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Everyone wants to be a part of the cultural zeitgeist, but that’s easier said than done, especially for brands. Whereas in the past, brands were in tune with and even influenced culture, today it can feel like they’re constantly clamoring to catch up

So how can they engage in cultural conversations in a genuine, authentic way? By teaming up with YouTube creators who are immersed in relevant subcultures and contributing to popular trends. Here’s how three YouTube Works award winners did just that — and three lessons for those looking to do the same.

1. Put a new spin on trends

Sometimes the best way to connect with people is to surprise them with something unexpected. 

As an organization that focuses on the underreported issue of modern day slavery, the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) wanted to connect with people on an emotional level to raise awareness about forced labor. Often hidden in the supply chains of the fashion, beauty, and tech industries, over 40 million people are trapped in conditions of slavery around the world, more than in all of recorded human history combined.

To highlight the realities of modern slavery for a younger audience, TRF teamed up with TBWA\Chiat\Day New York to launch “Unboxing the Truth,” a powerful campaign that hijacked the phenomenon of unboxing videos to expose the hidden human price of popular products. TRF and TBWA knew that one in five consumers watches unboxing videos as part of their purchase journey. So it sent three symbolic, custom-designed products to well-known unboxing vloggers. 

In an effort to “unbox the truth,” each product seemed normal on the surface, but as the creators looked closer, they saw hidden messages about slavery in the design. The campaign brought the issue of modern slavery to the attention of millions of unboxing fans and increased Reuters’ website traffic by 154%.

“Because people aren’t aware of the awful data about forced labor, we needed an idea that would educate consumers in a modern and emotional way. All three of the influencers found the products desirable but were equally shocked by the hidden facts. This emotion came out in the films and resonated with the influencers’ fan base,” said Walt Connelly, executive creative director of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. 

2. Build on existing cultural momentum

As marketers, it can be tempting to want to move on to the next big idea or jump into something new after launching a campaign. But if the campaign yields success, it can be better to build on and evolve it. 

That’s what the team at Liquid-Plumr, a drain cleaner, discovered in its recent campaign. After noticing the rise of influencers performing grossly intriguing and humorous experiments, the brand collaborated with Vat19, a popular YouTube channel known for producing outrageous challenge videos, to showcase the disgusting and captivating process of unclogging pipes. 

Using YouTube’s popular “Will It” format, which looks at whether seemingly impossible or unlikely things are indeed possible, the team created a video series that asked “Will It Clog?” Staying true to the formula, the videos featured down-and-dirty depictions of extreme clogs, while also evoking a sense of relief when the clog was cleared.

After the success of the first video, alongside paid brand assets, Liquid-Plumr released two additional long-form “Will It Clog?” episodes centered around popular events like Friendsgiving. The brand amplified the content through paid assets like a series of TrueView in-stream ads and TrueView video discovery ads to target users searching for drain-related content. Based on Brand Lift results, the brand successfully increased both awareness and favorability by 38% and 40%, respectively.

“Tap into what’s already going on in culture. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but figure out what people are interested in and see if it fits into what you’re trying to do,” said Bryan A. Clurman, brand engagement manager at Clorox. “After our first video started trending on YouTube, we continued to build on the idea by creating a series and amplifying it across other media channels.”

3. Show, don’t tell

What better approach to help potential customers understand your product’s value add than to show the product being used by real people in everyday situations?

Our product was only part of the story, not the story itself.

Instead of creating a traditional ad, Samsung created an entire video series called Make. The brand enlisted famous YouTube creators to show Gen Zers that its Galaxy smartphone is the best one for creating video content. The resulting series paired the established creators with newer up-and-comers and showcased them doing things like reviewing scripts and shooting footage — all on their Samsung Galaxy smartphones.

“At the core of Make was photography and videography,” said Lyle Underkoffler, vice president of digital at Samsung Electronics America. “The campaign felt organic between our brand and the creators because our product was only part of the story, not the story itself.”

According to Samsung, 17% of those who were exposed to the ads were more likely to purchase the Galaxy as their next phone. “We wanted to break away from traditional ad formats and lean into the best content for the platform,” said Underkoffler. “This campaign allowed us the flexibility to learn what resonated and continue to improve.”