11 Branded Content Innovators Who Take Marketing to the Next Level

From GIFs and 'grams to films and unforgettable experiences

Christene Barberich & Piera Gelardi.
Erin Yamagata

Few fields in marketing pose more complex challenges than branded content, a term whose definition and intricacies expand with each passing year. Unlike ads, branded content is consumed voluntarily—meaning it needs to be enticing enough to look at and compelling enough to stick with.

As part of this year’s Creative 100, Adweek is honoring 11 branded content innovators who show the wide range of possibilities when it comes to content that’s creative and entertaining while still strategic at its core.

George Hammer

Chief content officer, IBM

Photo: JP Lespinasse

When most people think of IBM, content probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. George Hammer wants to change that.

As he nears the end of his third year as IBM’s chief content officer, Hammer has left his stamp on IBM’s offerings.

“I named my team IBM Originals because creativity is about originality, and originality is the DNA of the people,” Hammer said. “I’m a firm believer that creativity will solve challenges—like plastics in the ocean—faster than governments can.”

While the content Hammer produces for IBM is polished, his creative background is rooted in improvisation. On a dare, he walked onto stage at a Second City, and the performance never stopped.

“Thanks to improv, I’ve tried to bring fun to work, and that fun brings out the creativity,” he said.

One product of the creativity is Cod3rs. In partnership with Vox Creative, IBM Originals launched the Cod3rs campaign to elevate another one million female coders by 2020.

IBM created a pathway for grades 9-14 to accelerate the infusion of female and at-risk students into computer science programs. Cod3rs is one of the many ways Hammer—and IBM—are using creativity to positively impact the world.
Mitch Reames

Janine Kahn

Editorial manager, Airbnb

Photo courtesy of AirBnb

While most of the travel content out there is about dropping into a place, Airbnb Magazine has spent the past two years trying to get people to “live like a local.”

With Kahn’s leadership on editorial strategy, the publication—which began in 2017 through a partnership with Hearst—has collaborated with regional photographers and illustrators to ensure each issue puts “the local lens on a place.” Sometimes that means featuring most-searched-for destinations, but often the content is about off-the-beaten-path locales adored by locals.

“With Airbnb Magazine, we’re looking to flip the script on traditional travel-centric content,” she says. “That means positioning travel as accessible instead of exclusive, and prioritizing people over places. The magic of Airbnb comes from human connection and creating a space for belonging, and we wanted that to be at the heart of our magazine.”

That focus has helped Airbnb gain traction. Along with increasing the publication’s frequency from four to six issues per year, circulation through newsstands and subscriptions has skyrocketed from 350,000 to 1.2 million. Much of that has been driven by the company’s decision to mail copies to Airbnb hosts, which now comprise 85 percent of its subscriber base. (It’s even been a finalist for a James Beard Award.)
Marty Swant

Sam Bergen

Vp, global brand creative, Beats by Dre

Photo: Brian Cooper

After less than a year in his role, Bergen was tasked with leading creative for one of Beats by Dre’s newest products: the Powerbeats Pro. The resulting spot, “Unleashed,” and its related content brought together more than a dozen star athletes, with direction from Hiro Murai and a new track from Beck.

Bergen—who recently finished an MBA focused on creativity—thinks “music can be almost as strong as a performance-enhancing drug.”

“For us, the desire of making work has never been to just be edgy,” he says. “That’s not a good comms strategy for any brand. You have to be original. Otherwise you’re going to be derivative.”

Bergen says the playbook for audio marketing was in some ways invented by Beats. However, it’s something others have now adopted. And while Beats was a disruptor earlier on, he knows “you can’t sleep on that.”
Marty Swant

Alix McAlpine

Director of creative strategy, Giphy

Photo: Gabe Gonzales

As Giphy’s director of creative strategy, McAlpine oversees the delicate art of weaving brands into the reactions, clap-backs and other evocative interactions communicated through GIFs. Having honed her branded content chops over four years in BuzzFeed’s creative department, McAlpine brought a thorough understanding of the internet’s visual vernacular when she came on board in 2016.

But Giphy offered a bigger challenge than sponsored listicles: How does one cram a brand narrative into a few soundless seconds of animation—which might be used to convey a complex range of emotions?

“You run the risk of it really becoming a banner ad if you are just too explicit with your branding,” McAlpine said. “You really want it to have that magic that GIFs have.”

McAlpine has become a deft practitioner of that magic. Her top two rules: “Keep it simple, stupid,” and, “Always ask yourself how you would use [the GIF] in a conversation.”

Some recent projects she is particularly proud of include series of GIFs for the Google Pixel 3 that featured Donald Glover dancing alongside an animated version of himself, as well as a SXSW gallery of fan art around Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us. “It’s been really creatively fulfilling,” McAlpine said.
Patrick Kulp

Pablo Rochat

Art director and owner, Pablo Rochat Studio

Photo: Quinn Gravier

While most of us are numbly scrolling through our social media feeds, Rochat keeps giving his followers a reason to press down their thumbs. He’s spent the past year making Instagram his “public sketch book,” using it to develop surreal animations, digital illusions and the occasional twerking Thomas the Tank Engine.

