By adapting to audience sensibilities without superficiality, these creative content strategies have been able to achieve new levels of success.
In what is no doubt sure to ignite debate, Harvard Business Review recently released an essay on how branding has evolved in the era of social media communities. Despite the article’s impressive analysis of advertising media history and the evolution of connected, crowd-based cultures, the conclusion that “branded content has failed” in this new ecosystem does not necessarily seem to follow.
Look around: Examples of successful, engaging branded content abound. There are certainly countless failures, but the fact that lists of noteworthy digital marketing content are easy to come by is a clear testament to the industry’s resilience.
But how have brands been able to adapt their approach to meet the ever-changing connected cultural landscape? To answer this question, we sought to categorize the creative content strategies that seem to repeat in successful campaigns.
Tapping into Subcultures
One of the predominant cultural evolutions that HBR highlights is how online communities have allowed subcultures to expand in size and activity. “Back in the day,” author Douglas Holt writes, “these subculturalists had to gather physically and had very limited ways to communicate collectively.” Now, finding these groups is as simple as performing a quick online search. Anyone who wants to establish new communities can do so overnight with tools like custom wikis and fan-specific social media accounts.
Brands that deploy correctly positioned campaigns can actually help their content strategies succeed because of these subcultures, not in spite of it. We provided a recent example in our Valentine’s Day post about how Sour Patch Kids encouraged fanfiction writers to participate in a sponsored contest.
The HBO series Game of Thrones found a way to tap further into the habits and preferences of subcultures. A 2015 SMS-based campaign offered up video clips to users with the catch that provided links would expire within 90 seconds. These fleeting glimpses of the upcoming season frustrated participants at first. Then, they began to collaborate in forums to discuss details held within the clips. Since users received one of several clips and each clip could only be described, not linked to, the campaign furthered the need for community interaction to unravel its secrets.
Defining Cultural Disruption
Subcultures typically revolve around hobbies or experiences. Douglas Holt points to Chipotle and how, prior to recent incidents, they were able to position themselves as the antithesis of industrialized, factory-farming-sourced restaurant models, tapping into a trend for healthier food.
Shoe brand TOMS provides an even better example. Their promise to mail shoes to children in impoverished countries clicked with apparel buyers who wanted ethics interwoven with their footwear. “We’re not just selling — we’re also a movement,” says TOMS chief digital officer Zita Cassizzi. Each purchase becomes akin to consumer-enabled activism, which appeals to core ethical values of the market. “Today most customers, especially millennials, have to have that intrinsic value,” Cassizzi emphasizes.
Redefining Creative Content Strategies on Audiences’ Terms
Holt’s assertion that traditional media gatekeepers have been dismantled to the detriment of branded content may be partially true, but the examples above illustrate how new brands have been able to ascend and capture attention. By adapting to the sensibilities of their audiences and not just the superficial qualities, branded content has been able to achieve new levels of engagement and authenticity that rival the ad formats of old.