Authenticity is key to all content—especially if that content is sponsored. When working with brands, it’s vital to balance the intrinsic value of what you’re creating with the goals of your client. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, and Graham McDonnell knows this better than anyone.

As International Creative Director at The New York Times, Graham has plenty of experience with branded content. He recently took to the Web Summit stage to share what he’s learned about maintaining authenticity in today’s complex media landscape.

In a 25-minute talk delivered to a packed house, Graham provided examples from his own publication as well as various others. He illustrated how effective storytelling can achieve brands’ goals without becoming contrived or compromising quality. Anyone in the content industry, from freelance writers to marketing executives, would do well to follow his lead. 

How to create authentic branded content: Lessons from The New York Times at Web Summit
Image from Web Summit’s ContentMakers page

Why does storytelling matter?

Storytelling is one of the hottest topics in the world of modern marketing. But it’s more than just a buzzword; it’s a core part of every successful brand identity, ad campaign and social media presence. Stories are a basic element of human communication, and when told well, they’re one of the most effective ways to transmit information.

In order to communicate with any target audience, every company needs to craft compelling narratives. This is where content creators come in. When a marketing agency is hired to develop branded content, their job is to deliver an engaging and interesting story, no matter how it’s packaged.

Also see: Successful storytelling strategies to make your brand stand out

“Content is king. Execution is the castle.”

As Graham emphasized in his talk, the format of any story should be secondary to the story itself. When approaching this kind of project, find the narrative first and then decide how to present it. If you do it the other way around, it will probably seem forced – like you’ve crammed your message into an envelope that’s not quite the right size.

To illustrate compelling storytelling at its best, Graham played a European TV commercial for the audience. It was an animated short about a night guard at a mannequin factory, who entertained himself by sending creative messages to the daytime employees. The images and music clearly communicated the loneliness that he felt, without any need for words. This made it understandable for speakers of any language—an important asset in linguistically diverse markets like Europe.

How to create authentic branded content, lessons from the NY Times creative director at Web Summit 2019
When the ad’s main character gets emotional, so does the audience.

The ad’s climax came when it was revealed that the other employees had won the Christmas lottery… and entered him into it without his knowledge. When they surprised him in the middle of the night, I realized that I had tears in my eyes.

That’s what good storytelling does; it makes the audience feel something real. Genuine emotional experiences make people pay attention, and get messages stuck in their minds. It wasn’t even clear that this was an ad for the Spanish lottery until a small logo appeared at the end. This demonstrated the value of focusing on storytelling above all else, and incorporating subtle—yet effective—product placement later.

Tips for creating authentic branded content

One of Graham’s most valuable pieces of advice was this: branded content should be indistinguishable from native content. For example, the lottery ad described above could easily stand alone as a short film, regardless of who it was sponsored by. It’s the perfect example of how to prioritize quality content over explicit brand messaging.

He also provided a simple analogy: if you’re trying to get kids to eat veggies, you can hide them by blending them into fruit juice. And if you’re trying to get an audience to internalize a message, you can hide it within a captivating story.

To do this, Graham suggested a simple formula: present a problem, introduce an element, and reveal the outcome. When you’re figuring out what those three parts should be, remember that the audience—not the brand—is the hero of the story. It’s not about the company getting what they want; it’s about the company helping the audience to get what they want, and thus becoming a source of trust and authority.

“Content Marketing is like a first date. If you only talk about yourself, there won’t be a second date.”

David Beebe

So how can you place the focus on the audience, while also making the company happy? To answer this question, Graham described a recent paid post by The New York Times. It began with a problem: cars are not equally safe for all passengers. It then introduced an element: Volvo’s innovative approach to car safety. Finally, it revealed the outcome: thanks to this initiative, Volvo’s cars are improving and moving toward safety for all.

The article illustrates Volvo’s history of pursuing gender equality in car safety.

After reading this article, the audience has received the intended message: Volvo cars are safe, and therefore desirable. But they’ve arrived at that conclusion indirectly, by way of an interesting story that’s about protecting them and their families—not about selling cars.

Also see: Branded content vs. content marketing: Differences and best examples

The secrets of maintaining authenticity in branded content

Luckily for all of us in the content marketing industry, it’s not so hard to follow the lead of publications like The New York Times and people like Graham. There are a few tried-and-true strategies to make sure your branded content is authentic, interesting and effective. First, remember the importance of conflict. This is what hooks the viewer, what makes them care, and why they keep watching (or reading, or listening). Conflict is key to every good story. 

Next, create a labyrinth, not a maze. Graham explained that there are two ways to take someone on a journey. You can give them lots of options, obstacles and paths to choose from, and hope that they eventually arrive at the goal. Or you can take all those complications away, while giving them the same information. Authentic branded content takes the audience on an engaging journey, without making them work too hard to get the message.

Finally, Graham offered four tips: make it visual, make it move, make it interactive and make it obvious. Here he used another example from The New York Times: an online article sponsored by Allbirds. The article has sound effects and colorful illustrations, which move as you scroll and respond when you hover the cursor over them. Most importantly, the message is obvious: we need to protect the world’s birds, and Allbirds is doing its part to achieve this.

This article shows how online content can incorporate various types of media at once.

“We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in, and be what people are interested in.”

Craig Davis

In my opinion, this is the most important insight that Graham offered. The future of marketing doesn’t look like the past. We’re moving beyond the era of TV commercial breaks: the forced interruption of entertainment to sell products. The lines between native and branded content are blurring, and those of us in content marketing can use this to our advantage.

In order to do so, we have to focus on crafting creative and compelling stories. We need to combine the basic pillars of storytelling with the most effective marketing techniques, and develop strategies that match the way modern audiences consume content. We must adapt to new formats of European media, and learn how to utilize them without losing authenticity.

In the end, Graham’s message was simple. We may be in the midst of a constantly evolving content landscape in Europe. But no matter what the future holds—and regardless of who your next client may be—engaging and authentic stories will always reign supreme.

Do you have any other advice for creating authentic branded content?

If you’re a content or marketing professional and interested in attending Web Summit 2020, read my previous article to find out why you definitely should, and how to make the most of it.