Best Branded Content

Best Branded Content of August: When Data Storytelling Meets Donald Trump

As we were putting together our roundup of the best branded content from August, this happened:

Our associate editor, Dillon Baker, pointed out that Kanye also wrote a poem about McDonald’s for Frank Ocean’s magazine.

Technically, this isn’t branded content—not unless McDonald’s is foregoing all disclosures and hitting the FTC with the ultimate diss. But when you get Kanye to write a poem about you and then tweet that you’re his favorite brand, well, that’s the french fries. Everything else is just the Diet Coke.

Square Enix/Deus Ex: “Human by Design”

Dillon Baker, associate editor: This documentary, created in a partnership with CNN’s branded content studio Courageous and video game publisher Square Enix, is a great example of branded content that people will actually watch.

Deus Ex is a game set in the near future in which people augment their bodies with technology, which is termed trans-humanism. “Human by Design” examines trans-humanism today: how people use technology to help with disabilities, augment their senses, and so on. It also brings up big questions—When is a human still human? How far is too far?—while also promoting just how much progress has been made with prosthetics in the past decade.

Of course, it helps that this is content marketing for a video game, but that doesn’t take away from a legitimately interesting documentary that seamlessly ties in the product it’s promoting.

Foursquare: “How the Presidential Campaign Is Affecting Trump’s Businesses”

Joe Lazauskas, editor-in-chief: Data is arguably the biggest storytelling weapon in a brand’s arsenal, allowing a brand to tell stories that only it can tell, generating serious press, and maybe even helping it go viral.

best branded content

OkCupid was the O.G. of data storytelling among brands. It used data to provide incredible insights into human attraction, and its posts averaged over 35,000 shares. Since then, data storytelling become an increasingly popular tactic, with everyone from Zillow to PornHub getting into the game. (Don’t worry, that link is SFW.)

Another brand that does a great job using its data to tell stories is Foursquare—which has semi-successfully pivoted as a Yelp competitor after check-in apps stopped being cool. On its Medium blog, the company used foot-traffic data to successfully predict iPhone sales and prognosticate disaster for Chipotle following its E. coli outbreak. In August, it tackled another brand in turmoil: Donald Trump.

Using its data, Foursquare examined how Trump’s presidential campaign affects Trump-branded properties. The results, as you can see in the graph above, are not great. Foot traffic is down double-digits almost every month compared to the year before, including a 14 percent drop in July.

The drop is largely driven by women in blue states, who are avoiding Trump properties in droves, with a 30 percent drop so far this summer:

best branded content

Foursquare deliberately avoids political commentary, but they didn’t have to for this project. The company knew it would be catnip to news outlets, which are eager to examine all things Trump and suspicious that he’s only running to boost his brand. And it worked! Look at these Google results. I bet Foursquare’s PR manager is still dousing herself in champagne.

best branded content

You may not be able to relate your brand’s data back to Trump or Kim Kardashian. Heck, you may not even be able to relate it back to a Baldwin brother. But if you’re not thinking about how to use your data to tell interesting stories, you’re missing out on a big opportunity.

Denny’s: Facebook Live Q&A With a Pancake

best branded content

Kieran Dahl, social media editor: On Twitter, Denny’s is weird and good. (So much so that a guy started a petition on to get a job interview with the Denny’s marketing team.)

On Facebook, meanwhile, Denny’s has never been as notably absurd or hilarious. Its posts are like those of any ol’ food brand: glamour shots of pancakes and burgers, deal promotions, the occasional fan-directed question. But then Denny’s went on Facebook Live, and nothing was the same.

Denny’s foray into Facebook Live is a Q&A with a cartoonish, anthropomorphized talking pancake. His nose is a slab of butter. He sounds like he’s talking underwater, and his eyebrows animate as if controlled by a ventriloquist. And for 27 ridiculous minutes, he chummily answers the inane questions that Facebook users leave in the video’s comments section. People ask about his fitness plan, what kind of bacon he prefers, and “If you ate a pancake, wouldn’t that be cannibalism?” (Yes.) Judging by the comments—nearly 3,000 of them—people seem genuinely enthused about the existence of Denny’s and “Mr. Pancake.”

No one connects with millennials as smoothly as Denny’s on social media, and the brand’s use of a novel social product like Facebook Live further demonstrates that. Whether the live stream’s technology was worth spending “over a year” working on, per Digiday, is another issue altogether.

Citi/BuzzFeed: “A Helpful Guide to Making It In NYC For Every Personality”

Erin Nelson, marketing editor: I can’t decide if I am angry about or appreciative of my selection this week. As a fairly new resident to New York City, I am a sucker for content that tells you about cool things to do here. (You don’t always want to ask that in-the-know coworker or search Pulse deals, you know?) And at first, I worried that I’d been baited into clicking on a BuzzFeed sponsored post by a seductive headline.

I’ll admit: I read the entirety of Citi’s native BuzzFeed post, “A Helpful Guide To Making It In NYC For Every Personality,” which is a mix of useful and cliché. Neatly organized into personality types—who doesn’t fall for the “That’s so me!” moment?—the list cleverly entices you to scroll through different facets of the city as you search for the activities that are quintessentially you. It turns out I am a “culture hound”—and chances are I will rent a Citi bike to visit all the pretentious artistic destinations. It’s a simple piece of branded content, but an effective execution.

Ray-Ban: “Deafheaven by Jason Miller”

Ann Fabens-Lassen, communications manager: My best friend is a big metal fan. As a result, I know a lot more about the genre than the average 26-year-old woman working in PR. So when a sponsored video about Deafheaven came up on my Facebook feed, I wasn’t shocked; after all, Facebook knows pretty much everything about us.

What surprised me was when I looked closer and noticed it wasn’t sponsored by the band or its label. It was sponsored by Ray-Ban.

Deafheaven is a divisive band in the metal scene—like Bieber to pop or Drake to hip-hop. It has a passionate fanbase, but critics say Deafheaven’s music isn’t metal enough. This video is Deafheaven’s response. It’s part of Ray-Ban’s “It Takes Courage Campaign.”

We spend a lot of time talking about how brands need to “tell stories,” “take risks,” and “talk about ideas that align with their values but aren’t their product.” Even though I think brands should do all of this stuff, I’m always shocked when they actually do. I don’t know if it will make anyone buy sunglasses, but it’s pretty ba ass.

EA Sports: “Physique Vs. Technique”

Jordan Teicher, senior editor: Most of the world doesn’t know Lil Dicky. LD, a former agency copywriter, quit his job a few years ago to become a rapper. Rather, he’s part rapper, part comedian. He brings a standup vibe to his lyrics and injects narrative into his music videos, many of which have gone viral. Dicky hasn’t hit the mainstream yet, but he’s not a nobody either. And recently, he’s started getting involved in influencer marketing campaigns for Trojan, EA Sports, and the NFLPA.

This blurb is not about Trojan, because I didn’t want our CEO to send Joe an email questioning why we’re writing about prophylactics (even though the Lil Dicky jokes write themselves). But Dicky’s work promoting Madden 17 for EA Sports is worthy of a spot on this list. In the short video, he slips into a motion-capture bodysuit and goes one on one with Rob Gronkowski. I don’t even like video games anymore (other than Mario Kart, respect the greats), but this is just funny. Dicky, giving up about 100 pounds and 10 inches, peppers Gronk with unusual white-boy trash talk about his masterful cornerbacking technique. Gronk doesn’t know whether to scoff or laugh. For me, it was an easy choice.

Anything we missed? Suggestions for next month? Email

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