How Brands and YouTube Stars Are Hooking Up to Reach Millions of Millennials

It wasn't that long ago that marketers thought they were hip to YouTube by posting their TV commercials to the site and eking out a few extra eyeballs. But with the potential now to reach millions and the popularity on social media of video stars like Michelle Phan, more than 150 brands have teamed with an array of talent on Google-owned YouTube and a handful of networks to produce entertaining and engaging ads.

"Creators on YouTube are increasingly crossing over into mainstream pop culture," said Jamie Byrne, YouTube's director of content commercialization. "Most brands are looking at these collaborations as part of a larger campaign or media program."

Google upped the ante last year with Google Preferred, a program that allows advertisers to buy into the top 5 percent of lifestyle and entertainment video on the site, thereby guaranteeing that spots will appear across the most popular channels. The program, which will be promoted as part of Google's NewFronts presentation this week, has served marketers well, according to YouTube executives, with ads averaging an 80 percent increase in recall and brand awareness growing 17 percent.

Here, Adweek looks at how top marketers are engaging YouTube's constellation of stars to build buzz.

1

Toyota

Talent: Rhett & Link
Views: 10 million 

When Toyota wanted to put the redesign of its 2015 Camry to the test, the automaker enlisted Collective Digital Studio's comedy duo Rhett & Link to film crazy stunts—like a wild ride on a supercross track where they blew through a ring of fire. “We felt like we had a unique message to tell and wanted to see how far we could extend that message,” explained Florence Drakton, Toyota’s manager of social media strategy and operations.

To further amplify the video’s reach, Toyota ran ads using Google Preferred. While the two-minute clip generated a modest 74,000 views on Toyota’s channel since being uploaded in November, Rhett & Link gave the Camry a shout-out during six episodes of their daily Good Mythical Morning YouTube talk show, totaling more than 10 million views.

Takeaway: Even big brands like Toyota can’t bank on people finding and watching online commercials on their own. Plugging into the videos that influencers are already creating on a daily basis will be more effective, said Rhett & Link’s Link Neal. “They’re not expecting or desiring a commercial—they’re desiring to be entertained by Rhett and me.”

2

Lionsgate

Talent: Five influencers, including iJustine, Feast of Fiction and ThreadBanger
Views: 2.5 million

While Jennifer Lawrence did her part last fall to build buzz for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Lionsgate also tapped five influencers for its “District Voices” YouTube campaign to rev up online chatter. Each social star was assigned a district portrayed in the film’s fictionalized country of Panem. They were given props and costumes and tasked with producing original news stories that have a fan film vibe.

“We didn’t want it to feel like we hired stars for any scripting,” said Danielle DePalma, Lionsgate’s evp of worldwide digital marketing and research. Lifecasting star Justine Ezarik, founder of iJustine, focused on District 6’s transportation system, scoring nearly 400,000 views. And Jimmy Wong and Ashley Adams from the cooking channel Feast of Fiction made goat cheese tarts for District 9. Collectively, the five videos generated 2.5 million views without the aid of paid media.

Takeaway: Create fresh, original content that feels genuine and made by real fans.

3

Proactiv

Talent: Nine YouTubers, including MyLifeAsEva and MrTukie
Views: 2 million 

Advertising to fickle teens is a tough task, which is why acne-treatment brand Proactiv enlisted nine YouTubers to put a new spin on TV infomercials.

Beauty blogger Eva Gutowski’s shows fans of her MyLifeAsEva channel how she uses Proactiv as part of her morning routine in a goofy, relatable DIY video that picked up 385,000 views. “Eva really identified with the creative, which is often tough with brand-produced content,” said Scott Fisher, partner and founder of Select Management Group, which manages Gutowski. And in a football-themed spot, Hudson Luthringshausen painted grease stripes under his eyes using a face mask.

All told, the 15-part series drove a 72 percent increase in subscribers, more than 2 million views and 13 million impressions. Proactiv continues to pour more investment into one-off YouTube videos. “We can’t just assume that what worked before is what’s going to work in the future,” said CMO Jay Sung. “We have to keep experimenting to try different messaging.” 

Takeaway: Getting online stars’ seal of approval is the new testimonial for teens.

4

Macy’s

Talent: Style bloggers Claire Marshall, Jenn Im, Shameless Maya and more
Views: 1 million

With bloggers rivaling magazine editors for power in the fashion world, Macy’s partnered with style bloggers Claire Marshall, Jenn Im, Shameless Maya, P’Trique, Amy Pham and Claire Marshall, plus Maker Studios, to find the hottest new designer.

The retailer’s eight-week “The Next Style Star” series pitted 16 designers against one another for a prize of $10,000, plus the chance to have their work displayed in Macy’s flagship store in New York and style a photo shoot. In each episode, designers had 10 minutes to pull together a look using clothing and accessories from Macy’s millennial-geared Impulse department. (Stylist Roman Sipe won with three different sweater looks.) Macy’s placed the videos only on Maker’s network The Platform, which houses all its fashion and beauty content. Each video included a link to Macys.com where viewers could buy the products.

Takeaway: “Macy’s understands the role that this audience plays in the fashion community—they’re not just the ones purchasing, but they’re influencing the purchasing of others,” said Maker head of sales Jason Krebs.

5

Nissan

Talent: Epic Meal Time, Roman Atwood and more
Views: 40 million 

After 18 years of sitting out the Super Bowl, Nissan opted to go big, running a 90-second TV spot and heavying up on digital. Seven well-known creators made videos about dads, teasing the theme of the Big Game ad. Content varied from Epic Meal Time star Harley Morenstein roping in his father to help build a meat snow racer out of bacon (scoring 649,000 views) to prankster Roman Atwood turning his home into a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit (31 million views).

To ensure the videos stayed true to each creator’s brand, Nissan agreed to stay largely in the background and hand over creative control. “You can’t force fit your message like you did 18 years ago,” said Jeremy Tucker, vp of marketing communications and media. “You have to allow [the creators] to take the brand and move it forward.” Handing over control worked out well. Seven videos generated 40 million views before the Super Bowl, reaching 17 million subscribers. Nissan’s “With Dad” Super Bowl spot scored 22 million YouTube views.

Takeaway: TV ads may still rule at driving views for major events, but the real buzz must start online.