Though brand-created content is not novel, the practice fully bloomed in social-media-saturated 2012. Last year we debated, "Should brands be doing this publishing thing?" This year we debated, "How should they do it?" Meanwhile, a million content marketing experts parachuted in from the sky.
There have certainly been flops (which by definition, most of us didn't hear about), but some branded content campaigns stood out as models for an industry that 's largely on board with content marketing, but still spreading its wings. Here are seven examples of brands that used content to build awareness in 2012:
Expedia's Find Yours
In an admirable willingness to take thematic risks, travel site Expedia produced a dozen videos to tell stories of emotional journeys—from cancer survivors to marriage equality to finding true love. An excellent example of a branding campaign through content marketing, Find Yours aimed to tie Expedia to feelings of boldness and discovery rather than sell plane tickets on the spot.
Expedia resisted the urge to drop "and you can find the best price on air travel" plugs in its stories, following content marketing's rule of thumb: if it feels like marketing, no one will spread it for you.
Facebook wants to be the brand that 's synonymous with everything that 's interesting about life. To promote that idea, in August, the social network launched a monthly online magazine called Facebook Stories to showcase the interesting ways in which people use technology to change their lives.
Each month has a different theme – from "Remembering" to "Degrees of Separation" to "Election Day." As people increasingly live their lives on social networks, Facebook is contracting journalists and well-known authors like Joshua Foer (and partnering with The New Yorker) to collect and tell extraordinary tales.
The result? A fascinating collection of original journalism, video, and interactive graphics that lives off of Facebook's main network, but has been shared across the web.
Disclosure: Facebook uses technology from the author's company to power Facebook Stories.
Midway through the year, the world's largest soda maker flipped its corporate homepage, coca-colacompany.com, from standard investor relations to a digital magazine, complete with infographics, stories, and opinion posts by people like the former President of Ireland.
In a twist on "traditional" content marketing, Journey is targeting Coca-Cola investors and folks who specifically want content about the brand itself. With a regular refresh rate, Coke is telling the stories it wishes the press would write: how it's helping veterans find jobs, how its promotion of healthy lifestyle preceded the NYC "soda ban," and inside looks at a Coca-Cola sponsored game to help fight AIDS.
Unlike the average corporate blog, Coca-Cola has treated Journey as a legitimate newsroom, contracting quality writers, photographers, and guest posters. Also, they posted the recipe for French Toast With Vanilla Coke, which looks like pure bliss.
Jay -Z's Life and Times
As Jay -Z's popularity seems to never stop rising, the Brooklyn-bred rapper has become more than a guy with a microphone. He's become a brand behind basketball teams, clothing lines, and record companies.
It was not surprising to see Jay -Z launch the website LifeandTimes.com in 2011. In 2012, he cranked up the grid-style magazine's content, showcasing stories of technology, style, and sports. Jay -Z staffs the site with in-house video producers and writers from Essence and GQ.
The result is an ongoing lifestyle campaign that keeps Jay -Z fans constantly reminded about his various enterprises. One might call it content marketing for brand retention.
The technology brand that makes the chips inside most of our phones realized it had a problem when surveys indicated even early adopters had no idea what Qualcomm did. So the company launched Spark, a technology "conversation starter" blog with contributors like Gizmodo/Engadget/GDGT founder Peter Rojas, X PRIZE coordinater Peter Diamandis, and Harvard professors.
Each month, Qualcomm posts a theme with a video documentary and supporting stories in an effort to expose techies to the brand, shift perceptions, and reach influencers. By recruiting many of those influencers to write for them, Spark came out the gate at top speed.
Toshiba and Intel's The Beauty Inside
After crowdsourced auditions, Intel and Toshiba's six-part web film put unknown actors on screen, with movie star voice-over. The film's main character, Alex, wakes up every day in a different body. He—what's inside—stays the same.
It's a moving story that viewers felt part of ; Alex interacted with Facebook fans, and the fans became Alex. The point of the campaign, obviously, was to remind people of Intel's core message: what's inside counts. The film didn't need to talk about computers or use product placement to convey the point, and it garnered millions of views.
Of course, several well-known content marketing campaigns continued to churn forward in 2012, including Red Bull, which we'd be amiss to leave unmentioned. The drink company turned media juggernaut followed up its 2011 standout snowboarding film, The Art of Flight, with four more film works this year—from a 3D surfing movie to a TV series about gaming.
Miles ahead of other brands in the content game, Red Bull further solidified its brand positioning with relentless action-sports stories on its site, another 12 issues of its magazine, The Red Bulletin, and video series like the guy who does backflips off of the world's great monuments.
Effective branded content is original, pleasing and evocative. It aligns a brand with a message that people are willing to share. As brands mature in their content and social marketing, they realize that curating bits of other people's brands is dilutive, and superficial social posting is as fruitless as the content farm tactics that died in 2011.
In 2013, I think we'll see a lot more branded content campaigns grow up, which is pretty exciting.