The Best Branded Content Partnerships of 2015

10 Publisher-Brand Partnerships That Stood Out, from Netflix+WSJ to GE+NYT

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To say native content has grown since last year would be an understatement. In 2014, Pressboard combed through 1,500 pieces of content for our "best of" list -- this year it was closer to 7,000. To give you an idea of how far the space has come, we had to buy VR headsets just to review a couple of the entries.

2015 was the year that native content moved from experimental to fundamental and nearly every major publisher and brand discovered the power of stories, instead of ads. Here are some of the best from the last 12 months:

1. NetFlix + The Wall Street Journal: Cocainenomics

Netflix isn't just changing the TV landscape -- it is changing the way publishers build their native content programs, too. First it was the New York Times and "Orange is The New Black;" then Wired and "TV Got Better." Now it's "Narcos." Netflix has partnered with WSJ to create an incredibly immersive experience driven by one idea -- telling the story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel through a business and economics lens. The epic custom piece clocks in at nearly 4,000 words and is supported by interactive maps, custom videos and an Escobar quiz that has been played over 500,000 times. Consider it El Patron of native content.

2. Nokia + Wired: #MakeTechHuman

Nokia may have sold off its phone business to Microsoft, but the company is still aiming to resolve some serious global issues. Its year-long partnership with Wired, titled #MakeTechHuman, explores topics such as privacy, artificial intelligence, connection and equity. The piece de resistance is a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) featuring none other than Professor Stephen Hawking, which still stands as one of the most popular AMAs in Reddit history.

3. Tabasco + Thrillist: Boldest Grilling Guide

Guys go to Thrillist to find out what to eat, drink and buy. Leveraging this influence, Tabasco partnered with Thrillist to create the "Boldest Grilling Guide" -- a digital recipe book for the man who loves to grill. The custom-content hub comes complete with a side of, well, sides. Accompaniments are curated from some of the country's greatest restaurants and chefs and broken down into simple steps for the non-chef.

4. Mini + Fast Company: The New Magic

To support the release of Mini VR Films' "Backwater"and "Real Memories," The New Magic content hub explores the coming applications of virtual reality and what it means for the future of entertainment, education, healthcare and journalism. The six-part series includes history lessons, interviews with VR pioneers and an exploration of the emotional and empathetic effects of being immersed in the news, instead of simply watching it.

5. Clorox + Huffington Post: Don't Stress the Mess

Combining custom videos, quizzes and an addictive "Who Made the Mess, Dog or Kid?" click-and-reveal, this program embraces life's messes through a combination of brand content and curated HuffPost editorial.

6. Cathay Pacific + Mashable: #OneDayOffline

No one is more acutely aware of how much of our lives are moving online than Mashable. Its partnership with Cathay Pacific explored what people would do with #OneDayOffline. A handful of people were flown in from around the world for a digital detox in upstate New York, where they ate, drank and picked apples that had nothing to do with Mac. The content has garnered more than 4.5k shares.

7. Ford + Hearst: The Code

Hearst leveraged all of its torque to bring "Built Ford Tough" to life. Over a nine-month period, a team of dedicated editors created more than 120 pieces of original content detailing the skills and gear every man should have. Under the name "The Code," the editorial program ran across Car and Driver, Esquire, Popular Mechanics and Road & Track.

8. Hulu + Gawker: Difficult People

Branded content tends to be overwhelmingly positive in nature, with very few brands looking to associate themselves with controversial or negative topics. That can't be said, however, for the Hulu and Gawker partnership promoting the original series "Difficult People." The content program features stories such as "NYC's Worst Places and the Jerks Who Live There" and an original video starring "The Disgustings," dispensing unwanted relationship advice every happy couple needs.

9. Revlon + Refinery29: Signs of Love

This year-long partnership pairs Revlon with one of Refinery29's most popular content themes -- astrology. The series combines love horoscopes with makeup looks, gorgeous photography and snackable video how-tos. The content fits in nicely with both Refinery29's standard fare and Revlon's "Love Is On" strategy.

10. GE + New York Times: How Nature is Inspiring Our Industrial Future

It wouldn't be a "best of" list without GE. Each year the brand pushes the content benchmark higher, and 2015 was no exception. GE's partnership with the New York Times uncovers how scientists at GE study butterfly wings to develop better sensors, take cues from whale fins for jet engines and explore how fish schools can help us build better wind farms. The piece moves well beyond words with the filming of a custom virtual reality video. This was TBrand's 100th campaign and Sebastian Tomich, VP-advertising and innovation at The New York Times, told me that "nothing marks our journey more than producing a film with GE that's on the cutting edge of video technology."

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