Producers of branded entertainment usually struggle with two things: not making their projects seem too much like marketing, and wanting audiences to discover the content on their own.

Effectively exploiting social-media platforms helped address the latter. But what worked especially well for brands this year was loosening up the corporate pitch and letting popular culture do the heavy lifting and have fun with the messages that marketers were trying to get across to consumers.

Content continues to be king, but collaboration proved key in making marketing entertaining in 2014. Here are the best examples of what worked this year:

The Lego Movie
Lego launched a new family franchise with Warner Bros. not by giving the studio rules about how filmmakers should portray its brand on the bigscreen but by enabling directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord to essentially play with its characters and world in a completely unexpected way. The result both appealed to fans and introduced the building blocks to a larger audience. Naturally, it didn’t hurt that DC Comics superheroes like Batman and Superman were co-stars. But $468 million at the worldwide box office, and plans for sequels, signal that toy-based movies can have a little more fun when they’re being adapted for the multiplex.
Nissan’s Ride-Along with a YouTuber
When a YouTube video, in which the effusively charming TJ Smith gets drivers stuck in L.A. traffic to sing along with him, went viral last year and got Smith air time on national news shows, Nissan smartly brokered a deal to make the online talent its spokesman in a brilliant new campaign for its Sentra this year. The carmaker remade the video, putting Smith inside the small car, integrated him into its sponsorship of NBC’s “The Voice,” and even had him drive the car in an ad for Lyft. The result is easily one of the best moves by an agency (in this case, TBWA/Chiat/Day) to tap into an online video that was captivating the masses and quickly adapt it to its advantage without losing what made it so likable and popular in the first place. No one has looked at the Sentra this much since the car was (grossly) plugged in “Heroes.” Below is the original, followed by the remake.
The Taylor Swift Experience
American Express has long succeeded in pairing up with the music biz through its live Unstaged events. But with the Taylor Swift Experience, the credit card maker was able to use technology in new ways to breathe life into the music video. Only through American Express’ app could fans of the ubiquitous Swift experience her “Blank Space” single with a video shot using 360-degree cameras and featuring an interactive storyline. Whether it wound up selling more copies of Swift’s “1989” album didn’t necessarily matter in this case: As Swift was irritating Spotify by pulling her tunes from the streaming music service, American Express was suddenly looking pretty cool with what it was giving her young fans.

Samsung and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”
It can be tough for anyone to get a lift at Comic-Con now that so many entertainment projects and consumer brands are competing for attention. But Samsung’s tie-in with Lionsgate’s latest “Hunger Games” sequel signaled just how a brand — that isn’t featured in the film, by the way — can take a promotional partnership to a whole new level. In this case, Samsung worked with Lionsgate to build an elaborate exhibit for the film that brought its world to life through costumes, props and experiences, but also put its new tablet into the hands of thousands of fans that wanted to watch the film’s teaser trailer. It’s often tough to get consumers to interact with your product at sponsored events, but Samsung showed just how to make it happen while seeming not crass but cool — and still fit into the franchise’s world.
Jaguar’s Villains Campaign
With a cast made up of Tom Hiddleston, Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong and later Nicholas Hoult, Jaguar’s villain-themed ad campaign played it cool by showing the British automaker’s sinister side in a playful way. Directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), the ads, which debuted during the Super Bowl and expanded throughout the year, was an unusual but effective way to build cachet around a brand that needed a lift. Instead of relying on the usual heroes in movies, Jaguar was able to use the bad guy in a James Bond-like world to get consumers to check out its new lineup of vehicles. Bad buys usually lose, but in this case, Jaguar came up with somethign weirdly winning.
Thinkmodo’s “Devil Baby” Stunt
Perhaps the producers of Fox’s “Devil’s Due” should have turned to agency Thinkmodo for creative guidance. The company’s video of a posessed baby scaring New Yorkers wound up as the No. 2 most shared ad of the year, according to Unruly, with another stunt designed to promote Universal’s “Ouija” also scoring well. The message: Movie campaigns don’t have to rely strictly on a film’s footage, and can bring the message to life in new creative ways.
Aston Martin and James Bond
In the unveiling of the title and cast of the 24th James Bond film, more time was spent by director Sam Mendes introducing the new DB10 sports car that Aston Martin created specifically for 007 than on the actors in the movie. For a franchise known for its prominent product placement, the spotlight on Aston Martin shows just how vital a carmaker’s association with a bigscreen hero can be — something no amount of marketing dollars can buy.
Matthew McConaughey Drives a Lincoln
What started out as an ad campaign for Lincoln’s smaller SUV, the MKC, featuring McConaughey and directed by “Drive’s” Nicholas Winding Refn, spun off a series of comedic spoofs that only helped generate an even larger audience for Ford’s luxury brand. With Jim Carrey, on “Saturday Night Live,” and talkshow hosts Conan O’Brien and Ellen DeGeneres satirizing the campaign, the parodies boosted sales for the brand and raised its profile among consumers at a pivotal time when it’s trying to reinvent itself. And that was clearly all right, all right, all right with Lincoln.
Audi Reunites the Cast of “Breaking Bad”
After pairing up the two Spocks from “Star Trek,” Audi brought the stars of “Breaking Bad” together for its latest short to promote its sponsorship of the Emmys. Also featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and its newest vehicle, of course, Audi proved once again that a luxury brand doesn’t have to stick too closely to an image of gold trophies, tuxedos and expensive gowns when backing an awards show and have fun creatively. When it does, a short like “Barely Legal Pawn,” produced by PMK-BNC, can generate more than 8 million views and have a life beyond the red carpet.