Unbranded content provides unique ways to experiment

Content creation has been the rage for a while, but as brands continue to compete for consumers' attention, more are turning to lightly or unbranded content to break through the clutter.

First Kiss, a video produced by fashion label Wren, garnered more than 100 million views in the first few months of launching online.
First Kiss, a video produced by fashion label Wren, garnered more than 100 million views in the first few months of launching online.

Content creation has been the rage for a while, but as brands continue to compete for consumers’ attention, more are turning to lightly or unbranded content to break through the clutter.

One company that has paved the way is Chipotle, which launched its Back to the Start campaign in 2011 with an animated video focusing on farming and sustainability. The clip only showcases Chipotle once, right at the end. Two years later, the brand did something similar with The Scarecrow video, which also zeroed in on agriculture and only showed the Chipotle logo one time.

The brand recently released an original online series, Farmed and Dangerous, which featured two brief visual references to Chipotle, says director of communications Chris Arnold.

"These content programs are much more about issues than Chipotle," he explains. "It isn’t necessarily an immediate marketing benefit for Chipotle; it’s to make people more curious about where food comes from."

Chipotle, which only spends 1.75% of its revenue on advertising, compared to the industry average of about 5% to 7%, has found that entertaining content engages consumers.

However, Arnold advises that it must be high quality to turn heads and it comes with potential risks.

Fashion label Wren learned this in March when it launched a video called First Kiss that took the Internet by storm and received a mix of positive and negative reactions.

Melissa Coker, creative director and founder of Wren, was surprised that some consumers felt somewhat deceived by the video since it stated "Wren presents" at the beginning.

Despite criticism, First Kiss, which shows 10 strangers kissing for the first time and was produced at a cost of $1,500, garnered more than 100 million views in the first two months of launching and received significant media coverage, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and Harper’s Bazaar.

Even though some people were unhappy when they found out the video was created by a brand, Coker says it still benefited Wren because it "continued the conversation." According to CNBC.com, Wren’s sales increased 14,000% in months after the launch.

Going forward, Coker says Wren will continue using the digital space to "communicate the brand in interesting and engaging ways."

Taking the first step
Lightly and unbranded content is "something clients are increasingly focused on," says MWW’s Mitzi Emrich, chief social strategist at the firm.

She says the important first step is having data and analytics around what the company’s target audience wants or needs to hear.

"A lot of brands think [unbranded content] is talking about a product and not putting a logo on it, but that’s not the case," Emrich says, because it must add value to a consumer’s life. She adds that brands should only create unbranded content when there is a need for it rather than because so many other companies are doing it.

Branded hubs with unbranded content

Brands that want to play in the unbranded space, but don’t want to create their own content should think about creating a branded hub with unbranded content, such as DarkRye.com, Whole Foods’ online magazine, says Mitzi Emrich, MWW’s chief social strategist.

The site features completely independent content on a range of topics, including food, sustainability, and technology. In January, DarkRye launched as a series on Pivot, showcasing stories about entrepreneurs, artists, and more.

Freshwire, a content strategy and creation service operated and managed by FleishmanHillard, believes the "best type of content doesn’t make the brand the hero, and lightly or unbranded content often is the best structure for that," says chief creative officer Sarah Amos.

She agrees with Chipotle’s Arnold that content must be quality but it also must "avoid being boring," since so many pieces are being pushed out and those with compelling characters or stories will rise above others.

To avoid being a "one-hit wonder," she says it’s important for brands to create long-term strategies to continue momentum. 

Brands should think of it as a "space to experiment," adds Amos, which may mean partnering with other brands, people, or organizations.

"At the end of the day, it’s a lasting impression," she says, "but it is also digital, and you will have a chance to do it again tomorrow, so why not take a few risks and try something outside of the box."

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