The New York Times Takes Native Advertising to the Next Level With Cole Haan

“This is horrifying. Ballet dancers everywhere are cringing!!!!”

That was just one of the fiery comments posted earlier this year in response to a branded video from clothing company Free People. The ad featured a young dancer talking about what inspires her while demonstrating a few ballet moves. It was lovely to watch—for the uninitiated. The trouble came when viewers, some of them allegedly dancers themselves, called the woman out as a fraud.

Still, the Free People ad may have managed to inspire something positive: greater authenticity in branded content. Consider “Grit and Grace,” the newest paid post to appear on The New York Times‘ site. The post tells the story of three New York City ballet dancers, taking readers inside the unseen—and seemingly supernatural—world of ballet, through an essay and stunning short videos. It was created by The New York Times‘ in-house custom content team, T Brand Studio, and is sponsored by Cole Haan.

T Brand Studio has already garnered attention for its impressive branded content work. “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work,” created to promote the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, was highly praised this summer, as was the Times‘ interactive work with Goldman Sachs. This time, the team even went further.

“This campaign is the first paid post to feature full-bleed images, and it’s the first paid post from a fashion brand that was produced by T Brand Studio,” says Linda Zebian, director of corporate communications with The New York Times Company. “This was a full production effort—from our writer reporting the story out in the field, to the video production, photography, illustration, technology, and execution, T Brand Studios team worked closely with Cole Haan to produce the final multimedia content experience.”

While the narrative focuses on the fortitude, artistry, and athleticism of the ballerinas, there’s a strong emphasis on the pointe shoes so critical to their work. That’s because the ad was made to promote Cole Haan’s new collection of ballet flats. In another first, Cole Haan is reusing some of the native ad’s video assets on its brand site, supplementing with additional content that includes captioned photographs of the dancers in Cole Haan’s collection.


It’s on the Cole Haan site that the story veers toward the product and its design, with which all three dancers were involved. Photos detail the design process, drawing parallels between the flats and a dancer’s pointe shoes.

While there were opportunities within the native ad to mention the shoe line (some dancers, readers are told, “model clothing and shoes for retailers” in their downtime), both advertiser and publisher refrained, confining promotional content about the product to the Cole Haan site.

The campaign includes many of the elements we’ve come to associate with stellar native ads: a captivating story, original content, interactivity, multimedia. It’s the authenticity of the narrative, though, that will ultimately attract readers. There’s nothing in the native ad copy that hints at promotion, just a classic combination of interesting subject matter and solid storytelling that informs and entertains. If consumers are willing they can follow the story to the brand site, but nothing about that progression feels forced.

Authenticity is critical to native content and brand publishing—ask anyone from Soledad O’Brien to American Express OPEN Forum’s editor at large. But authenticity doesn’t mean a brand can’t be bold. With “Grit and Grace,” both Cole Haan and The New York Times come out winners by prioritizing high production value and ensuring that the integrity of the story—a profile piece on ballet dancers at heart—remains intact. It’s a study in secret rituals, everything from how ballerinas prepare and personalize their pointe shoes to their relentless efforts to maintain their bodies. It’s a beautiful feature, but what sets it apart is that it would be beautiful whether it was paid for by an advertiser or not.

That, right there, is where the real beauty of branded content lies.

Image by Peter Ross

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