Branded Content: Sponsorship’s secret sauce - six ways to make sure your campaign hits the right notes

Over the last decade, branded content has grown to become one of the most competitive sections of the UK Sponsorship Awards. Undoubtedly facilitated by the growth of digital platforms, it has proved itself to be a creative, versatile and innovation addition to the b2c marketer’s armoury – either as a stand-alone communications channel or as part of a wider sponsorship programme.

Last year, the UKSA editorial team explored some of the reasons why branded content has come to be regarded as an essential component of the partnership marketing ecosystem. But what exactly does it take to make a branded content campaign achieve traction among audiences? Below, we outline a few key pointers – and provide some examples from recent UKSA finalists:

Acquaint yourself with all the options: Media fragmentation means branded content now comes in a myriad of shapes and sizes. Historically thought of as synonymous with advertiser-funded programming and/or product placement, this category now covers everything from YouTube films to extended ad break vignettes to cross-platform executions led by magazine and radio companies. Such is the range of options that UKSA entries now demonstrate a remarkable ability to push the creative envelope. One of last year’s finalists, for example, was Pukka Herbs, which used a podcast presented by food writer Jasmine Hemsley to encourage sampling of Pukka Teas. Devised by Mindshare, the campaign almost doubled consideration among Pukka’s target market. Of course, there’s nothing to say brands can only use one channel. One of UKSA 2020/21’s award winning entries saw Marriott Bonvoy link up with Manchester United to bring to life the experiences that the Bonvoy loyalty programme could offer members. This branded content-powered campaign involved more than 50 digital assets and was deployed across digital, social, mobile, print & outdoor.


Strive for an authentic fit: The significance of Ronaldo’s Coca-Cola flashpoint during Euro 2020 was probably over-exaggerated by the media, but it’s a useful reminder than brand integration can led to pushback if deemed inappropriate. In this case, it was a celebrity venting their frustration, but audiences are also quick to lambast brands if something smells off. Authenticity doesn’t mean a brand has to be endemic to the area it is active in (Adidas and football, for example), but a solid rationale for a brand’s presence will amplify the impact of its content marketing strategy. P&G, for example, has built a strong connection with the Olympics over the last decade – firstly by focusing on mothers and then by extending its campaign work to include all parents. Now, as part of its Tokyo 2020 campaign, it has created a documentary-style film series called Good is Gold, which tells the stories of four Olympic and Paralympic athletes who have had to combat bias and inequality. The fact that P&G is able to present itself as a legitimate commentator on this subject is down to its long-term commitment.


Strike a measured tone: When paying for branded content, it’s tempting for the client to try and get their money’s worth – by cramming in as many brand images and calls to action as possible. But this is counter-productive. Unlike an ad, the audience comes to branded content expecting to be entertained or informed – not sold to. The best examples of branded content keep the company’s sales pitch to a minimum – stressing brand over product and resisting the urge to overexpose the company’s imagery. This isn’t to say that branded content can’t be used to hook audiences – but it’s best to be subtle about it. Perhaps promote a competition that needs to be entered on a bespoke company website. 

One of the brands that seems to have got the balance between brand values and sales messaging just about right is Dove, whose Real Beauty campaign took female self-confidence and empowerment as its theme. This resonated well with Dove’s positioning as a more natural alternative to soap. Dove has now extended its philosophy to include men, and was a Finalist in UKSA’s branded content categories last year. Sponsored by Dove Men+Care and entered by CSM, the brand joined forces with the four UK rugby unions, as well as four UK rugby players and their children. In partnership, they created a branded content series showcasing men who care both on and off the field of play. Using Rugby World Cup 2019 as the campaign’s launch pad, the brand grew by around 10%.


Ensure content is shareable: The true power of branded content lies in the propensity of audiences to share it with friends, family, and social media connections. It’s rare for anyone to want to share an ad or an overt promotion, but a compelling piece of branded content might just build momentum – especially if it features stars that audiences are passionate about. Self-evidently, the content is going to need editorial elements that excite fans enough to share it. But it’s also going to have to be in a format that makes this easy. That’s why, in the Bonvoy example, above a range of digital assets were created. As a corollary to this, brands can use real-time data analytics to learn what kind of content attracts the most positive interactions with their target demos. Each new wave of branded content can be produced so as to maximise opportunities for engagement with both the overall audience and specific segments.


Co-opt the right talent: Branded content doesn’t need a celebrity involved but often it’s astute choice of talent that really elevates a campaign. Samsung’s use of Jack Whitehall for the Rugby World Cup 2015 and Rio Olympics 2016 is a classic example of how the right casting can transform a branded content idea. In a different context, one of last year’s winning UKSA entries saw insurance giant Axa bring in Sue Perkins to head up its cross-platform content marketing strategy. Aware that insurance is a low interest category, Axa was keen to distinguish itself from rivals by promoting the work of the Axa Research Fund. Since 2007, the Fund has dedicated £150 million to funding health, environmental and economic research across 600 projects. Working with Havas and Sky Media, Axa decided it wanted to share this story by co-creating compelling branded content in the form of a documentary series. Perkins was identified as the right person to tell Axa’s story – because of her integrity, intelligence and ability to relate stories in a warm and accessible way. The branded content series helped changed perceptions of Axa, with a 32% increase in brand relevance and 15% increase in brand image. Key takeaways includes the need for a talent partner who buys in to the brand’s agenda. It also helps if they come with a loyal and engaged audience that is aligned to the branded content campaign’s objectives.


Imbue content with a sense of purpose: Branded content is a way for audiences to find out what a brand stands for, not just what it sells. It’s not always necessary for brands to wear their hearts on their sleeves, but audiences do increasingly expect to see companies articulate their values – whether their focus is on environment, poverty, community/charity or diversity & inclusion. Choice of characters and context, then, are increasingly important if brands want to cut through. PayPal’s partnership with The FA, for example, was about driving audience awareness of the company’s new role as the Official Payments Partner of The FA. But the brand also told stories of heroes at all levels of the women’s game through a five-part film series. These inspirational narratives positioned the brand as a supporter of diversity and inclusion, while also showcasing PayPal as a facilitator brand through its #PoweringPossible platform.

The entry process for the 2022 UK Sponsorship Awards will launch in September 2021. Watch this space for more details. If you’re interested in entering the branded content categories try looking at the current criteria here.  Please click here to see all the shortlisted and winning campaigns from the 2020 and 2021 Awards.  

View the 2022 Winners

Follow us on Twitter