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What do cookies and computers have in common?

This isn’t the start of a riddle. I’m talking about Oreo and Intel.

On the surface, they’re not all that similar. One is a snack food; the other builds high-tech computer processors. And while one has remained the same since its inception, the other is continually adapting to consumer needs and setting new standards for the industry.

Both, however, have had a recent resurgence in popularity that can’t be attributed to economic conditions, changing consumer preferences, or even luck. So what is the cause?

It’s the new buzzword on everyone’s lips––content. Some say it’s just a fad, part of a cycle of marketing models that fade in and out of favor. Some say it’s just another method for doing what brands were already doing.

But there’s proof not only that content works, but that it works extremely well. Across industries, more and more companies are turning to ad solutions that incorporate brand messages seamlessly with content; and across the board, they’re seeing results.

Oreo and Intel are just two examples of companies that have managed to create wildly successful content marketing campaigns that have caused brand awareness––and, as a result, sales––to soar.

So, how do they do it? What are both Oreo and Intel doing to attract so much attention?

First, let’s take Oreo. The black and white cookie has been around––and remained relatively unchanged––for over 100 years; therein lies the challenge. How do you make something old new again?

To celebrate a century of snack time, they launched a campaign called The Daily Twist; every day, for one hundred days, the company posted an image to commemorate an event from that day in history––from man’s first walk on the moon to the birth of a baby panda––Oreo style. (View the entire campaign here: http://pinterest.com/oreo/daily-twist/)

The images were published in print and shared via social media. Online, they earned the company a 280% increase in Facebook likes and a 510% increase in retweets; but the brand’s major coup came from a well-timed tweet during a power outage at the Superbowl that read “You can still dunk in the dark” and earned a whopping 10,000 retweets, 18,000 Facebook likes, and 5,000 shares––just in the first hour.

Now let’s look at Intel. The core challenge is getting people to see the unseen; while Intel technology is embedded in hundreds of consumer products, most users aren’t aware of what goes into making this technology––and what we’re able to do with it––possible.

Enter the Creators Project. The brainchild of Intel and media company VICE, the Creators Project showcases the many ways that technology has inspired creativity. It promotes the work of established artists, musicians, and visionaries and commissions original pieces while inspiring up-and-comers to explore technology’s potential in their own work. The blog covers projects as diverse as e-skin and wearable tech, the making of a giant LED cube art installation, a self-assembling 3D printed car, and a documentary of the final days of the band LCD Soundsystem. Intel also sponsors a series of live events that give readers the opportunity to experience the project firsthand. (To learn more, visit the blog here: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/) The Creators Project caused a major shift in Intel’s public image; it transformed them from just another tech company to an invaluable supporter of the arts.

So, now that the what has been established, why does it work? How does content create readers, and later convert those readers into buyers?

A good content campaign has to be relevant, both to the reader (i.e. it must offer something of value) and to the brand (it must ‘sell the product’ by embodying the same values as the product itself).

Oreo’s Daily Twist campaign nails both criteria. By inviting readers to remember a moment from the past, the campaign implicitly invites you to remember Oreo next time nostalgia hits––or the next time you’re browsing the snack aisle at the grocery store.

In providing inspiration (for aspiring artists) and exposure (for those who are already exercising their creativity), the Creators Project strives to build a following of people who will think of Intel the next time they’re in the market for technology. By documenting the work of high-profile creators, they demystify innovation and make the creative process more accessible, inviting people to dream up things that they previously thought impossible. And the work that they commission from rising artists not only establishes Intel as a friend to the arts, but builds a loyal following of artists who are used to, and enjoy using, their technology.

It’s not a coincidence that in both cases, the content itself is completely free. Another essential characteristic of good content is that its immediate goal is not sales (that comes later) but impressions; in order to make a purchase, a buyer must first be aware of the product.

But one impression isn’t enough. Research shows that, typically, it takes multiple encounters with a product for awareness to build into interest, and eventually, desire. So, a successful content campaign also needs to produce content regularly. If a brand can produce relevant content on a consistent basis (as with Oreo’s Daily Twist, or the Creators Project’s frequent blog posts) it can become an integral part of consumers’ everyday routine.

If I already love the taste of Oreos, a well-timed tweet could spark a craving, and if I’m in the market for new tech tools to build my next art installation, I’ll immediately recognize the Creators Project blog as a great resource.

But what if I’ve never eaten an Oreo, unlikely as that scenario is? Or if I’ve never thought of myself as someone who could build something cool with technology? This is where traditional marketing hits a wall.

It’s also where, remarkably, original content shines.

Content’s true power lies in its ability to bridge the gap between brands and potential first-time buyers. As a surrogate for the product itself, content steps in to begin building a bond between the consumer and the product long before the opportunity to purchase arises––so when it comes time to buy, whether it’s cookie or a computer, there’s no real selling left to do.