Who would have thought satire could improve your content marketing strategy?

Case in point: This recent Onion article, “Dad Hands Phone Off to Mom Immediately After Being Wished Happy Father’s Day.” Just another one of The Onion’s classic, irreverent takes on family dynamics, right?

Wrong. It’s actually a post sponsored by Dewar’s.

So much focus on content development centers around customer pain points, brand value-adds and building up a massive repository of content that you can miss out on great opportunities to increase brand awareness outside the borders of your own site.

We’re talking, of course, about branded content, and if you’re not at least exploring the benefits of this approach, you could have a gaping hole sitting smack dab in the middle of your content strategy.

What is branded content marketing and why does it work?

Branded content can take many forms, which inevitably leads to confusion regarding what, exactly, we mean when we talk about this style of digital marketing. There are even those who claim that branded content marketing is nothing more than advertising with a fancy new sobriquet. That’s not true, of course, but it doesn’t stop people from saying it.

What differentiates branded content from advertising and other forms of marketing? In essence, it’s the approach you take to telling your brand story: rather than build around the product, you build around the person.

Let’s go back to that Onion article. It doesn’t mention Dewar’s Scotch until the very end, instead focusing the meat of the piece on people and the shared experience of having phone-shy fathers. It’s also well-timed, directly using Father’s Day as an opportunity to say, “Hey, maybe you should buy that old lug a bottle of Scotch?”

A more typical example of branded content is Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which used creative video content to question viewers’ low perceptions of their own attractiveness. Two very different approaches to branded content, but they both succeed in engaging audience members on a more emotional level without explicitly pushing their products.

Dove’s exercise in branded content marketing was widely successful, netting 50 million views in the first 12 days of the video campaign’s release.

There’s good reason to think those results are readily repeatable too: A 2016 study jointly published by Forbes, S.I. Newhouse School and IPG Media Lab revealed that brand recall on branded content was 59 percent higher than standard display ads. Furthermore, consumers were 14 percent more likely to look for more content published by a particular brand after viewing a single piece of branded content.

Branded content marketing is a wholly unique way for you to engage your audience, and when done right, it’s a very effective tool for raising brand awareness.

Here’s how you can create winning branded content:

1. Focus on content that appeals to a broad audience

Sometimes it’s hard to get out of that laser-sighted content marketing mindset – the one where you agonize over a specific segment of your target audience and all of the pain points you could help solve if they only just purchased your products or services. But a branded content marketing strategy should ease up on that particular aspect and try to communicate a more general message that appeals to a broader message. The name of the game here is brand awareness.

If you’re having trouble turning off the marketing center of your brain, consider this piece of advice, courtesy of Forbes contributor Amanda Brinkman: Create content you yourself would actually want to read or watch. When you go home for the day and unwind, do you hop around from content marketing site to content marketing site, reading up on the latest industry buzz and thought leadership pieces? C’mon, you know you’d rather spend your free time watching YouTube videos and reading Reddit.

(No judgment if you just can’t stop reading content marketing blogs. We all have our vices.)

If you’re a video hound, what kind of content actually gets your views? Would you watch something like that Dove campaign even if it wasn’t a marketing milestone?

Or, if you’re more into the written – and we assume you are, seeing as you’re reading a content marketing blog and all – what’s guaranteed to not only grab your attention but hold your interest? That’s what makes brand partnerships with outlets like The Onion so genius: You can create material with the intent to first and foremost entertain. Readers may pick up on your value props, but they’re not the focus.

We always say, “Put yourself in your audience’s shoes,” but in this case, put yourself in your own shoes. That shouldn’t be too difficult, should it?

2. Give your storytelling purpose

The irreverence and satire of The Onion isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re more interested in creating a branded content marketing strategy with a little more emotional heft, then go for it. Giving your content a stated purpose is a great way to craft a campaign that really resonates with a broad audience. Being entertaining doesn’t mean your content needs to be devoid of a strong message.

One example of purposeful storytelling comes from a pretty unlikely source: Smirnoff. Last year, the vodka brand partnered with Vice and its EDM-focused publication, Thump, to address the gender equality disparity in music festivals. The resulting branded content marketing campaign has effectively raised awareness about this problem, and the partners hope to ultimately help double the number of women headliners at electronic music festivals.

There are real business-related benefits to working a strong message into your branded content storytelling. For instance, it can help endear your brand to a younger, idealistic audience. According to a Cone Communications study, 90 percent of millennials would switch brands to buy from a company that aligned itself with a cause they believed in.

A recent Harvard Business Review study found that giving your company and brand a sense of purpose can have a significant positive impact on your operations and your bottom line. These businesses tend to be more profitable, have more engaged and productive employees and a more loyal customer base.

Whether there’s a charity your business supports or a cause your staff feels strongly about, working that message into your storytelling shows clients that you’re more than a faceless organization.

Of course, one always needs to be wary of supporting controversial positions that could turn away just as many people as they attract. Really think through how people are likely to respond to your message so you don’t risk potentially alienating some consumers.

3. Put your brand on the backburner

I know, I know, this is the antithesis of everything we’ve ever been taught about content marketing, but sometimes it pays to keep your brand in the background, if it’s present at all. When building a branded content marketing campaign that focuses on the stories of individual people – especially if it’s gunning for an inspirational tone – it’s often best to have your brand step aside and let someone else grab the spotlight.

Our Social Times highlighted two examples of this approach in action. The first, a 7-minute feature on Usain Bolt created by Gatorade, features the brand sparingly, with that trademark lightning bolt logo only briefly surfacing. You really gotta hand it to those Gatorade folks for showing such restraint. Lesser marketing teams would have plastered that iconic logo all over any content featuring a guy with the last name “Bolt.”

 

The other branded content example is a video from Samsung and Vimeo’s “Connected Series” campaign. Called “Hearing Colors,” the video centers around a man with a rare sensory condition so extraordinary that Oliver Sacks could have written an entire book about it. That’s not some clever title; the man in question can actually hear colors with the help of an antenna implanted in the back of his head.

Samsung goes even further than Gatorade to remove itself as the focal point of the content. In fact, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t even realize Samsung was involved at all unless you read the video description. The electronics brand isn’t mentioned once during the 5-minute video. That may seem like a big gamble, but if you’re confident in the quality of your storytelling, it’s a risk worth taking.

Branded content marketing poses a unique challenge to digital marketers. It requires a deft touch and, at times, asks us to go against basic principles of marketing in the pursuit of entertaining and meaningful content. If you can find the right partner, the right message and the right material, branded content will generate more brand awareness than you ever thought possible.

Jeff Keleher is a writer and editor at Brafton. A man of simple tastes, he enjoys playing guitar, playing video games and playing with his dog - sometimes all at once. He still hasn't gotten over Illinois' loss in the 2005 NCAA National Championship game, and he probably never will.