There has been a surge of branded content around social causes. More companies are engaging in philanthropy and targeting certain social problems to support, attaching their brand names prominently to their efforts. I think this is great news. To some, social change and corporate marketing are curious bedfellows with a mile-wide delta between motivations and methods. But I’m not one of those people. Corporations know how to sell products through ideas and emotions. And to address any large-scale social problem effectively, we need all the help we can get. 

Take AIDS. Half of the people who need HIV treatment and testing aren’t yet getting it. We can use all the business acumen, research and marketing savvy we can muster to address this issue.

The problem is, it’s often unclear whether corporate social initiatives are motivated by the cause, or by the company’s marketing department, or a bit of both. Where that fuzziness exists, people tend to question a company’s true motives. That uncertainty can limit the potential benefit to the cause and the company.

What we and other companies have found is that you can generate value for both the company and the cause through unbranded content in a way that is a win for all. 

Here’s how: 

I lead M·A·C Cosmetics’ global philanthropy efforts through the M·A·C AIDS Fund. We raise and donate about $48 million a year to combat AIDS through sales of our VIVA GLAM lipstick line. That's a lot of lipstick, and it is undoubtedly part of our brand's special sauce. 

But we recently discovered that our unbranded efforts to combat AIDS might be even more valuable than our branded work. 

Our team is in the fortunate position of having a cause as our north star. Our mission is to eliminate HIV/AIDS. We work for M·A·C, and we take our company’s brand seriously, but we trust that our company’s values fully support our efforts. We are also constantly looking for ways to update our playbook for today’s media environment. Because youths (ages 10-24) are the only population where AIDS death rates are still rising globally, we decided to commission a feature-length documentary to raise awareness and reach young people worldwide about HIV/HAIDS. Through the documentary, which told authentic and personal stories of young people around the world whose lives were affected by HIV/AIDS, we hoped to reopen important dialogue on the topic. To do so authentically, without risking the commercialization of the message, we decided that the effort would be unbranded. This was a crucial decision for us; we wanted to maintain editorial integrity not produce just another commercial of the kind that young audiences are so adept at tuning out. 

The film—It’s Not Over—premiered on Netflix, aired on Pivot, and is available on dozens of types of devices across the world in more than 15 languages.

It has been a success. We have reached millions of young people around the world with the film’s powerful message about HIV/AIDS.

But here’s the kicker. Even with very limited branding—a lonely end card at the end of the film—M·A·C Cosmetics and the M·A·C AIDS Fund, by virtue of social media and positive PR, still received enough business impact to make a solid case for doing it again. 

With next to nothing invested in paid advertising, in fact:

  • Social chatter around the film’s launch impacted M·A·C AIDS FUND and M·A·C brand baseline conversation levels, even surpassing that of the M·A·C brand overall.

  • Conversations tying the M·A·C AIDS Fund to the M·A·C Brand increased by 142 percent.

  • Conversations tying the M·A·C AIDS Fund to VIVA GLAM increased by 300 percent.

  • References linking the M·A·C AIDS FUND to VIVA GLAM during the “It’s Not Over” campaign doubled from 8 percent pre-launch to 16 percent post-launch.

We’re not the only ones who have dipped our toes in this arena. AMEX, for example, recently launched a documentary called Spent at a South by Southwest Festival, a massively popular annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival held in Austin. The film detailed stories of everyday Americans who earn, save, and spend money, but don't have access to traditional financial tools, and how lack of these tools cripples underserved communities. The goal behind making this film was first and foremost to raise widespread awareness, and spark a real conversation and eventual movement for greater financial inclusion. 

These projects have momentum. They are making a difference. And to anyone but the most cynical, they are proof that these companies want the world to be a better place. They take to heart the adage that “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” 

Seeing the success of these projects ensures that more will come. Some of it will fail. But all of it has a chance to make a real impact on social issues. 

And the good news for companies is that unbranded, unvarnished content also makes good business sense. We took a chance letting our content speak on its own, brand-free, and while a lonely leap, it’s one we’ll take again. As we look for more partners in solving some of the world’s solvable problems, we hope others will take it with us. Let your values show.