Branded Content Marketing to Millenials
Branded Content: Using authenticity to create a brand that your customers love

Branded Content

“People hate advertising, but they love brands.”

This statement stirred a mixed reaction in the crowd. A 50/50 split of unconvinced head shakers, mixed in with bright eyed, agreeable note takers. I focused my attention back to the stage to see where Hassan Ali was going with this.

“I get it, we all need to sell, but the way we do so needs to adapt.”

I do nod my head in agreement to this statement.

Ali, Creative Marketing Director at The Onion was presenting “Get Real. Cut the BS” – his session about using branded content to market to millennials at Digital Summit Seattle.

Branded content was not a new concept to me. I was a big believer in it, especially as we were working towards cracking the elusive millennial market. In addition to that, we were working hard to increase our unaided first mention brand awareness with all Canadians. Talk about a broad target market. In doing so, we’d dabbled with branded content with a few national publishers, focusing primarily on video content.

The key to branded content is authenticity. Give people something real to consume. Give them a story that is meaningful – something that makes them feel something. Maybe it’s humour, or perhaps sadness. It could even be motivation. It’s just gotta be something. As soon as it feels like an ad or a sales pitch, you’ve lost the branded content game.

Branded content isn’t about generating leads or sales…directly. Yes, of course, the end goal of any marketing will be to sell more, but ultimately what you’re doing is making a real connection with your target audience. By layering your brand on top of a publisher’s brand, venn diagram style, you’re goal is to reach your target audience in that overlap sweet spot.

Branded Content Marketing Diagram

If you’re able to do that, and execute it well, you’ll be creating brand awareness, affinity and preference. You’re making them love you.

Why Branded Content Works

It forces creativity

A properly developed and executed branded content campaign forces the lazy marketer to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. Tell a story. Be bold. Get creative. Make it whatever you want. You’re not confined to a :15 or :30, and certainly not to the standard big box or leaderboard ad specs. No borders, no boundaries. Pure opportunity.


Branded content must pass the bull shit filter and force your brand to be truly authentic. It shouldn’t feel like a commercial. It should evoke emotion. It should be shareable. If it’s done right, your audience will let their guard down and allow themselves to consume the content. This makes a lot of brand owners uncomfortable, but your audience will appreciate it. And research shows that well executed branded content is more memorable, helps build positive brand association and drives purchase consideration, especially amongst the millennial crowd.

Leverage a publisher

One of the best ways to make branded content work for you is to partner with a trusted publisher – one that has build trust with your target audience. This is where you can find that sweet spot in the venn diagram overlap. Finding alignment between your brand and offering, and that of your publisher, you have a fantastic opportunity to reach the right audience at the right time in the right environment with the right messaging.

It’s complementary

I don’t believe that all we should be doing is branded content. I feel the same way about social, e-mail, and search. They are all simply pieces of the pie. You’re always going to have certain tactics and strategies that perform best, that drive the most sales, that deliver the highest ROI. Don’t be afraid to invest in those, but make sure that you’re keeping a balanced portfolio of marketing tactics. And try new things. Always try new things. Branded content is one of those pieces, and unlike some, I believe that it is a perfect complement to your display ads, social media programs, email marketing, search efforts, and more. I don’t believe in being a one-trick pony marketer.

As an aside, people don’t hate advertising. People hate shitty advertising. Remember that.

Branded Content in Action

Okay, so what does this actually look like? I knew you were going to ask that question. So I decided to give you two examples. While both of these are video examples, branded content can come in many forms – any form, really. The important thing to note with these two examples is how different they are – the style, the approach, the execution – but they they both ultimately do the same thing. Authentic content that evokes emotion to align a brand with a certain set of values or ideas within a target audience.

Player’s Own Voice

Brand: .CA Domains
Publisher: CBC Sports
Audience: Canadians, 18+
Marketing Goal: Raise unaided first mention brand awareness for .CA
Emotions evoked: Pride, trust, excitement

Campaign overview: Canadians love the Olympics and have a strong desire to get to know their athletes on a more intimate, personal level. At the same time, many Olympic athletes are relatively unknown outside of the games and have a need to build their personal brand. To facilitate this, .CA partnered with CBC Sports on Player’s Own Voice, an online platform for Canada’s Olympic athletes to tell their stories through video vignettes and long form written content. Below is one of the video vignettes we created for volleyball player Gavin Schmitt. We also created videos for Andre De Grasse, Miah Marie Langlois, Sekou Kaba, and Jasmine Mian.

These video vignettes lived on CBC Sports’ Player’s Own Vice platform and were aired on national CBC broadcast prior to and throughout the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, all of which was supported by digital advertising and social media promotion. This partnership not only gave us exclusive access into Olympic programming, but it also allowed us to align our brand with CBC Sports while reaching engaged Canadians on a national level.


Brand: Scott’s Turf Builder
Publisher: The Onion
Audience: Millennial homeowners
Marketing Goal: Create brand affinity to sell more Scott’s to this emerging target audience
Emotions evoked: humour, entertainment, amusement

Campaign overview: In an effort to reach the millennial home owner market, Scott’s Turf Builder partnered with the creative team at The Onion to create a funny, engaging, shareable piece of content that would not only strike a chord with their audience, but would make the brand more approachable and likeable. The result was this cheeky, well-executed video parody of Airbnb which they called Lawnbnb. Have a watch:

By partnering with the Onion, Scott’s was able to take a traditionally boring, un-sexy product and make a unique, meaningful and memorable impact with their target audience.

What are your thoughts on Branded Content?


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