When collaborating with talent on brand integration across the entertainment landscape, a key word that continues to emerge is ‘authenticity.’ For creators and storytellers, being authentic is critical as it avoids straying from and compromising carefully-crafted story arcs and character development.
But authenticity should be of critical importance to brands as well. Stories can be enhanced or character traits can be reinforced with a solid, well thought out and planned integration.
“Brands don’t want to compromise their values by being in content that doesn’t make sense,” says Caressa Douglas, senior vice president of global strategic partnerships at BEN. “Being inauthentic can backfire and be considered disingenuous to the audience. It’s disruptive to both the content and the brand — and not in a good way.”
Creative collaboration, in large part, is built over time and through deep relationships. It also demands a keen understanding and trust of the creative process, especially in Hollywood and entertainment, whether that’s in the scripted or unscripted space.
“It’s so fascinating to see how a brand gets on screen,” says Pattie Falch, brand director of Heineken’s sponsorships and events. “Ultimately, [creators] can have a different vision for the character and the brand placement won’t work. We’ve learned as a brand and as a team to be flexible.”
“When we work with Jimmy Kimmel Live, for example, we know that they will craft something better than a brand could,” adds Douglas. “They understand Jimmy and his audience best. That’s why, as a brand, you want to be in that show — the writers do a great job.”
Being an insider can give brands a massive leg up in pursuing opportunity as well.
“When we’re developing projects for brands, we know, from industry insiders, our research and sometimes gut instinct, which shows or series will be great and what won’t make sense,” says Douglas. “It can be overwhelming with all of the choices in content and having a resource to navigate the landscape is helpful.”
Creators also understand the inherent value brands can bring to a production budget, whether it’s direct or in-kind. Additionally, as it relates to safety for a brand, long-established creators and experts like Douglas, who has over 20 years of successful experience in brand integration, understand where balance can be struck. “Creators and storytellers want to do right by brands,” says Douglas. “In my career, I’ve seen that producers and productions want to continue having relationships with brands because they want to be able to come back, project after project, to get support. For our part, we adhere to brand safety for clients. It’s paramount.”
Making some early bets on production and talent can yield substantial dividends as well. Though it’s enticing for brands to pursue hugely popular titles or franchises, first-run, independent or new productions can be more cost-effective, yet powerful in the long-term.
General Motors, for example, supported Jerry Bruckheimer’s earlier films by loaning cars. This early support has resulted in ongoing, successful collaborations. The James Bond franchise has helped a number of brands achieve massive exposure, in part because of established relationships dating back to the franchise’s inception.
“The more the production understands the brand, the more they will write them into the story,” notes Douglas. “It’s important to work with creators when they’re starting out. It can lead to some of a brand’s most valuable relationships.”
ENJOY THE RIDE
The scope and scale of brand integration, especially in Hollywood, can be overwhelming. As deals get done, there are many requisite planning and execution steps. But a key aspect of entertainment, and one that is sometimes forgotten, is how fun working with some of the brightest and most creative minds can be.
From the brand side, participating in the fast- paced world of storytelling can be a rush.
“It’s very fun,” says Caressa Douglas, senior vice president of global strategic partnerships at BEN. “Especially when you get into a room of really high-energy creatives who have an idea.”
On the other side of the creative table, there is mutual respect and excitement about the attributes brands offer to enhance a story. And their participation is not lost, even among the stars of some productions.
“I think all of our brand partners, at some point, feel that energy,” says Erin Schmidt, executive vice president, global client services at BEN. “I was on the set of Scorpion for our Prego client and [show star] Katharine McPhee came up to me and gave me a big hug, telling me how much she loves Prego. The brand was ecstatic hearing that.”
Matt Miller, producer of the Fox TV show Lethal Weapon, is another example of how much creators value the relationships built with brands.
“My experience [in brand integration], has been very good,” he says. “I’ve only had positive experiences because I know what I’m getting into and I want to do it. It helps me and helps the show.”
Citing the show’s relationship with Microsoft, Miller points to the brand’s willingness to collaborate as a major plus.
