Fosters :)).

    In this shifting business world, where we’re downsizing to “cafe-shaped conversations,” as Chris himself put it, massive brands are trying to figure out a way to adapt. There’s going to be some trial and error. Let’s keep playing.

    And then maybe one day we can all put our heads together and think of a better way for Web content folks to make a living besides advertising.

  10. @Katie: I agree with you entirely that people SHOULD be able to get money for blogging (or creating content, such as videos). I’ve been saying for almost two years now that the CPC/CPM model isn’t going to work because of the inability to break down demographics from IP addresses. As of the last year, I’ve been advocating product placement and sponsorship.

    The real question is how much does your “cred” rely on people considering you to be an impartial source of information? Ghost-writing, for instance, means that your skills are being used, but your name isn’t. All people know is that SOMEONE wrote a decent post. They don’t get to factor in “who you are” when they formulate their opinion about what you wrote.

    Similarly, I haven’t built my rep on being an advocate of ANYTHING, so I can sell anything I want, from Root Beer to Rolling Writer Pentel Pens. I can make it as if I actually USE those pens or as if I’m a paid actor in a commercial. It doesn’t make any difference, because I’m not asking anyone to trust my opinions.

    Not everyone has that luxury. Many people in this space rely completely on their word being trusted, because they’re selling concepts and ideas. They’re not ghost-writing about Twitter vs Pownce vs Jaiku. They’re co-signing with their WORD as well as their reputations. Unfortunately, a lot of people like for those (given out for FREE, as Chris mentions on his site) opinions to come with some form of pristine halo around them, handed down from the mount on two tablets, and any other format causes them to view the situation with suspicion.

  11. In it’s simplest form, this is how our economy works..pure capitalism whether it’s your brand or your product. Chris’ brand is his product and companies want to buy it. But it’s also a bit like drugs. Start with a $500 gift card, and where do you end up? In the end, it can devalue your product/opinion.

  12. @Emma: Actually, the Abercrombie branding makes the shirt more EXPENSIVE, not more VALUABLE. 😉 But I see your point, and I agree. *sips his Foster’s… AHHHHHH* 😀

    The business world is shifting, and even this conversation itself is MORE advertising for Kmart and ChrisBrogan and BillCammack and everyone else involved. This is SO much better than putting a commercial on a television station that only local people will see. We all live in different places and are considering the same topic and joining in on the same discussion.

    I only have 1500 followers, but all of them have followers and their followers have followers, so there’s really no telling how far our influence extends. Six months from now, we’ll all have more followers and better technology for interaction. Google and Facebook are spreading out into blogs as we speak. The concept of selling by word of mouth or based on people’s reputations is going to become way more important very soon.

    The trick is going to be figuring out how to leverage that without each person that tries to get paid from the personal network they’ve put together being labeled as a sellout and losing more credibility than the advertising campaign was worth to them in the first place.

  13. @Heather: Yes. It’s a strange dynamic.

    It’s like how people think they’re getting unbiased news from their local station, except that the station’s parent company is also a major defense contractor whose best interests are served by keeping people happy with the war so that’s what they feed to their local stations.

    I think it’s imperative for people to realize that it’s possible to receive money for creating content on the web without becoming beholding to the person or group that paid you. Like I said in the post, this is WAY easier to do when your content has nothing to do with what your sponsor’s selling.

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of people at this point that are on the money=bias side of the fence, so people that rely upon personality, credibility and reputation to move forward in their careers need to be VERY careful about how they’re perceived.

  14. Hi Bill,
    You and I touched base a long time ago (Mahalo Daily, maybe?) and I noted then that you are not only hugely talented in what you do, but a Very Nice Person, too. When I saw your name tweeted by Chris, whom I’ve also “known” for a long time, I had to come by and see what this was about.

    I have no problem with any of it, but healthy skepticism is always in order. I have 3 sponsors for one of my online weekly conferences. We have the logos on our sites, I try to mention them at the beginning or end of the recording. I am a customer of all three sponsors, and if I say they’re cool it’s from personal experience.

    I wouldn’t be happy with someone coming on and trashing one of my sponsors. But then, and this is the end of it, I wouldn’t be happy with someone trashing anyone. Unless it was Ebay, obviously 🙂

  15. The discussion is a worthy one, I suppose, but really, it’s no big deal. Brogan is a thought-leader, and he behaved as one in this instance. Thought leaders may be evaluated from day to day, whether they’re the US President, Ghandi, your dad, your boss, or a blogger. Their opinion is worth a lot, and applause is due K-mart for using this marketing strategy. It cost them $1000 for immense attention! What’s that focus really worth? And Brogan’s willingness to receive the funds in return for testing the product? He knows damn well his opinion can’t be bought. And since when are joint ventures with promising partners verbotten? Especially if it means a donation to charity and an offer to your following. Does anyone really think he did this for the money???

  16. @Randulo: Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

    The model you’re talking about is the same as Sarah’s on Pop17. We give you money, you mention our names, thank us for the money, and show our logos and advertisements. Nobody can argue with that. That’s basic and respected ROI.

