‘For brands, the only way to be noticed is to be inside the content’: BEN’s CEO on the evolution of brand integration

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Gary Shenk, chief executive officer at Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), has been on the forefront of brand integration for a number of years — and is clearly bullish on its effectiveness for brands.

In the early days, brands dabbled in brand integration. But fast forward to the current state of advertising affairs and it’s clear that brands can find effective, game-changing opportunities in entertainment. In fact, integrations placed by BEN represented nearly $1bn in media value in 2017.

On average, BEN places about 14 integrations per day across streaming, TV and influencers — and in looking at the BEN roster, there are heavy hitters across the board. Dyson, Hyundai, Zillow, Microsoft and General Motors have been matched up with all manner of top-tier content, films and shows including House of Cards, Ghost in the Shell, Grace and Frankie, Portlandia, The Bachelor and more.

One of BEN’s signature integrations was Heineken for the James Bond franchise which, Shenk says, was a big moment of change — switching from a martini to beer.

What’s telling is that, in 2017, about 20% of BEN’s integrations were on streaming shows, further signaling the growth and opportunities in the space. In Shenk’s mind, part of this lies with traditional advertising losing relevance — and being in the content itself is a strong proposition for brands.

“People are spending more time watching entertainment than ever before, but they're spending less time watching ads,” he says. “For brands, the only way to be noticed by contemporary audiences is to be inside the content itself.”

Additionally, the evolution of binge watching heralds another opportunity for brands to be more deeply engaged with audiences that are paying close attention.

“When you binge, you're more engaged with the content. You watch two, three, four or more episodes at a time,” says Shenk. “A brand being not only in the place where they know people are watching, but where they know that the people are watching [and] are incredibly engaged and getting more engaged — that is invaluable. That's why we think this category is only going to continue to grow.”

Though the caché of being attached to creative projects and entertainment is enticing, the fact is the brands, and especially CMOs, need to see the real value of brand integration. To BEN, marrying the art and science is critical.

“Showing the data is the most important thing,” notes Shenk. “Showing how authenticity really, really matters. We measure every integration that we do and show how that relates in a change in awareness, or brand affinity, [or] purchase intent.”

Authenticity is an important consideration. According to Shenk, when brands trust the creative process and BEN’s expertise, it goes beyond just making people aware of a brand or product.

“The reality is that if you give a producer or a creator the leeway to show your brand in a way that is going to emotionally connect with the audience, it is almost always a win for the brand,” he says.

Having been in the entertainment industry for a number of years, Shenk also has strong opinions on what makes a great story. In his mind, it’s all about the character. A rabid reader, he believes that motivations and imperfections make a great character and help drive a strong story.

His favorite story of all-time, The Great Gatsby, certainly fits the bill.

“You have this rich, incredibly good-looking guy who has it all,” says Shenk. “What does he want? He wants love and he wants love of specifically of one individual. He has it all, yet, he has this incredible Achilles heel of this need for affection that is elusive to him. So, that's a good example of the type of story that I love. One with a character that's motivated to do something in an incredibly strong way that you sympathize with because of his flaws.”

What's the Story? is sponsored by Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), the first global network for branded product integration in the entertainment industry, across all media, including the influencer space.

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