Branded content (also known as branded entertainment) is the practice of marketing via the creation of content that is funded or outright produced by an advertiser. In contrast to content marketing (in which content is presented first and foremost as a marketing ploy for a brand) and product placement (where advertisers pay to have references to their brands incorporated into outside creative works, such as films and television series), branded content is designed to build awareness for a brand by associating it with content that shares its values. The content does not necessarily need to be a promotion for the brand, although it may still include product placement.
Unlike conventional forms of editorial content, branded content is generally funded entirely by a brand or corporation rather than a studio or a group of solely artistic producers. Examples of branded content have appeared in television, film, online content, video games, events, and other installations. Modern branded marketing strategies are intended primarily to counter market trends, such as the decreasing acceptance of traditional commercials or low-quality advertorials.
The concept of branded content dates back to the early era of broadcasting; many early radio and television programs were controlled by their sponsors and branded with their names, including the Colgate Comedy Hour, Hallmark Hall of Fame, and Westinghouse Studio One. Typically, the sponsor coordinated the entire production of the program, with the broadcaster only providing studios and airtime. These programs featured segments that promoted the sponsor's products, typically featuring the brand's spokesperson and demonstrations of new products. Notable spokespeople often became celebrities in their own right, such as Betty Furness, a B-movie actress whose fame was elevated after becoming a spokesperson for Westinghouse appliances on Studio One (Furness would later work as a consumer affairs reporter for WNBC-TV in New York City).
Many melodramatic serial dramas targeting women, such as As the World Turns, were produced by the consumer goods company Procter & Gamble; this prompted the genre to be dubbed a "soap opera". The Revlon cosmetics company gained significant prominence after sponsoring the quiz show The $64,000 Question; for a time, it was the most-watched program on U.S. television. In 1956, the Ford Motor Company used a branded variety special on CBS—The Edsel Show—to launch its new automobile marque Edsel. Although the special (which starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope) was a critical success and widely-viewed, its success did not transfer to Edsel itself—which was ultimately a high-profile failure.
In the late 1950s, the quiz show scandals exposed that several major television game shows had been manipulated or outright rigged under demand of their sponsors, in order to maintain viewer interest and ratings. Dotto and Twenty One were at the center of the scandal, when it was found that the two quiz shows had rigged games due to demands by sponsors. Testimony by a producer of The $64,000 Question revealed that Revlon founder Charles Revson had personally exerted control over the program in order to favor specific contestants. The aftermath of the scandals, as well as increasing production costs due to factors such as the rollout of color television, prompted networks to begin asserting creative control over the production and scheduling of their programming. Broadcasters also phased out of the "single sponsor" model, in favor of having sponsors purchase blocks of time during breaks in a program to run commercials instead.
Conventional product placement and cross-promotion still appeared in films and television, but it was often argued that overuse of placements can distract from the entertainment value of the work. The film Mac and Me was widely criticized for containing frequent incorporation of Coca-Cola and McDonald's as major plot elements (going as far as crediting the chain's mascot Ronald McDonald as appearing in the film "as himself"). Hallmark Hall of Fame still occasionally aired on broadcast TV until 2014, when it was announced that the franchise would move to Hallmark's co-owned cable channel Hallmark Channel in the future.
After releasing its hockey-themed film The Mighty Ducks, Disney established a National Hockey League expansion team known as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, which was named in reference to the film. Disney subsequently produced two Mighty Ducks film sequels, and an animated series inspired by the team set and in a fictional version of Anaheim. The films and cartoon series also featured cameos by Mighty Ducks players. These works bolstered the Mighty Ducks by placing additional content within its brand, and created synergies between the team and Disney's core entertainment business. The NHL felt that the Mighty Ducks cartoon could help to promote the game of hockey among a younger audience, and counter the stereotype of hockey being associated with Canada and the U.S. northeast. The team's merchandise, which was sold at Disney Parks and Disney Store locations in addition to the NHL's main retail channels, were the best-selling among all teams for a period.
In 2001, automaker BMW began a marketing campaign entitled The Hire, in which it produced a series of short films featuring A-list directors (such as Guy Ritchie) and talent that prominently featured its vehicles. The films were advertised through television, print, and online marketing which directed viewers to a BMW Films website, where they could stream the films, and access ancillary information such as information about their featured vehicles. BMW also distributed the films on DVD with Vanity Fair magazine to increase their distribution among the company's target audience. By the end of the campaign in 2005, the eight-film series had amassed over 100 million views, and several of the films had received both advertising-related and short film awards.
