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The Best Branded Content of February 2015

Another month, another viral brand prank video with a punny name.

In February, Ford was a big winner with its “Speed Dating” video. The car-maker set up “unsuspecting guys” with a female stunt driver, and you can probably guess what happens next: She whips each guy around in a Mustang as he loses his shit.

It’s relatively entertaining. You see the progression as each guy tries to get his flirt on and underestimates her ability to handle a Mustang. But of course the men in the video are all actors, because that’s almost always the case with viral branded prank videos like this. (In this case, it’s actors who thought they were auditioning for a reality show.)

Even so, the video is a hit, with over 11 million views so far. So what gives?

If you read Mashable, or Adweek, or the Huffington Post, there’s no mention or speculation that these might not have been 100 percent totally unsuspecting guys, even though the articles are being written by bloggers who cover this kind of stuff on a daily basis. And honestly, there’s little incentive for these bloggers and publisher to bark up that tree; after all, people are most likely to share the post if they believe the video is real. And indeed, it was a social traffic bonanza for Mashable (175.4K shares), Adweek (6K+ shares), and HuffPo (367K Facebook likes, 21K+ shares), made doubly sweet by the fact that the posts took very little effort to create (100–200 words of fairly identical, plain copy). They all stuck to the same viral formula and it paid off.

I couldn’t help but think of all this after reading Brian Morrissey’s excellent post in Digiday about #TheDress viral craze and how every publisher—from Gawker to TIME to Slate—executed pretty much the same copy-and-paste job post about the debate that was taking over the Internet.

“And chasing BuzzFeed was probably the right decision,” writes Morrissey. “After all, this is what a lot of people were talking about, briefly. But the long-term effect of this is a growing sameness of digital media. It’s hard to differentiate any sites from each other. Designs are mimicked, viral content is regurgitated. The result: viral sameness.”

One of the weird consequences of a data-driven media world is that the numbers lead a lot of people to make identical editorial decisions. You write a quick post about #thedress because it’s an easy way to attract readers with very little effort. (The original BuzzFeed post took five minutes to create.) You post Ford’s prank video with 100 words of filler copy and no questions about its premise because that’s the formula that’s going to get the most shares and hits.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a reality worth recognizing. If you can reverse engineer the modern data-focused editorial process, you can figure out what kind of easily embedded atomic particles of content you should create for maximum spread and exposure—whether that’s a poll over what color a dress is, or a prank video starring a bunch of dweebs, or an interspecies love story between a puppy and a horse.

Ultimately, the essence of viral content is something that leaves an editor no choice but to say, “F*ck it. Let’s embed this video in a post with 100 words and a catchy headline.”

If you want to find a common thread in the most successful branded content… well, that’s it.

HipChat: “Lumberg Returns”

Few characters garner as much nostalgia as Bill Lumbergh, the buzzword-babbling, cubicle-farm overlord from Office Space, a movie that’s largely responsible for the fact that you’re crammed at a single table with nine other people right now. In 1999, Lumberg was obsessed with laminated TPS reports, but today, he’s all about more meetings and electronic mail. “So I’m gonna go ahead and ask to see more bulk on your threads,” he instructs his team. “Because remember, m’kay, volume equals competence.”

This video series will hit the spot with anyone who finds their work day consistently strangled by meetings and email… or, you know, just really wishes Mike Judge would make another Office Space. And it ties back quite perfectly to Atlassian’s HipChat, which is seemingly intended for workplace collaboration and not just sharing Beyoncé GIFs all day (which is how we use it).

Disney Parks: “Mall Surprise”

Whaddya know, another prank video. This time, Disney set up a fake storefront in a mall and had various disney characters follow people as their shadows as they walked by. While being shadowed by a giant anthropomorphic mouse sounds creepy and dystopian in theory, it’s just freaking cute in reality— especially when people start dancing. The adorability just keeps escalating, and by the time the characters came out, I was misty-eyed, just like everyone else in the YouTube comments. Afterwards, I found myself plotting to drop my mid-year bonus on a trip to Disneyland before realizing that I don’t have any kids and that isn’t Mickey Mouse, it’s just some very sweaty guy named Steve.

charity: water: “Four Days in Ethopia”

No non-profit does content better than charity: water, the organization devoted to establishing clean water sites around the world. Their program is largely fueled by the fundraising efforts of thousands of volunteers, and they use content in brilliant ways to get people involved—not only highlighting the work that they do, but also by profiling individual volunteers and the people who’s lives are transformed by clean water. It’s incredibly hard to encounter their stories and not want to help out in some way.