“I like to think of the work that I make as lo-fi, high fun,” he says. “Its first job is to entertain people and not be so precious.”

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In the process, he’s become one of the most creative people on Instagram, and brands have noticed. A former art director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Rochat has recently worked on social media for Nike, Adult Swimp Chipotle, illustrations for The New York Times, and music videos for the DJ Dillon Francis. (He even designed a series of barf bags for Lyft to give drunk passengers something beautiful to look into during a miserable moment.)

“I think of brands like people at a party,” he says. “Let’s say you walk into a party and each person represents a brand. I pose the question: Who do you actually want to hang out with?”
Marty Swant

Christene Barberich and Piera Gelardi

Editor in chief and ecd, co-founders, Refinery29

Photo: Erin Yamagata

When Refinery29 turned 10, its founders had an idea for an epic birthday celebration: partner with artists, brands and nonprofits to bring the publication to life in 29Rooms. About 10,000 people came to that first event, but more astounding was its social reach—one out of every six Instagram users saw it. Four years later, 29Rooms is a juggernaut that’s expanded to five cities, set trends in experiential marketing and cemented Refinery29 as a progressive media brand, both in content and business strategy.

Co-founders and longtime creative partners Piera Gelardi and Christene Barberich are major forces behind the company’s success. Their partnership began 20 years ago at design and fashion magazine CITY, where Barberich was the editor and Gelardi was a photo intern. Now the lead editor and creative chief of Refinery, respectively, the two say they caught lightning in a bottle by giving readers a voice.

“So many events place you into the role of spectator, and 29Rooms puts the audience at the heart of this wondrous, interactive world where they can touch, hear, smell, taste, create and truly be the experience,” Gelardi says. “It’s truly a living, breathing expression of the topics we cover on Refinery29, but where the fans become the authors of the content.”

Complementary skills and shared goals have fueled their collaboration for 20 years. “The most important and special aspect of our partnership is our admiration and curiosity for each other’s skill sets, and our respective disciplines have really rubbed off on each other as a result,” Barberich says. “We trust each other and mutually put Refinery29 as a brand ahead of any other personal agenda.”

As with any successful franchise, the bar gets higher and competition multiplies every year. Gelardi says her game plan is to stay focused on one thing: purpose. “Anything you create that’s worthwhile will have imitators—that’s a sign that it’s resonating,” Gelardi says. “When we root our creation process in purpose, things continue to expand and we never exhaust our imagination.”
Stephanie Paterik

Nick Dimichino

Social media lead, Square

Photo: Nelson Murray

As Square’s social media lead, Dimichino has generated online attention both for clapping back a troll named “SandwichofFarts” and for telling powerful, positive stories about a city that had grown used to be being discussed solely for its struggles.

That is the duality of today’s social media—and what Dimichino must balance as he monitors Square’s accounts.

“Sharing emotional stories about our sellers and also fighting off trolls in the same day is a balancing act that comes down to authenticity,” Dimichino said. “The best brand work across social media happens when the brand’s voice is a human’s voice.”

One of those emotional stories is “Forged in Flint,” an uplifting look at the Michigan city that has endured years without consistent access to clean water, all while facing a range of economic hardships.

The series profiles people like Sara Johnson, a camp director of Girls Rock Flint, empowering the next generation of women in the city.

“Forged in Flint” is part of Square’s “For Every Dream” series that has moved from Flint, to Native American reservations, to refugees’ new businesses. Each stop shares a common theme: people in need that use Square as a vital part of their business.
Mitch Reames

Nanette Wong

Director of global, social and integrated marketing, Fenty Beauty

Photo courtesy of Nanette Wong

Nanette Wong had every reason to stay at her 9-5 job, including good benefits. It was perfectly fine, comfortable work, but the lack of a real challenge left her wanting more. Determined, Wong quit her job to work as an editorial intern, where she turned her interest in social media into a keen knowledge about consumer engagement and online brand presence. Years later, she is now the director of global, social and integrated marketing for one of today’s biggest tentpole brands in cosmetics, Rihanna-founded Fenty Beauty.

What makes the Fenty brand stand above the rest is just how comfortably it’s been able to fold millennial social media culture into its overall communications. It takes more than deploying the occasional viral meme to connect with today’s target audience; Wong (and, by extension, Fenty) has shown a keen understanding of the importance of inclusion in marketing.

By including different skin tones, body types, genders and ages in its branding, Fenty has been able to authentically place itself at the top of its market while other brands are just beginning to follow suit. “I hope to ensure that we’re always creating a positive impact on our industry and continue to challenge everyone to do more,” Wong tells Adweek. “The Fenty Effect is real!”
Shannon Miller

This story first appeared in the June 10, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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