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Why Brands are Becoming Content Creators Through Storytelling

By: Kindra Cooper
04/05/2019

If you’re a traveling musician passing through Brooklyn, you can stay free-of-charge in a landmark-status house on Clinton Hill owned by the Sour Patch Kids. In exchange, you agree to create original content for the brand’s social media channels. Mondelez, the holding company, will even supply camera crews and sound engineers if you’re staying awhile.


This vaguely wacky proposition - one of the brand’s many content-driven bids to connect with its teenage consumers - illustrates just how important original content is to businesses today.


Consumers are trained to sniff out sales copy, like sponsored content masquerading as an editorial or clickbait email subject lines. For this reason, brands are investing in becoming multimedia powerhouses to maintain relationships with existing customers between purchases. Content creation also helps attract new customers; providing prospects with non-promotional information of value keeps the brand top-of-mind until they’re ready to buy.


The secret sauce is to create a sense of community around a common aspiration - luxury fitness club Equinox, for example, is about a high-performance lifestyle, work/life balance and washboard abs. Not only does it put the product in context by offering a window into how real customers use  it, but it inspires others to visualize how they might benefit, too.


Here are four brands with intriguing approaches to content creation.


Starbucks Stories

Unveiled this January, the Starbucks Stories platform is staffed by veteran journalists and features a variety of multimedia content. By using storytelling instead of corporate-speak, it masterfully yet subtly conveys Starbucks’ ongoing CSR efforts towards a sustainable supply chain and humane employee culture. To Be Human features spur-of-the-moment audio interviews with customers who are “living lives with extraordinary meaning” in Starbucks stores around the world - coffee isn’t mentioned even once.


Meanwhile, the Social Impact section features well-reported longform articles on the company’s approach to reducing straws, closing the gender pay gap and creating sustainable conditions for coffee farmers - none of them written with the breathless self-promotion of the press release.


“As Starbucks partners pursue good, they create so many inspiring stories,” Kevin Johnson, Starbucks CEO, said at the 2019 annual meeting of shareholders in downtown Seattle. “This year, we assembled a small, talented, in-house team to help tell stories that celebrate the human experience.”


Perhaps its most big-budget content push is the documentary Hingakawa, which tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two women who were part of previously warring factions in the Rwandan genocide, showing that forgiveness is a choice. The two friends work in a coffee co-op which helped reunite women who were widowed after the genocide. The documentary will debut on April 11 at the Sarasota Film Festival.


Traffic stats: Nearly 5 million visits in the last 30 days


WePresent by WeTransfer

WeTransfer is a lot like Dropbox: you access the website, upload your files and forget about it. Therefore, a robust content strategy makes sense for an otherwise faceless brand where users and employees almost never interact. Since its founding in 2009, WeTransfer has donated billions of ad impressions to creators around the world by displaying their work as its wallpaper background and linking to a story with additional information about the artist.


WePresent is a “bespoke editorial platform designed to tell stories about creative minds and spark inspiration” and a reimagination of ThisWorks, WeTransfer’s previous content blog. Its most recent cover story features British-Nigerian photographer Nadine Ijewere’s portraits redefining a more inclusive cowboy culture.


WePresent also acts as the company’s thought leadership arm. A recent opinion paper co-authored by several corporate execs, On Companies and Communities, proposes how LA tech companies can better serve their communities instead of accelerating gentrification.   


Most of the writing is undoubtedly the work of professionals and not user-generated content, but it’s effective at spotlighting WeTransfer customers, 75 percent of whom identify as creators, and making them feel like they’re part of a larger community. It also inspires existing users to think of wider use cases for the product itself - transferring music, documentaries, high-resolution photographs and other large files that can’t be ported any other way.


Rob Alderson, editor-in-chief of WePresent says the publications “stands alongside” the world’s best creative content sites. “Because we have the luxury of publishing fewer articles than those other sites, we have designed a setup where every part of the way we present content can be customized,” he’s quoted as saying in a press release.


Traffic stats: Over 58 million visits in the last 30 days


Creator Magazine by WeWork

Of all the brands mentioned here, WeWork’s Creator magazine most closely approximates the traditional corporate blog - there are profiles of WeWork entrepreneurs, recaps of WeWork-hosted events, and user-generated content on leadership and being your own boss. That being said, the execution is anything but corporate. A high-caliber editorial staff solicits pitches from professional writers while also working with community members who wish to pitch a story, helping them finalize the idea and ensure the drafts are up to editorial standards. By having strong gatekeepers, Creator invites contributions from its community while keeping a lid on quality assurance.


In this sense, the magazine provides content as a service, where readers can learn from other members’ stories and be featured on a site that logged over 2 million visits last month, according to TrafficEstimate.com.


Dignity Health Hello Humankindness

Many brands use content creation to communicate their philosophy and encourage organic buy-in from consumers who share the same views. The Dignity Health Hello Humankindness initiative is built on the idea that modern medicine is ripe for a change in perspective - namely, understanding the healing power of the human touch in lowering stress levels and helping the body heal faster.


Its main content output is short-form documentaries about Dignity Health’s physicians and patients, thereby putting faces to the brand. In one video, the healthcare provider partnered with media company Great Big Story to show how staff banded together to help each other after the California Wildfire, where a third of the residents in a Northern California town were evacuated, and others’ homes were incinerated. Staff established an employee assistance program to offer counseling and reimbursements for employees to get back on their feet. Even so, the video does a good job of not seeming like a CSR promotion and focuses instead on how the physicians supported one another and the community through the ordeal.


Another touching documentary focuses on Carol Wilson, a volunteer for the brand’s ‘No One Dies Alone’ initiative, where volunteers sit vigil with dying patients who are estranged from their families. “It’s really important to be that reassuring presence, to help them in that transition to heaven,” Wilson says in the video.


Traffic stats: 448,300 visits in the last 30 days