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This is how you should use branded content in 2021

Blog Post Author – Kirsty
20th November 2020

Serving to build an authentic relationship with the audience, branded content is the key to driving real and sustained engagement. It’s memorable, emotive and useful. Done well, it steps away from patronising, uninteresting and skippable advertising and offers the viewer something of genuine value.

Let’s take a look at what branded content is in 2021, and explore how you can use it to benefit your brand.

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What is branded content?

Audiences are faced with a deluge of marketing; they instinctively fight against it and filter it out. Whether skipping ads, using ad blockers, or simply mentally discarding overt advertising, old-school ads are fighting a hard battle.

Branded content marketing seeks to address this issue. Instead of straight-forward advertising, branded content is a technique that takes the values of the brand, rather than the products, and puts them first and foremost. It’s not about blatant selling, but about building a relationship. Fundamentally, it will energize conversation, build knowledge, and align customers with a brand. To do this, it has to add value to the audience and it does so through emotive, entertaining and educational content.

Branded content is flexible. It conveys the same message in multiple formats, most frequently drawing on a story-telling approach. So you’ll find it woven across videos, spoken through blog posts, and conveyed through images. It sits behind surveys and individual social media posts and can even be in the driving seat of a podcast.

An excellent and well-understood example of branded content marketing is Red Bull. Their brand values centre on the energy forged by risk-taking and progressive life enhancing ideas. Their products aren’t central to their marketing. Instead, you’ll see Red Bull sponsoring events and individuals, running challenges and competitions, and gaining visibility through their renowned stunts.

We can also still learn from the original branded content approach by Dove about what it entails. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign aimed to bridge the gap between reality and perception. They discovered that only 4% of women would describe themselves as beautiful. They used a sketch artist to create two drawings of multiple women. The first drawing is based on the woman’s own description of herself. The second drawing is based on how a stranger describes the woman’s appearance. It was a poignant video racking up well over 100 million views in just one month, with no product placement at all.

Why branded content still works

Branded content is actually a relatively young phenomenon, but it’s taken off rather rapidly. Branded content is more important than ever despite being less clear cut and utilizing more and different creative formats. Most notably, we’re witnessing a huge shift from a focus on the brand itself, to the needs and desires of the audience.

Branding really does matter. Think of a brand everyone knows such as Coca-Cola. There’s a reason that Coca-Cola spends nearly $4 billion on branding each year, despite pretty much everyone recognzsing them already. It’s because branding is powerful and influential, having been shown to increase revenue by 33%. Statistics even show that 91% of consumers would prefer to make a purchase from an authentic brand.

Consumers are hungry when it comes to content and this is particularly true in terms of social media content. Branded content on Instagram and Facebook isn’t optional, but an essential as long as it is valuable, consistent and authentic.

How will branded content change in 2021?

As we say, branded content is a fast moving concept. To understand where it’s going, we need to understand wider society and how consumer behaviour is changing.

Ethically aware brands

Greater ethical awareness is something that we were already becoming more aware of and the global coronavirus pandemic has really shone a spotlight on this. We’ve become more aware than ever before about issues such as inequality, environmentalism and activism. Brands that have come to the forefront are the ones that have stood with their audience.

As such, we can expect 2021 to see more social awareness and activism amongst brands. We should see empathic, community service driven content. Brands are going to have to become even more ethically-aligned and this will form a central tenet to their branded content marketing.

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Influencers and their role

We can also expect to see some interesting developments in terms of user generated content (UGC). UGC has been big news over the last couple of years and it has spurred the shift to social commerce. This will continue, but we can expect to see it changing slightly.

Up until quite recently, businesses have taken care to use influencers in a way which focuses on brand first and product second, as we would expect from our explanation of branded content above. This is already seeing a shift and we can expect this to continue in 2021.

Notably, influencers and micro-influencers are now getting involved in the individual products, with the brand coming second. We can see this in how rapper Travis Scott got in on the act of advertising a specific meal deal for McDonald’s). We can see it with Subaru’s #meetanowner campaign where they have identified Subaru owners with influence and are showcasing their ue of individual Subaru vehicles.

At least in part this is driven by the more stringent policies on different social media platforms.

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Clever and subtle delivery

Audiences are no longer naive. They can spot advertising a million miles away and they don’t tolerate it. This puts marketers in a precarious position, especially in terms of creating authentic content.

The way marketers are navigating this is to be even more clever and subtle in their approach. Their aim is to come up with new creative formats which make you feel you’re not being marketed to. As a result we have seen things like the Lego Movie, Net-a-Porter’s magazine ‘Porter’ and Cisco’s employee generated content through the #wearecisco campaign. There’s no in-your-face advertising, but your brand alignment is extended.

Nostalgia marketing

Perhaps it’s because live-events which push trends forward have taken a pandemic-driven nose dive, but it appears that we are harking after the ‘good old days’. Content is increasingly becoming nostalgic and reflective. It’s an interesting concept, shifting us away from the next big thing onto the best old thing. It’s comforting in complex times.

