Up until very recently, brands drove the business of media by buying ads, which were packaged with content created by media outlets. Now, brands are using their media dollars to create content and build media ecosystems of their own. And they’re working with customers to do it.

This has resulted in the creation of useful quality content, which has resulted in more empowered customers, leading to better, more relevant products.

Two recent examples of this come from Whole Foods Market and Procter & Gamble.

Branded lifestyles

Whole Foods recently launched several new branded content initiatives through its highly successful YouTube channel called Thrive. Thrive features fascinating, insightful stories from people who share their personal accounts of sustainable urban farming, organic cooking and family legacies built around good eating.

The utility in these content experiences is clear: what you see inspires you to do things that can better your life, empowered by people you can relate to – Whole Foods shoppers and the food growers themselves.

This isn’t just a means for Whole Foods to get its brand name out there. The grocery retailer is tapping into communities that are already a part of its success as a business, and is creating a platform of transparency and goodwill that drives its brand value in innovative ways. You might think of this as a new “Do-It-Yourself” network of brand advocates.

Life Goes Strong, a joint venture of P&G and NBC Universal, is a network of websites that provides lifestyle content for the 40-plus crowd. For example, couples who are seeking guidance on relationships, parenting, or even matters of divorce, can get firsthand advice from people who are actually going through these experiences and detailing them as they happen.

Similar experiences are shared around a whole host of relevant themes, from health to technology to fashion and career management.

While the idea behind this isn’t new, it does prove a point about the value of consumer demand: products are only as relevant as the things people care about. As this platform evolves (the site is in BETA), it will be interesting to see how P&G and its portfolio of brands use the site’s content and conversations to create better products, and to allow those same people to tell stories about how those products have affected their lives in positive ways.

Citizen storytelling and branded journalism

These are just two examples that signal a change in how the consumer landscape is driving new market opportunities for brands based on profound shifts in online publishing and digital media.

And while online publishers such as AOL (which now owns The Huffington Post), and Yahoo! position their business models around the development and syndication of original content, there is a huge opportunity for brands to be part of this equation, along with their customers.

Google, through YouTube, has allowed independent content producers of all types to build their own “micro networks” with original content, and actively engaged audiences.These citizen-created networks have produced everything from new types of music to new types of exercise.

Where brands have entered the picture here is even more interesting.

Pepsi’s live social media events in Brazil, for example, have renewed interest in its products and its push for cultural empowerment through live product demonstrations and guest talks ranging from environmental advocacy groups to concerts, art shows and photography exhibits. (Full disclosure: I am employed by the agency that does much of this work with Pepsi).

PepsiCo's Director of Digital and Social Media Bonin Bough speaks at Social Media Week in São Paulo, Brazil. Image by PepsiCo Brazil via Flickr.

Pepsi effectively turns these events into platforms where attendees help build stories for and on behalf of the brand. Pepsi deploys teams of journalists, genre experts, anthropologists – and in some cases, scientists, product engineers and musicians – to go to these live events and curate conversations with people in real-time.

The relationship is mutually beneficial: What people get is a shared voice that reflects the impact they have on their own local culture, while the brand gets valuable insight into what culturally drives its business.

The future of branded storytelling

Brands and agencies have traditionally relied upon creative teams or bloggers to drive these social conversations forward. But brands have begun tapping into vocational skills not commonly found in the marketing and advertising worlds – skills resident in disciplines like investigative journalism, data science, applied mathematics and cultural anthropology.

So what does this look like?

Source (where content comes from), voice (a brand, consumer or expert position), intent (where audiences are being cultivated) and format (method of delivery - the combination of platform and experience) are the key components of storytelling.

Brands can no longer afford to just aggregate or curate content and expect people to advocate their products and services; much of the value of branded content is predicated on who is telling these stories, why they matter, and how those stories are distributed.

In the case of Whole Foods, stories around sustainability and urban farming are relevant because they’re being told by real subject matter experts who are also a part of the company’s supply chain.

Pepsi’s efforts in Brazil resonate because the journalists and experts on the ground are immersed in the communities they write about.

For P&G, the way the brand will continue to build credibility with consumer advocates is by empowering real people to develop the skills to become the subject matter experts.

In all cases, we can see how these values are co-created: there is a clear, definable collaboration between brand and consumer.

If brands can get this formula right within a variety of business contexts they will win in areas where many studios, TV and online networks have continued to stumble.