    If I were to jump up in the middle of a video and start hawking McVicar Beer, I can get away with that, because my “cred” isn’t based on me NOT selling you anything. Whether I try to sell you hot dogs or cotton candy has ZERO bearing on whether I can edit video or not. Fortunately, the internet is easier to “change the channel” on than television itself, so if people don’t like my (hypothetical) ads, they can watch something else or unsubscribe from my feed.

    The problem occurs when you’re asking people to take your word for what the next up-and-coming technology’s going to be. If that’s your bread and butter, you want your rep to be impeccable instead of having the peanut gallery whispering about whether you got paid or not to endorse Twitter over Jaiku.

    So, do I think people should be paid to endorse products? Sure. Actors get paid to be in commercials for products they’ve never used, like those damned workout machines, for instance. The ones you’ve never seen in ANYBODY’S house or EVER heard of anyone using, but somehow, they found 8 people who swear up and down that it’s the reason they’re in such great shape. :/

  17. @Mary: Hi there. I don’t know if you mean THIS discussion, or the overall discussion about the Brogan/Kmart topic, but each individual will decide for themselves whether this is a big deal or not.

    The point here is “perception of credibility”. If we look at this realistically, probably 80% of Chris’ followers/fans/whatever will agree with you completely that it’s no big deal. My opinion is biased, because I actually know Chris. He’s not some hypothetical guru floating in the twitterverse to me. But… You have to consider the people that have no point of reference, the people who are easily swayed by gossip and the people who don’t have the ability to read posts that are more than 5 lines long.

    If someone feels your credibility is tainted, that affects their belief in anything else you have to say. So there’s no reason for that person to believe that Chris did what he said he did with the money, and there’s no reason for them NOT to believe “he did this for the money”.

    That’s MY point. I find the accusation of loss of integrity to be ridiculous, but I’m realistic about the fact that there are lots of people that take ridiculous concepts and run with them.

  18. Often the folks who complain about a blogger earning money for something (a post, an ad, a placement) are bloggers who don’t ever get offered money for anything.

    Loren Feldman did a video blog for this same exact promotion, and there were those who criticized him for it too. Would he, or Chris Brogan, have posted about an unsexy red state retailer had they not been paid to do so? I think not. However,if that retailer motivated them to go to his store (by paying them) and when they got there they found good value, convenience and actual cool stuff that they wanted…well then sure, why shouldn’t they write about it. If they found it awful, and still posted a glowing review, their reputation would soon suffer and their credibility would be compromised. And you know what, I don’t think either of them would do it, and I think most people know that.

    If some video editing software company paid you to use their product and it sucked, would you ever be able to post a good review? No. You’d either give the money back or you’d post a negative review. (and you’re right in saying that most people don’t want to do that if they’ve accepted money)

    As other commenters said, a good rule of thumb is to only accept money from companies who’s products you genuinely like. Don’t take the money if you don’t like the product. If you’ve established your credibility and you don’t let your readers down with disingenuous reviews, you’ll be fine.

    And working for no money is not an option for most of us, so if blogging is the business you’re in, you better be good enough to establish and maintain the credibility that has sponsors coming to you and readers trusting you. If that doesn’t happen you’ll just be blogging as a hobby… and in some cases you’ll resent those who get the sponsors.

  19. @Golf Girl: That’s a good analogy. Basically, you want to endorse products/services you believe in because if someone actually GOES THERE or BUYS what you recommended, you want them to enjoy their experience so your “cred” is bolstered, not diminished.

    One of the things about online advertising at this point is that sources of $$$ are so scarce that people end up accepting whatever sponsorships they can get as opposed to selecting the most attractive one from a bunch of “suitors”.

    So far, it’s only been the content creators that have an actual use for the sponsoring company’s product that have given believable verbal endorsements of the products past “this episode of ___ is brought to you by ___”. Also, sponsors tend to become involved after the fact, so they don’t really have anything to do with the actual MAKING of the episodes, so that opportunity to work product placement into the script is lost.

    This is really bigger than payment, though. That’s why I said to Mary (18) that each person will decide how big a deal this is for them. I’m in the next Indy Mogul episode that should be airing tomorrow (Tuesday). As much as I admire Erik, Justin, Jared & Steve and they’re all friends of mine, I had to read the script before I OKed my involvement.

    What you don’t want to happen to your personal brand is to accidentally (more like due to your own neglect) be a part of a video that you’re not willing to stand behind next week, next month, next year or WHENEVER.

    So “how much does it cost?” doesn’t refer to money. It refers to ANYTHING that you’re willing to lend YOUR personal or company brand to. Anything you get behind, Any Facebook group you join, Any Ning community you join, Any show you participate in, Any blog posts or other content you create, even Any comments you make on other people’s blogs add to people’s perception of you, so it’s really important to consider the potential cost of involvement if you’re building your career or personal reputation on the net.

  20. Hi Bill
    McVicar Beer has an official position that we do not pay per post, or per recommendation. Our elusive brew may not be available at your bar, so please enjoy your Foster’s and dream about McVicar Beer.

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