Here’s Why Brands Love Unbranded Vertical Content

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Article ImageThere’s a famous subplot in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street that makes marketers of any generation sit up and take notice: Macy’s department store suddenly stops aggressively hawking its wares and instead provides impartial buying advice to customers—even going so far as to refer them to competitors for the best purchase. The tactic turns into a public relations coup for the chain, which reaps the benefits of a more trusting and loyal clientele.

Flash-forward 70 years, and you can see the spirit of this strategy is alive and well in the digital domain via an emerging trend being adopted by companies across the commerce spectrum: unbranded vertical content.

It’s evident in L’Oreal’s Fab Beauty hub (—which offers fashion articles and makeup tips and even mentions rival brands. It’s working wonders for Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter portal, which is full of articles and advice for new parents. Chipotle and Discovery Education have jumped on the bandwagon, creating an iTunes-accessible original video series called RAD Lands, promoting healthy edibles for kids. Merck has found a roundabout way of advocating its new drug Belsomra via its

The Every Body Walk website is loaded with videos and stories meant to inspire people to use their own two feet more often, courtesy of Kaiser Permanente. And Blendtec’s series of viral Will It Blend YouTube videos is still grinding away with gusto.

Indeed, stealthy branding in the form of value-added content that’s relevant to a specific market segment or target audience is in vogue. And it’s more than capable of paying dividends for businesses that do it right.


Brandless Marketing in the 21st Century

The template for successful unbranded vertical content (UVC) is fairly simple to understand and emulate, according to Kerri Konik, CEO of Brandscape Atelier in Philadelphia. For example, consider a car dealership aiming to motivate buyers to return for regular maintenance appointments: It could create a YouTube video series or a dedicated website espousing five important things to have checked on your car before you take a road trip.

“Or say you make a portable fitness product and want to target executives. You can provide unbranded content that talks about how challenging it is to exercise when traveling for business,” says Konik. “The content can suggest strategies for fitting in these workouts and later drop in an ad for your product. It’s a very powerful strategy when executed well.”

The ultimate goal of UVC, says Deborah Goldring, an assistant professor of marketing at Stetson University in Florida, “is to foster information exchange, dialogue, and support for a community with a unique activity, interest, or problem, where the sponsorship of that content is not prominent.”

Using unbranded messaging in discrete verticals is not a recent phenomenon. The pharmaceutical industry began rolling out unbranded ad campaigns back in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, Frank O’Brien, CEO and founder of Five Tier in New York, says UVC as a viable marketing strategy has been in wider use for only the last year and a half or so. “It’s still so fresh and covert that I don’t see many people picking up on it or truly understanding its potential just yet,” says O’Brien.

Steve Smith, editorial director for MediaPost in New York, says more companies are adopting UVC since social media channels began pushing paid promotion. Last year, Facebook changed its edge rank algorithms, making it tougher for brands to get gratis distribution of content, while Twitter shifted to a more algorithm-based feed, and Snapchat is urging brands to invest more in paid ads.

“They changed the game on marketers and started making brands pay to get their branded content in front of users. This gave rise to an alternative ecosystem of content distribution, including paid content that lives outside of the traditional social channels and media companies,” says Smith, citing the emergence of native ad/content discovery platforms, such as Outbrain and Taboola, as beneficiaries of this trend.


Anonymous Authorship Advantages

To better understand the benefits of UVC, a quick comparison to branded content and today’s invasive digital ads is needed, say the experts. “When we create branded content, it’s often received with skepticism and resistance to the information because it’s coming from the brand,” Konik says. “Emotionally, there’s a lack of trust or lack of action that makes it difficult to trigger customer behavior or a wanted action, which could be as simple as clicking through to the next article.”

Speaking of which, a coveted click-through rate on a banner ad used to be about 1%, notes Richard Kahn, founder and CEO of eZanga. Today, he says, it’s only around 0.15%. “The lesson here is, if you keep pushing a brand in someone’s face, they ignore it,” says Kahn. “But if you give them content they want, they’re more apt to read and refer it.”

By contrast, UVC is often considered a more trustworthy, friendly, and approachable means of reaching a target audience. It also raises awareness about the core products and services of a company. But the key concept is trust, which is “the gateway emotion,” according to Konik. “Once you have some credibility and trust, then engagement is possible,” he says.

UVC also has the ability to tap deep into consumer sentiment. “You get to set the stage for your product or brand by influencing consumer emotions,” says David Miskin, CMO for Lightstone. “Unbranded content can induce anxiety, joy, or relief from stress up front. By introducing a product as the solution or means to achieve a better life, brands have created an emotional situation for consumers that they then want to realize.”


Hearing the Voice, Following the Trail

One of UVC’s most appreciated attributes is that it provides brands with a more direct voice to customers, partners, analysts, and journalists—a voice that’s free of brand association.

“It offers a sense of unbiased goodwill rather than perceived persuasion. A company can still communicate and advance important thoughts on the industry, trends, or other topics discussed, ultimately driving awareness for the issues important to the brand,” says Leta Soza, director of PR engineering for AirPR.

By enabling businesses to clearly communicate ideas related to their industry—even from their point of view—UVC lays the groundwork for more evolved thoughts and well-rounded discussions as well. “You can say things in unbranded content that you can’t say in branded content,” says Konik. “For instance, you can have content that complains about a situation or dissatisfied customer experience that they can’t say from their branded content because that would be seen as bullying on the brand side or that would not be received well from the audience.”

In addition, effective UVC often employs a breadcrumb strategy, in which one article leads to other articles. “It moves the consumer through the gates of connection and, consequently, earns more trust and credibility, getting them closer to driving that desired customer action,” notes Konik. “It can help close the sale too, by getting the audience more ready to make a purchase.”


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