“We have a great time working with them,” he says. “They’ll sometimes say, ‘can this character do this?’ and we will say, ‘maybe that wouldn’t make sense, but what if this character does it?’ And that’s almost always been sufficient for them, or they counter-pitch and it feels collaborative when you both understand [the goals together].”
Creativity, even in the unscripted space, is a welcome addition, especially between brands and content that, on paper, may not actually make sense. This challenge can open up connections through the collaborative process.
“A good example is Skype and MasterChef,” says Tamaya Petteway, senior vice president of brand and licensing partnerships at Endemol Shine North America. “This show is all about cooking, but we created an integration where the junior contestants had tablets and used Skype to phone a friend or family member for tips and it became the hero of that challenge.”
Through the process of working with brands, not only do producers and creators find unique opportunities, but valuable learning experiences that help them better understand expectations and how to work them into storylines.
“[An] integration with Target was the most educational,” says Randall Winston, a longtime Hollywood producer with shows such as Grace & Frankie, Roseanne, Scrubs and Spin City under his belt. “There was a lot of back and forth about the brand’s expectations and I learned a lot about the corporate needs because it was so multi-layered.”
In the final analysis, though, bringing together talent and brands through integration remains a special relationship that all find mutually beneficial and exciting, as Schmidt puts it, for the long-haul.
“There’s nothing else in advertising and marketing like it,” she says. “I love working with brands and creators, and we’ve all worked together to deliver some of the most meaningful integrations of all-time.”
BURNING QUESTIONS ANSWERED
As brands assess their marketing mix and the associated opportunities in front of them, brand integration continues to climb up the list of considerations. For those that are engaged in the practice of entertainment marketing, the benefits, when done well, are obvious.
According to Ricky Ray Butler, chief executive officer of BEN, the trends in brand integration, in both traditional entertainment and the influencer space, have sparked marketers’ curiosity.
“More brands are doing their homework to see if integration works,” he says. “Where our brand partners are doing well is due to the fact that they can see the data and the positive engagement that it brings to their brand.”
That said, Butler, who started with integration in the influencer space in the early years as founder of Plaid Social Labs, notes that there are still lingering questions from marketers who want to fully understand integration’s value vis- a-vis more traditional advertising and marketing.
Usually, the first question a brand marketer asks is “how do I know this is going to work?” Indeed, the perception of brand integration has its history in smaller players. Today, a much higher level of sophistication is a result of a marketer’s need for clarity and ROI.
“We tell brands that they need to be data- driven and think about scale, the same way they would think about any other marketing tactic,” says Butler. “We’re accountable as an organization, and we’re going to give guaranteed metrics and goals for a brand’s KPIs. The integration space is actually quite new, and we’re one of the first to bring data science and sophistication to the table.”
In BEN's experience, integration results are strong. On YouTube, for example, they see click- through rates of around 3%. With Instagram, and especially Instagram Stories, those rates average around 11% for ongoing campaigns, well above most forms of online advertising. With traditional TV integrations, brands have seen double digit percentage jumps in brand opinion and consideration.
Another question that comes up from marketers is around control. While brands wish to have a level of control, the fact is that trust becomes critical between the brand, creator and BEN. The more trust that is built, the more authentic the content. The more authentic the content, the better the engagement.
“The more natural it is, the easier it is to work into the story,” says Lesley Chilcott, Academy Award-winning documentarian for An Inconvenient Truth. “The toughest things for brands to understand is that their brand can’t be front-and-center because the audience trusts the story less. If it’s integrated seamlessly, the audience is being entertained.”
“There is a difference between organic integration and being invisible. It’s striking that balance to be visible and additive to the creative,” adds Nathan Tan, associate director, brand partnerships and experiences at Cadillac.
Another frequent question from brands that arises is around the future of brand integration. “The silos between how people are viewing content are collapsing,” says Butler. “People are watching across devices and platforms – all forms of content are blending together.”
What’s telling is that the lines between social influencers and celebrities are also blurring, especially in the last year. Influencers are becoming bigger and bigger, and people are taking note.
“Celebrities have learned from the YouTubers and Instagrammers,” says Butler. “They need to be looked at more as media now. But they also want to be creators, and this is where brands have a better opportunity than ever before.”
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