A year ago, they started taking all 70-plus charity: water employees on trips to see the work they do first-hand, and this month, they released a chronicle of one of those trips: “Four Days in Ethopia.” It’s no “Snow Fall”, but it showcases the human voice and intimacy that characterizes charity: water’s content. It’s a piece that makes you think, “These are people that I can believe in.”

American Express: “The Journey”

Brands inherently can’t do journalism, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t report. In an incredibly impressive storytelling initiative, American Express OPEN Forum embedded a reporting team in a fast-growing startup for three months to create a multimedia documentary, “The Journey.” The seven-chapter series of essays, videos and photographs follows “The Buchi Mamas,” Sarah Schomber and Jeannine Buscher, who founded the company and built into “a 160-acre farm that not only houses their brewery and production facility, but also many of the people who work there as well. They even have a school of their own.”

It’s an engrossing story, and the most ambitious project yet from American Express, which has been going all-in on stories that document the journey of entrepreneurs. Let’s hope that this piece lights a fire under the butts of other brands and makes them realize that yes, you can do real reporting, and yes, you can tell stories that matter.

Jose Cuervo: “Margarita in Space”

Move over, Red Bull. To celebrate National Margarita Day, Jose Cuervo launched a rocket carrying a shaker of tequila and margarita mix and sent it to space to be shaken and frozen—a noble mission that any reasonable person can get totally on board with.

“Other brands have sent stuff into space, but we had a much better reason to do it — to literally freeze a margarita,” Tom Murphy, chief creative officer at McCann New York, told Digiday, seemingly while also instructing an intern to troll Red Bull on Twitter.

The brand live-blogged and documented the launch on its Facebook page and Tumblr before releasing the video above, which features some great copywriting and the requisite dubstep space soundtrack.

Powerade: “Rose From Concrete”

On February 25, Derrick Rose tore his meniscus, a seemingly tragic result for a once-superstar player that’s been riddled by knee injuries the past few years. The next day, Powerade dropped this beautifully-shot video that tells the story of a young Derrick Rose, narrated by Tupac lyrics that pierce right to your heart. On February 27, Rose went under the knife, and by February 28, he had started rehab, determined to fight his way back by the playoffs. It was all tragic luck, but Powerade’s video felt a little prophetic.

Forget tweeting “#TheDress is [insert your brand colors here]”—this is real-time marketing I can get into.

Audi: 50 Shades of Grey Elevator Scene

I covered this a few weeks ago, so I won’t rehash it again here, but just to reiterate: Still surprised that I’m writing about an Audi video with a ton of sex-toy jokes. What a glorious world we live in today.

HelloFlo: “Postpartum: The Musical”

No one’s better at taking taboo topics and talking about them in blunt, hilarious fashion than HelloFlo. While other companies symbolize post-birth issues with spilt yogurt, HelloFlo is putting on a faux-musical about vaginal fallout. I laughed, I cringed, and felt equally grateful for every mother in the world and the fact that I’ll never have to give birth. (Unless, of course, some freaky Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior stuff goes down.)

Gap: #SpringIsWeird Instagram Series


I’m still not sure how I feel about Gap’s 15-second looping branded Instagram soap opera series starring Paul Dano and Jenny Slate. On one hand, it’s an original idea; on the other hand, watching it on loop seems to just seems to highlight the indie-pandering nature of the whole thing. It ends up feeling like something you’d watch while strapped to a mind control machine in Jason Schwartzman’s basement. Also, the buzzword-laden way they describe the series (“inspired by social, but reflects its zeitgeist“) kind of made me hate myself by association.

But ultimately, it deserves a spot here because it is sort of mesmerizing and makes good use of physical humor, and you have to give Gap credit for telling a story in a new way. They’re three episodes into the 12-part series, which you can find on their Instagram account among pictures of many different people wearing jeans.

What was your favorite piece of branded content in February? Tweet me @joelazauskas and we’ll banter until it’s time to punch out.

Image by Jose Cuervo
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