Back to the glamorous days
Demand for branded content is rising steeply because there are projects to suit brands large or small - from film financing such as Eurostar's Somers Town, to pop star tie-ups. Catherine Turner reports
Few ads generate anything like the excitement of the big TV campaigns of the Seventies and Eighties, and in pursuit of that old-time glamour - and with the aim of "giving consumers more" - marketers are turning to the idea of branded entertainment.
It isn't a new idea, but has gained traction in marketing circles since 2001 when a series of short films by Hollywood A-list directors had the BMW car as the star of the action.
Seven years on - and with the internet amplifying the shift from "interruptive" to "engaging" advertising - branded content has exploded. And the good news for advertisers is there's a format or idea to suit every budget - from low-cost hosting of videos and entertainment on the web, through staging festivals and shows such as the O2 Wireless event, and funding or sponsoring hit TV shows.
Eurostar of the show
Earlier this year train operator Eurostar raised the bar by financing a film from gritty UK director Shane Meadows. The film takes place in Somers Town, from which the film takes its name, an area near St Pancras station, Eurostar's new UK home.
Jonathan Webb, managing director of Virgin Media Television, which set up the UK's first dedicated advertiser-funded programming team, says: "In my view the most impactful recent example of branded content comes not from commercially-focused television, but from the world of cinema. The £500,000 budget for Somers Town came from Eurostar, which also plays a starring role in the story."
Branded content blurs conventional distinctions between what constitutes advertising and what constitutes entertainment and, according to its advocates, creates a richer relationship with the target audience.
Branded entertainment should primarily be that - a piece of entertainment, but which aligns with the brand's attributes and is a reflection of the advertiser's brand personality. Get it right, and you've created a property that can sit at the heart of your marketing strategy, amplifying any PR or advertising and straddling all media and consumer touchpoints, according to Gemma Newland, managing director of TBWA/Stream.
But it is easy to get wrong. Daniel Salem, Viacom Brand Solutions head of partnerships, says pitfalls include not working with partners such as broadcasters earlier enough, and developing properties that do not relate to any other activity. "This should not be an afterthought," he says. "It should fit in to your overall activity. Brands should not do it 'just because they can'."
Branded entertainment works particularly well for brands wanting to associate with subjects that people feel passionate about, such as sport, music and food.
"Bold advertisers will reap rewards", says Virgin Media TV's Webb, but he cautions that television regulation still makes it difficult to achieve real brand integration on the medium. He believes newer platforms such as mobile and online bring one obvious benefit: they are free of the kind of tight and unyielding regulations that limit TV deals.
The Pros Of Online
Another advantage the internet brings is value. Online branded campaigns cost a fraction of the price of TV and can be distributed more cheaply too.
Rebecca Allen, head of client services at specialist agency HowTo.tv, says there has been an increase in brands seeking to create short, targeted films and clips to either distribute or host on their websites, from pure entertainment to advice.
Others look to events to create a closer relationship with customers, such as Polish music marketing company STX Jamboree which recently staged a music festival at Wembley Arena featuring the cream of Poland's music scene to reach the 1 million Poles living in the UK. The concert was sponsored and branded by Polish bank PKO BP.
In every case close collaboration is critical. Getting branded content right is an art and requires media agencies, producers and media owners to work together from the beginning of an idea. Only this can produce content that really lives up to its full potential.