It’s clever too because nostalgia is very in tune with familiarity and that’s a central concept of branding. Consumers want to believe they are aligned with the brand and that they know them. Nostalgia does that. It also has a positive effect on our well-being, which in 2021, people will be seeking with intensity.

We saw this with the US 2020 Super Bowl ads featuring retro themes from a clutch of brands. We’ve seen it when Fisher-Price adopted nostalgia to combat falling sales. And we’ve seen it with Pepsi’s retro limited edition cans. We can really expect this to feed through into all marketing endeavours in 2021.

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How to use branded content on Instagram

There’s quite a lot to understand when it comes to effectively using branded content on Instagram.

If you see a ‘paid partnership’ post on Instagram, you’re looking at branded content. Instagram requires this disclosure, so it’s one way that the audience can read into what’s going on. Instagram provides lots of information about branded content on the platform. Doing branded content in this way ensures that you can really dive into the metrics to see how it’s working.

It’s not quite the same as the individual brand creating and publishing their own content which focuses on branding and relationship building without the use of a third party. So, be aware that these two types exist and consider how to use each of them.

Let’s look at some examples of brands that are using Instagram effectively in this way:


Huggies are using the paid partnership option on Instagram to get influencers and micro-influencers to feature and review their range.

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Using social influencers in their role as parents is hugely enticing and gets the focus on the brand without a direct advert.

Wellington Hospital

We explained earlier about how meaningful ethical content is going to be very powerful for brands in 2021. We can no doubt expect a large amount of this to focus on COVID-19 and its effects on individuals and wider society.

Wellington Hospital is showing us what this may look like on Instagram. Here we see a partnership with influencer loungethelatte. But this isn’t just a case of popping up a striking image to get into our hearts. There is a proper discussion trigger here and the audience is getting on board with talking about the issues raised.

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Hewlett Packard

HP uses Instagram without the hard sell. Instead, it uses story-telling to convey the ethics and the intent behind the brand’s values. This is showcased in its use of video to illustrate how they provide skills training for women in Mexico.

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Adobe is running a campaign called #honorheroes designed to celebrate those working hard on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far the campaign has achieved over 3.5 million views, without overt advertising about Adobe or its products. What it’s doing is creating visibility and a feel good understanding of the brand on an issue that matters to everyone.

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Did you shift your marketing efforts in response to COVID-19? Take a look at how some of our favorite industry experts have changed their strategies due to the global pandemic.

How to use branded content on Facebook

Branded content on Facebook differs slightly from Instagram. Much like Instagram, Facebook is becoming more regulated in terms of branded content. This article clearly explains branded content on Facebook and how to use it.

Again, the focus is on enhancing transparency between influencer and brand. This matters for paid content, but we do need to remember that the brand itself can generate branded content which isn’t necessarily using a third party.

There are a range of companies using Facebook effectively in this way:


It’s fitting that Dove make this list, because they have been instrumental with branded content since its inception. Their campaign #showus is all about showing women as they really are and giving a platform to reality. There’s no specific product included here; it’s just about brand values.

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CLEAR Men have succeeded in creating a partnership with Facebook’s top influencer, Cristiano Ronaldo. Whilst Facebook users can clearly see that this is a paid partnership, it’s still a clever piece of marketing. By getting their name used by such a powerful influencer and figure in the men’s grooming sector, they are really upping the association with their brand.

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When you think of the Walkers crisp brand you think of humour, good times and slightly laddish behaviour. That’s why the relationship between Walkers and the LadBaby on Facebook is working so well. LadBaby’s humour and style is a perfect fit for the Walkers brand. Also, notice how the references to the Trussell Trust, a national foodbank, shows that Walkers is on point and in tune with public mood.

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For an example of the use of nostalgia in branded content, check out the below Mercedes-Benz post on Facebook. It’s not about forthright advertising like many of their other posts but is about triggering that sense of long-term relationship with the brand. It’s a way of working on the emotions of branding.

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LEGO and Adidas

An interesting pairing is becoming a common sight on Facebook and that’s the two-way relationship between LEGO and Adidas. At the centre of this are the LEGO trainers. Yes, there’s a product at the heart of this, but it’s also about both brands with a good side helping of nostalgia marketing.

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At the end of the day, branded content must be distinctive. Its whole point is to cut through the crowded arena of marketing. It therefore needs to offer something of long-lasting or hard-hitting impact to the audience. This will make each element memorable and put your brand in a prime position when it’s actually time for a conversion.

As we move into 2021, it’s no longer going to be enough to just have your brand shouting out from your content. You will need to be a little more product focused, and you’ll definitely need to be utterly consistent and very values focussed. Influencers and micro influencers will continue to play a more powerful role.

Using Facebook and Instagram you can also now get much more insight into your branded content using metrics. This will help you determine which influencers are doing justice to your brand and represent a good ROI.

Lastly, remember that in 2021, more than ever before, your branded content needs to reflect your brand values in terms of what the brand stands for with ethical and conscious decisions at the heart of everything you do.

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