The business case for unbranded content

unbranded content

By Mark Schaefer

In this age of overwhelming content, our consumers can steer around whatever bores them. You could have a massive marketing budget and team of writers and designers, but if no one engages enough to share your content and ideas, then it’s just not working.

Power on the web comes from social sharing and that happens by focusing your resources on building trust, not traffic. Clearly we must move toward a day when corporate content puts people first and aims to be as good or better than something we would read in our favorite magazines.

One trend that seems to be building steam is content that has so little branding, so little selling, that it may be difficult to tell who is behind it at all.

What? Why would you create content and not even take credit for it? Turns out, there could be some very good reasons. Let’s take a deeper look at the business case for unbranded content through three interesting case studies.

1. Using unbranded content when branding is impossible

Like every pharmaceutical company, Merck (a client) is dramatically constrained on what they can say about their products. How do you help people and answer their questions with all these federal regulations?

The answer? You don’t make the content about the product. You make it about the problem.

Merck’s new drug Belsomra provides new hope for people who suffer with insomnia. The company created an unbranded television commercial encouraging people to visit a “Why So Awake” website:

unbranded content

The website discusses new research on the causes of insomnia and encourages them to talk to their doctor about alternatives. The site never mentions the new drug, and in fact the only branding on the entire site is that tiny blue ball in the lower left corner, which says “Merck.”

Turns out, people are smart and a high percentage of them are moving from this site to the Merck site to learn about the drug. The unbranded content is driving new customers to the branded site where, by law, the amount of information about insomnia is limited.

2. Unbranded content as a conversational moment.

Boutique online clothing retailer Wren faced the ultimate marketing dilemma: How to create a conversational moment for a start-up on a low budget.

The answer in this case was a short film called First Kiss, which shows 20 strangers (all friends of Wren’s founder Melissa Coker). The company had launched little films each season for the past three years, but Kiss went crazy.

The film, which cost just $1,500 to make was shared 1.1 million times on Buzzfeed alone and has earned more than 110 million views on YouTube. First Kiss also received significant media coverage, including The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, and Harper’s Bazaar, making Wren a globally-recognized brand.

The beauty of the film is that the content was about the awkwardness of a first kiss, not about the clothes (although it did feature Wren clothing):

If you can’t view this video in your browser, you can see it on YouTube: First Kiss.

The only way you would know who created this film are brief words at the beginning: “presented by Wren.” It doesn’t even identify Wren as a clothing company. But the film created such a frenzy (both positive and negative) that people dug deep to find out who was behind it. Here are the results, directly attributable to the lightly-branded film:

  • 1,400 percent increase in sales
  • 15,000 percent increase in traffic
  • 96 percent first-time visitors

3. When the community is more important than your product

One of my favorite content marketing case studies is BabyCenter. This site is among the top destinations on the web for baby and parenting advice and has so much wonderful content for new parents and young families. It even provides personalized content for you in each month of your baby’s life.

But who owns it, and who is creating the volumes and volumes of content that fuels the site? You probably won’t find it on the website:

unbranded content

BabyCenter is owned by multinational company Johnson & Johnson (a client). J&J has some of the best marketers in the world and they know that connecting baby-related content to new parents is a very special privilege, a sacred privilege in fact. Blasting J&J all over the site would have jeopardized that trust by making it seem like too much of an ad.

So the site is completely unbranded. But what it might be losing in name recognition, it more than makes up in data — a global database of new parents and their children. The site is also sustained through advertising, coupons, and sampling.

Six ways to make unbranded content work for you

The fact that companies willingly spend money to NOT promote their products represents a power shift and a logical response to Content Shock and the overwhelming choices before our customers.

In many respects unbranded content is good news for those consumers.

In the case of Merck, it unshackled a marketer from regulatory agencies that are out of step with consumer needs.

For Wren, a lightly-branded film provided a spark of mystery and delight that provoked a conversational moment and emotional connection.

BabyCenter provides J&J with a space to tell a story and to honor the sanctity of parenthood without a pressure to sell.

Unbranded content places the focus on the content, the story, the viewer — which is where it should have been all along.

As I learn about this trend, here are six best practices to keep in mind:

  1. Add value to a consumer’s life
  2. Take a risk, do something conversation-worthy
  3. People like emotional content. A lot. Bring emotion into the story.
  4. Spark curiosity
  5. Look for the open space. If your content niche is saturated, this might be a differentiation strategy
  6. Create a strategy that builds momentum, not just one hit. All of these sites continue to provoke thought, deliver value and inform.

I would love to hear about your thoughts on unbranded content, and other success stories, in the comment section.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and abstracted eye

All posts

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast!

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details

Share via