A screenshot from the Huvr video, an unbranded campaign by Funny or Die.
A screenshot from the HUVr video, an unbranded campaign by Funny or Die.

Since the term was introduced in the late 1950s, just about everyone has heard rumors of subliminal messaging in advertising. On the surface, the idea is a farfetched one: brands hiding messages or “stimuli” in their advertising that people are unconsciously exposed to, and that causes them to go out and buy. A stretch, maybe, but it’s not completely off-base: researchers have found that subliminal advertising does work, and there are many examples — intentional or not — that people point to within the ads and products of major corporations.

Hiding messages in advertising is probably not a technique that businesses should be pursuing, especially considering it’s actually illegal in countries including Canada and Russia. That said, there is value in the idea of getting a message across without stating it outright. In fact, many major brands are doing that day in and day out using social media. How? With great, unbranded content.

Hop on Your Unbranded Hoverboard

A hoverboard. The things of dreams for generations of children, especially those exposed to the movie Back to the Future, came to life in a recent video that rapidly went viral. Most (though not everyone) assumed it was fake, but the video was posted on an original website and no brand claimed immediate responsibility.

Within a few days of the video’s release, internet sleuths had tracked the video back to Funny or Die, a popular website that creates funny videos. They’re in the business of humorous clips, so signing their name would have been a natural part of the process. But this time they stood in the shadows and it paid off big time.

Funny or Die created a compelling, high-quality piece of content that didn’t need their support to get shared widely on social media. Instead, people did the work for them. This is the power of quality.

By not taking credit, Funny or Die also created widespread discussion about the origins of the video. The discussion ended up leading back to them, but that in itself created a second wave of media coverage and sharing. The video, as of now, has over 12.5 million views.

Unbranded Can Mean Less Branded

While the hoverboard video was a fantastic example of the power of unbranded campaigns, most businesses cannot leave their marketing completely unbranded. Nor do they have to. Creating “unbranded” campaign can simply mean keeping the content content-focused, not branding-focused.

In November of 2012, Australia’s Metro Trains launched their “Dumb Ways to Die” PR campaign to promote safety around their trains. The campaign included a game and an online video showing cartoon characters dying in various nonsensical ways with a cute song in the background. It was risky and off-beat, but well-made.

Both the video and game included only minor mentions of Metro Trains, and even then only at the end. The assets were launched on separate websites and YouTube channels, not those of the organization, and the results speak for themselves. Within 2 weeks the campaign garnered 700 media stories. The game has over 15 million players and the song has been downloaded over 100,000 times. As for the video, it has been seen over 75 million times. Not bad, for a train organization.

Unbranded campaigns don’t need to be video-focused either. Nike’s #MakeItCount hashtag started as a campaign in coordination with the launch of their Fuel Band. They encouraged fans to share how they planned to “Make it Count” and while Fuel Band users and Nike fans used the hashtag for fitness, countless others used it when sharing other life goals and achievements. Clearly, the hashtag would not have been as effective if they branded it, something like #NikeMakeItCount.

Another great unbranded campaign came in the form of a Google+ community by National Geographic. The organization created a campaign called “Exploration” and encouraged regular people to share photos from across the globe. Other than the fact that the community page reads “Created by National Geographic,” the page is unbranded. It now has over 75,000 members.

What They All Share

All of these campaigns share a few common traits. First, the branding was minimal. Second, the content was thoughtful, engaging and of a high enough quality to get shared on its own. And third, they’re idea-focused, not product-focused.

Businesses need to consider their goals when creating unbranded campaigns. Metro trains wanted to raise awareness about train safety. They didn’t need to brand their content to do so, and once the content succeeded on its own, the brand recognition came anyways. Eventually all the brands mentioned, from Funny or Die to Nike, got their time in the limelight. They did so by putting the interests of their audience first.

These brands showed guts in leaving their name off of their work, so to speak. But in the age of social media, where people are empowered to ‘skip the commercials’, the best content survives regardless of who creates it. You can’t buy people’s attention anymore, you have to earn it. Great content is how to do it.