To Brand or Not to Brand: The Power of Unbranded Content

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This week on my walk to the office, something caught my eye. It was a giant yellow digital billboard emblazoned  with the words, ‘To Lauren, I’m sorry but I’m leaving you. Here’s why: Adam’.


I expect that if you live in Manchester, you too have seen one of these billboards by now, or at least read about it in the Manchester Evening News.

Intrigued by the billboard, I stopped in the middle of the road to find the logo. This must surely be an advertising campaign? I waited for the screen to change to reveal the logo. But nothing happened. Was it some bizarre ploy to promote a CV?

I couldn’t work it out. So I Googled it.

The Leaving Lauren Campaign

Googling led me to a landing page in the same yellow hue as the billboard, featuring a video clip of a man talking to ‘Lauren’ about his decision for the break up. Turns out, it’s an advertising strategy by TfGM to encourage Mancunians to ‘break up’ with their car and use public transport instead.

And there we have one of the most oblique pieces of unbranded content I’ve seen in quite some time.

*Note: I’m not quite convinced of the effectiveness of using billboards for this and I also think this heavily falls into the duped category (keep reading), but nonetheless it’s clever and makes for a good example for the purpose of this blog.

Unbranded content pretty much does what it says on the tin: it doesn’t contain any reference to a product or brand. Lightly branded content, on the other hand, does mention the brand, but in a very subtle way. For both, the content itself may not be directly relevant to the brand or what it usually advertises.  As the  Content Marketing Institute states, it’s a more subtle approach to improving your brand image, gaining vital inbound links and shares, and eventually increasing online conversions.

So why do brands do it, and does it work? While doing research for this piece, a couple of things became evident. Unbranded content must add value. It must be planned carefully and be committed to. And it must not upset your audience. Heaven forbid if audiences feel like they’ve been duped…

Unbranded content must add value. It must be planned carefully and be committed to. (tweet this)

As seen with the ‘Adam and Lauren’ campaign, people (press included) like talking about unbranded content, especially if it contains an air of mystery or is particularly powerful. This generates conversation, and as a brand or business that’s music to ears. One strong example to illustrate this is the First Kiss video. You may remember seeing a film a couple of years ago that showed ‘strangers’ sharing a first kiss. Promoted as a kind of social experiment the artistically filmed video quickly went viral; garnering more than 100 million views in the first couple of months and receiving extensive coverage from the likes of The New York Times, The Guardian and Harpers Bazaar. What started as social video content went on to become one of the most watched videos of the year.

What many people didn’t realise was that the video was created by clothing brand Wren. The film does open with ‘Wren Presents’ but blink and you’d probably miss it. When audiences found out that the video was in effect an advertising campaign (all the ‘strangers’ were wearing Wren clothing), it sparked negative feedback. Did Wren mind so much? I highly doubt it. The video led to an increase in traffic of 14,000% and boosted sales by 13,000%. Wren’s creative director Melissa Coker said herself that the criticism helped ‘continue the conversation’.

Now, I’m not suggesting that brands set out to employ underhand tactics to boost sales. I don’t doubt that Wren saw it as an advertising opportunity but I also believe they did set out to create a great piece of visual content that would add value to people’s lives. And they succeeded.

L’Oreal – the world’s third biggest marketer has also embraced the power of unbranded content. Their beauty site, Fab, is driven by beauty and fashion influencers and targets hardcore beauty fans. Fab isn’t for driving sales (they actively showcase rival brands), it’s for securing engagement.

Dan Williams, a planner at Leo Burnett’s luxury and lifestyle division explains the reasoning: “Only confident brands can do this. It’s a smart way to engage an audience when everyone else is pushing messages. And it’s a good testing bed — you can use the data to inform your brand and its products.”

In fact, even at Online Ventures Group we’ve experimented with lightly branded content to great effect. As a project for one of our clients, Time Recruitment, we created a fake job site called Westeros Recruitment to coincide with the launch of Game of Thrones series 6. The site was a huge success, receiving worldwide coverage from the likes of Mashable, Yahoo News and Grazia and generating over 78.5k social shares. The only reference to OVG was a small logo in one of the corners and of course promotion from our social media accounts. Yet the campaign has led to a nomination for a prestigious industry award.

Westeros Recruitment Website

Audiences want informing. They want entertaining. They want engaging. If that means toning down your branding, so be it. Just pretty please make your audience’s click, read or view worth their while.

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About Olwen Shaw

Olwen is OVG's Communications Director and has a particular interest in all things social media. She's a fan of nana-ish activities, running (sort of) and really wants to own a dog named Atticus.

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