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"Fluffy," BB Dakota

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How Branded Content Got Weird

BB Dakota, Ann Taylor Loft, Old Navy, and more are pursuing shoppers by hiring creators, not spokespeople.

BB Dakota and I both like Sarah Ramos. BB is a clothing company and I'm a human being, but we like Sarah Ramos for many of the same reasons: She’s really cool on Twitter and really speaks to our brands — yes, we both have brands. And they are both brands that love cool tweets about relatable things like snacks, emails, and this hat Jennifer Lopez once wore.

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It helps that Ramos also an actress we both like — she played Haddie Braverman on NBC’s Parenthood and will soon play a girl named Creek on a new show called Midnight, TX. She also produces a podcast we listen to (and, full disclosure, I have been on): Caroline Goldfarb’s This Week Had Me Like, which is about celebrities doing weird stuff. Both BB Dakota and I see Ramos as "a girl like us" — me, the person, and BB Dakota, the clothing company.

That’s why BB Dakota asked Sarah Ramos to make them a short film and that’s why I watched it.

But Fluffy, the short film that Ramos and BB Dakota made together (the creative part and the funding part, respectively), isn’t about clothing at all. Well, the cast is wearing clothes — and much of those clothes are made (and provided) by BB Dakota — but the short itself has nothing to do with clothing. It’s about a girl with an overwhelming crush who gets an opportunity to babysit her beloved’s cat, Fluffy. There is one part where the main character neatly lays out her BB Dakota wardrobe in preparation for a big day. Ramos, who wrote and directed the short, says that moment was planned before BB Dakota got involved.

"That was my creative choice," she says. "I wanted to make it a big deal for the character, pick[ing] out a specific outfit."

BB Dakota found out about Ramos through Mallory Blair (co-owner of the PR firm Small Girls PR), who pointed creative director Katharine Brandes Ramos’s way. Brandes was already in the business of giving women money to make cool things, having recently done a series with LA comedian Casey Jane Ellison, and before that one with photographer Petra Collins.

"Our consumer is very driven. She is career-focused, smart," says Brandes. "We had this girl who has this relationship to fashion that isn’t fashion dictating. We realized that our aspirational consumer, and our actual consumer, is this empowered feminist girl who's getting things done. How do we activate that with marketing?"

BB Dakota isn't the only fashion company outsourcing its voice to cool, on-brand creators — shifting the focus from the clothing to the customer. From Ann Taylor Loft’s series with Jessi Klein and Busy Phillips to Kenzo’s Carrie Brownstein collaboration, The Realest Real, to MuuMuu’s Woman Tales with the likes of Miranda July and Ava Duvernay, brands are embracing smart, funny women in order to reach their desired audiences: girls who get shit done (and who, they might assume, want to buy clothing with the rewards).

And that, the getting things done thing, is why Ramos was immediately into the project. "[Brandes] just thought I was funny on social media and didn't really know my acting work or that I had co-written and directed a short film before," Ramos says. "They gave us an idea of what they wanted the budget to be and basically besides that they were like, ‘Send us a script.’ Otherwise, they were pretty hands-off."

In a world defined by aspirational "goals" ("Relationship Goals," "Squad Goals," "Life Goals"), these brands are taking a bet on the creators behind the content being just as inspirational as the clothes.

Take another Ann Taylor Loft (or just "LOFT" to its most devoted fans) venture — its holiday series with The SRSLY Girls. These two YouTubers [editor’s note: and, full disclosure, Racked contributors], Alexandra Fiber and Danielle Gibson, made their first video while at NYU and now do content for all sorts of brands, including Bare Minerals and Birchbox.

"They're really trying to strike this colloquial, let's-all-just-hang-out-with-our-girlfriends kind of voice," says Fiber. "[What] we always want to know up front when we're working with a brand is: What are our perimeters? What can we not do?" Gibson compares shilling for the wrong brand to selling cigarettes — which neither of the women smoke: "It shouldn’t be to be challenging to do. We did six episodes about holiday things and we're wearing Ann Taylor LOFT while doing the videos. We probably would’ve been wearing it anyway." Might as well get that clothing for free, I joke with them. "They weren't!" Fiber says. "They didn't give us all the clothes that we wore [in the video]."

For bigger brands, however, sometimes it’s better to go with a bigger star. But these companies still understand the value of content that doesn’t focus on clothing. Kate Spade’s "Miss Adventure" series — starring Anna Kendrick —involves the antics of a twentysomething hopping around New York City. And while she wears the clothes and holds the bags, the aspirational content comes not just from Kendrick’s bubbly personality, but from women she meets along the way. Take this episode with Gloria Steinem:

Is Anna playing herself or someone else entirely? It’s honestly hard to tell. That’s on purpose, says Kate Spade senior vice president Kristen Naiman, who works on the "Miss Adventure" series (which is finishing up its second season). "There was always this sense of a meta overlay, which is that we are all the aggregate sum total, all of our customers, the community of women we engage [with] in conversation around our brand. We as an aggregate sum total are Kate Spade New York," she says.

But traditional marketing is traditional marketing, and Miss Adventure is still very much treated like an ad. And much like Sex and the City always boasted, not only New York City is a character in the "Miss Adventure" series, but so is "Kate Spade New York."

"We intentionally created this meta world in which everyone is both playing themselves, but playing themselves in this slightly realer-than-real world that is Kate Spade New York," Naiman says, explaining that in this world Kate Spade New York is not just Anna Kendrick or Gloria Steinem or her, Kristen Naiman, or even Kate Spade (who is, of course, not an actual person) but all of the brand's customers and all of the women in their community. The "aggregate sum total," as Naiman says. Kate Spade New York is us; we are Kate Spade New York. And please watch this video.

The other #content option, of course, is using fashion influencers — Instagrammers, Snapchatters and the like, who gingerly hold up the product and swear by its effectiveness, adding an "#ad" for the FTC. This is a route that Brandes is very much against for BB Dakota: "I felt anxious about doing that blogger stuff," she says. "It's the wild west."

"There's a lot of branded content out there," Brandes goes on. "And I think that millennials especially know when they're being tricked by a piece of content that's really a commercial and they feel cheapened by that. I didn't want to make a piece of branded content that was just like a commercial disguised as entertainment. I wanted to make a piece of work that, whoever was making it was fully in control of. I think that would be empowering to everyone."

And, when talking about her project with BB Dakota, Ramos threw out the word "empowering," too. "This is the short I would have made without, [but] I probably wouldn't have been able to make it without them giving me their marketing budget," she says. "On the one hand, I'm like, ‘Yes, I made a commercial for them’ but on the other I'm like, ‘I made a short film and that's really empowering for me.’ I don't know if they've tricked me or something, but it feels like a really mutually beneficial project."

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