Branded content is not necessarily a new concept, but it’s gained a lot steam over the past year. With people consuming more information than ever, marketers have discovered a way to seamlessly weave their brands into larger pools of useful and valuable content.

There are many benefits to branded content, both for consumers and brands. For marketers, quality content is extremely sharable through social media and can spread quickly. If you’re a consumer, content marketing can be informative, entertaining, and more interactive than traditional marketing.

Here’s a more detailed look at the benefits of branded content, along with several examples from which you can draw inspiration and ideas for your own campaign.

It’s Valuable to Customers

News providers like the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Mashable offer advertisers the chance to produce content centered around relevant themes and then publish that content alongside their own. For example, last August, General Mills partnered with Huffington Post to create a microsite called Live Better America. The site focuses on healthy living with articles from doctors and experts, while subtly advertising General Mills brands with banner ads.

Another great example of valuable branded content is American Express Open Forum. Amex has created an amazing resource for business owners that also complements its own line of business credit services. In addition to articles on a variety of topics, Amex offers free business “Crash Courses,” ranging from lead generation to perfecting your elevator pitch. Most contributors to Open Forum are business owners themselves, and provide great points of view for fellow entrepreneurs.

It Informs

Providing potential customers with something other than a blatant marketing message can give you a leg up on other brands. While traditional marketing is about pushing a unique selling proposition, branded content is the opposite — people first, product second, or even third, according to Big Fuel COO Avi Savar. He led the first ever Branded Content and Entertainment jury at Cannes this past summer. Chipotle’s “Cultivate” campaign was awarded a Grand Prix, the second most prestigious award at Cannes.

The campaign was a perfect storm of compassion and buzz, and featured a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” performed by Willie Nelson. The video (embedded above) tells a story of a farmer who had enough of unethical farming practices and gets back to his farming roots. It’s not directly about Chipotle’s products, but it informs viewers about an important social issue while subtly playing off of its value proposition that Chipotle only serves “food with integrity.”

For the past two years, Chipotle has also hosted a very large-scale form of branded content: a free “Cultivate Festival” in Chicago, complete with well-known musical acts, famous chefs, and local farmers.

It’s Great for B2B Brands

Business-to-business (B2B) companies don’t normally have the chance to leverage the same spectrum of creativity that business-to-consumer (B2C) brands enjoy. B2B’s are usually selling a huge investment to other companies, and establishing themselves as trustworthy thought leaders. This requires a lot of quality content and research to back up their respective products and services.

Social media, blogging, infographics and white papers are driving the majority of B2B businesses’ marketing efforts, as well as lead generation activities. In fact, 51 percent of B2B marketers recently identified content marketing as their number one source for leads, with sales activities only accounting for 29 percent, according to a recent study by B2B Magazine.

It’s Easy to Share

If you create interesting and worthwhile content, people are much more likely to spread it . Fast Company recently covered Holstee, a company that creates products made from recycled materials. The Holstee co-founders wrote a manifesto with typography artwork and posted it on its website to share the company’s values and mission with its customers.

The two co-founders weren’t aiming to create something viral, but the manifesto spread rapidly on social media and blogs, especially on visual platforms like Tumblr and Pinterest. Holstee sold out of the first batch of products, as well as posters printed with the manifesto — which resulted in 50 percent of its revenue for 2011! Not only did the manifesto increase sales, it encouraged people to start living the message. Holstee has taken branded content even further, and now has a whole platform called MyLife where people can share stories that were inspired by the manifesto.

Have you heard of branded content? Know of any creative examples of branded content marketing? Share your thoughts in the comments.

[Image credits: Baltic Development Forum, Yinghai]