In 2010, Procter & Gamble and Walmart began to fund a series of made for TV films, distributed through the former's Procter & Gamble Productions division, such as The Jensen Project and Secrets of the Mountain. They were all targeted towards family viewing, aired primarily on NBC as time-buys, and featured product placement for P&G brands and Walmart's store brand Great Value. In turn, Walmart erected promotional displays of P&G products related to each film, and sold the films on DVD immediately after their broadcast. Both companies used exclusive advertising time during the films to promote their products. P&G reported that the favorability of the products featured in Secrets of the Mountain increased by 26% among mothers who saw the film. Advertising Age felt that despite lukewarm reception and viewership, "as case studies for successful branded entertainment, they've become the holy grail of how networks and marketers can use entertainment to achieve scalable audiences, measurable product sales and active fan communities."
The Canadian beer brand Kokanee (owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev) partnered with its agency Grip and Alliance Films to produce The Movie Out Here, a feature-length comedy film set in the brand's home province of British Columbia. The film was released in April 2013, after being featured at the 2012 Whistler Film Festival. Kokanee beer, along with characters from its past advertising campaigns, make appearances in the film, and an accompanying campaign allowed bars in Western Canada to compete to be a filming location, and users to vote on the film's soundtrack and have a chance to be listed as a "fan" in the credits. Grip's creative director Randy Stein stated that viewers had become more accepting of branded content, and that there would be a larger focus on the emotional aspects of Kokanee as a brand as opposed to the number of placements.
The energy drink company Red Bull has relied heavily on branded content as part of its marketing strategies. The company operates several Media House studios, which coordinate the production and distribution of original content targeted towards the interests of young adults—particularly music and extreme sports. Alongside digital media content such as online video (via platforms such as Red Bull TV), and print media such as The Red Bulletin, Red Bull has also organized events and sports competitions which carry its name, such as the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, Crashed Ice, and Flugtag competitions, music festivals and events, and a skydive from the Earth's stratosphere by Felix Baumgartner. These ventures are consistent with the company's image, bolster Red Bull as being a lifestyle brand in these categories, and build awareness of Red Bull without necessarily promoting the product itself. An executive for Red Bull Media House North America remarked that the growth of digital media platforms had made it easier for brands to produce and distribute their own content, and stressed that branded content was most effective when it is "authentic" and high-quality.
As viewership has shifted away from linear television and the viewing audience has splintered, brands have increased investment in content marketing. That includes both digital video and theatrical films. The Lego Movie and the Transformers films are branded films that are made with the direct involvement of the toy companies that own the underlying properties. But branding is not always so apparent. Among branded feature films with less overt product integration are the 2018 comedy Uncle Drew, which had its roots in a 2012 series of Pepsi Max videos and was supported by PepsiCo's branded content unit; the 2018 feature documentary 5B, which was backed by Johnson & Johnson; and 2019 feature documentary Gay Chorus Deep South, produced by Airbnb. Product integration in such projects is often minimal, as the brand seeks "brand lift" and positive brand association rather than the kind of direct sales message typical in commercials. However content marketers sometimes struggle to convince corporate leaders that branded content delivers a Return on investment, as it is often difficult to prove that viewers absorbed a marketing message or developed positive associations with the brand.
Research and issues
In 2003, the Branded Content Marketing Association was formed in order to promote branded content to a wider, international audience. In January 2008, the BCMA conducted a study intending to analyze the efficacy of branded content compared to traditional advertising. Reportedly, over one-third of people were skeptical about traditional ads, and only one-tenth trusted the companies producing such adverts. The study concluded that "in the overwhelming majority of cases consumers preferred the more innovative approach compared with traditional advertising". Over 95% of the time, web sites that feature branded content were more successful than web sites featuring typical advertisements, and are 24% more effective at increasing the purchase intent of viewers. Branded content is most effective in the 18-34 age group, who tend to react with more positive opinions and being overall more responsive to branded sites. Online Publishers Association’s President Pam Horan concluded, “In nearly every category measured, ad effectiveness scores on branded content sites were numerically higher than on the web in general, on portals or on ad networks.
These positive results, however, having come from an organization which endeavors to promote the marketing practice, are subject to criticisms of bias.
Webby and Lovie awards among other had recognized Branded Content as a category in prior instances, but most awards within the advertising community officially began to grow to include branded content in 2012, when "Branded Content/Entertainment" became a category at EuroBest, Dubai Lynx Spikes Asia and Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
- 5B (film)
- As the Cookie Crumbles
- Experiential marketing
- Fat Actress
- Integrated marketing communications
- Native advertising
- No. 5 The Film
- No Logo
- Permission marketing
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