WHAT HAS COME TO BE called "branded entertainment," defined as brands integrating directly into entertainment or indeed creating original entertainment, is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it goes back to the earliest days of radio in the 1920s.
Back then, traditional advertising was actually not allowed on air. Sponsors' names would appear in show titles (The Eveready Hour and The A&P Gypsies), and they would have to find inventive ways to use the content itself to promote their brands. The Clicquot Club Eskimos, for example, were a six-piece banjo group. They played a style of music called "sparkling" and dressed in Eskimo outfits to match the mascot for Clicquot Club Ginger Ale.
With the advent of television, this model continued, but restrictions were eased so that sponsors were able to make direct pitches within the programming. The TV audience of the late 1940s enjoyed the Texaco Star Theater, in which Milton Berle helped sell a lot of gasoline, and Kraft Television Theatre, a critically acclaimed show created to promote the new Cheez Whiz product.
Lucy and Ricky extolled the virtues of Philip Morris cigarettes within their program, while George Burns and Gracie Allen did the same for the Carnation dairy company. Groucho Marx hawked the "delightful, de-lovely DeSoto" on You Bet Your Life.
In fact, during this golden age of television, advertising agencies were developing shows in-house and then selling them to clients. J. Walter Thompson produced Kraft Television Theatre, for example.
But as television production budgets soared, agencies and brands were anxious to get out of the production game. Furthermore, the networks sought more and more value from the powerful medium they were building. "Renting" airtime to more sponsors was proving more lucrative than allowing a single advertiser to "own" a block of time associated with a single production. In the early 1950s, NBC's Pat Weaver launched the "magazine sponsorship," in which several brands bought sponsorship for a single show.
In 1966, an article in The New York Times Magazine claimed that "TV is not an art form or a cultural channel; it is an advertising medium." It pretty much summed up the direction in which television was heading.
In 1971, networks cast aside concerns over relationships with individual corporate sponsors and fully embraced the 30-second spot as a means of extracting maximum advertising revenue from their programming.
Today, media fragmentation and the skyrocketing cost of television advertising is causing marketers to look once again at branded entertainment as a viable way to connect to consumers outside the 30-second spot.
The digital revolution and its effect on the communications landscape cannot be overstated. Consumers have increasingly become their own programmers through devices such as TiVo and iPod, while at the same time, digitization of media has given way to an endless array of media options.
It's simple: brands need new ways to engage consumers. Continually chasing consumers by finding new ways and places to push our messages is an increasingly futile effort. The obedient audience for flat commercial messages is simply not there.
The audience is too busy creating their personal digital circuits within which they control how, where and when they enjoy content. It's just too easy for them to ignore the explosion of commercial messages because they have the means and motivation to do so.
What's a brand to do?
In this landscape, we believe that brands must capture the imagination of their audience. And by capturing their imagination, we mean brands must entertain, intrigue, provoke and invite into dialogue – what many call "emotional engagement" or "brand engagement." Essentially, this means giving the audience a reason to pay attention to what the brand is saying beyond a simple explanation of so-called "rational benefits."
Branded content and entertainment is one of the best ways to accomplish this. Its basic strategic role is straightforward – use entertainment to help brands better tell their own brand story and, in so doing, help brands better appeal to the imagination of their audiences.
The digital revolution that led to such seismic shifts in the media landscape (and that has increasingly given consumers the ability to escape commercial messaging) can be harnessed for the benefit of brands using branded entertainment. Because of the efficacy and efficiency of distributing content digitally, using branded content to appeal to the audience's imagination has never been more attractive.
If brands and their agencies were driven out of the content production game in the 1950s because of cost, they are now realizing that digital content can shift the equation of producing content back in their favor.
Many brand managers look at the phenomenon of user-generated content and think, "We should have a usergenerated content component to our marketing program." Perhaps. But why not focus on brand-generated content?
Ogilvy Beijing created a viral project for Motorola, tapping into the sudden craze in China for do-it-yourself music videos.
Two kids, calling themselves "the Backdorm Boyz," became an overnight sensation on the Internet by making a goofy video of themselves lip-synching to a Backstreet Boys song. Ogilvy Beijing hired them to create a new video, integrating Motorola's entry-level cell phones, which was uploaded onto a video-sharing site, and viral action took over the rest. Sixty million downloads of their video were recorded, and sales of the Motorola phones used in the ad rose by 250 percent without having used any offline advertising at all.
If two twelve-year-old boys with a digital camera can become a nationwide lip-synching sensation at zero cost, why can’t more brands create entertaining content that amplifies their brand values almost as efficiently?
The Dove Evolution viral video has had well over 500 million views. That's not just getting a commercial message in front of 500 million pairs of eyeballs. That's 500 million active, voluntary engagements with the Dove brand and its philosophy on female beauty.
Thanks to the effectiveness of digital media, more money can be spent on production, which emphasizes the story. Furthermore, by reediting and repurposing a single piece of content for different outlets, brands not only can more effectively meet consumers at different points in the buying journey, but also can further enhance the return on the original content investment.
IBM created a series of "mini-mentaries" to showcase real-world applications of IBM innovation. One of those pieces was the story of the NYPD's "Real-Time Crime Center." Thanks to IBM technology, officers in the field are able to act on information concerning a crime in real time. The piece is beautifully shot and edited and tells a gripping story of the apprehension of a criminal thanks to the technology that IBM made possible. That single piece of content is not only used by the sales force in the field but was also used by Commissioner Kelly of the NYPD for an important fund-raiser, and subsequently became the basis for a TV show currently in development – a TV show into which IBM will be integrated.
Entertaining content has multiple applications precisely because it is entertaining (people want to watch it) and because the means of distributing it digitally are many, varied and relatively cheap
What we are talking about goes beyond simply integrating a brand as a prop into a piece of popular entertainment. While artful product integration can be a valuable tool, it does not have the power to activate the imagination of prospects (or create brand engagement) in the way that brand-created content and entertainment can. And thanks to the flexibility and efficiency of digital content, the economics of "owning"entertaining content rather than "renting" someone else's content in order to tell a brand story have never been more appealing. Welcome to the next golden age of content.