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The rise of brand-sponsored content and why it’s here to stay

Media shot - Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

As display advertising spend moves away from media titles, investment in brand-sposnored content has continued to rise. Ricky Ray Butler, chief executive of BEN, explains why.

Since the earliest days of entertainment, brands have used advertising, brand integrations, and sponsored content to reach audiences. While brand integrations and brand-sponsored content may seem similar, there are key differences between them. Brand integrations are usually weaved into a film, television episode, or social media content, with actors or influencers using the product in an organic way that helps build the narrative without calling out specific attention to the brand. Meanwhile, brand-sponsored content explicitly features demonstrations of, or discussions about, the associated brands and products, and the content itself is often directly influenced by the sponsorship.

Brand sponsorships have been prominent for decades. Popular radio shows were brand-sponsored, and, when video killed the radio star, marketers followed suit. Brands like P&G helped define the soap opera genre, with programming that lasted for decades. Sponsored shows could be found across genres and networks, from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to Texaco’s Hour of Smiles to Kraft’s Television Theatre. Sponsorships extended to game shows like Wheel of Fortune, which offer branded prizes. Talk shows also embraced sponsored content, with Oprah and Ellen featuring product giveaways. Each of these opportunities granted brands deeper exposure to an engaged audience.

This trend hasn’t stopped. With the emergence of streaming and influencer marketing, contemporary sponsored content has entered its next era of innovation. For the strongest impact, brands should reflect back on this marketing method while employing future-facing tools, like AI, to inform decisions.

Contemporary sponsored content

As audiences grow more accepting of sponsored content, brands should consider this programming as another way to shake up the marketing mix. Today, sponsored content takes many forms across television and films, streaming platforms, and social media.

Pepsi famously hosts the Super Bowl Halftime Show, which draws in millions of viewers each year. Apple and Amazon have started their own production companies and streaming services, expanding their brands into entertainment. Tastemade shows are heavily inspired by their brand partners, like episodes featuring creators camping with REI products and filming the experience.

Lego has excelled at sponsored content by taking a multichannel approach. This year, the legacy brand premiered Lego Masters, a competition show where contestants complete build challenges exclusively with Legos. Because of its natural tie-in to the competition, the partnership feels authentic to audiences, not stiff or forced. Meanwhile, Lego has also struck gold with its film franchise, seeing several titles earn box office success and critical acclaim.

As entertainment continues to evolve, brands will have unprecedented options when forming content partnerships. No matter the channel, marketers should think outside the box when it comes to genres and formats to find the most natural sponsorships that elevate the content and the brand.

Eye on the prize: sponsorships that win

The cardinal rule of sponsorships is that the brand must make sense within the context of the content. Otherwise, the sudden insertion of a product could take audiences out of the viewing experience. For effective partnerships, marketers should consider the genre that feels most authentic. Game and competition shows offer a healthy foundation.

In these formats, branded prizes are seen as worthy of competition, making them well-suited to sponsorships. America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) took advantage of this, offering prizes from modeling agencies, magazines and beauty and fashion brands. New competition shows are popping up across traditional, streaming, and social media platforms, indicating audiences’ desire for this programming. And these shows can adapt to many verticals, unlocking potential sponsorship opportunities for almost any brand.

While the premise of a game show might draw a brand’s attention, they must also ensure casting decisions align with their brand voice for the sponsorship to better resonate with audiences. It feels natural to have fashion-oriented prizes in a show like ANTM, which is centered around modeling and hosted by Tyra Banks.

Soon, sponsored competition shows will gain momentum outside of traditional channels, with streaming platforms and social media providing further outlets for brands. James Charles’ YouTube Original competition series Instant Influencer is an early adopter of combining a newer platform with sponsored content. The show is sponsored by Ulta, and brand offerings appear in every episode. Brands looking to break into this programming can turn to newer outlets to cut through the noise of established channels.

Leading sponsorships into the future: social media

Sponsored content is nothing new in the world of influencer marketing. Today, successful content is no longer tied to production studios and Hollywood stars, and the lines between traditional celebrities, digitally native influencers across social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, and popular brands will continue to blur. The Kardashians were a large part of this wave, attaching their names to fashion and beauty brands and building a retail empire.

While influencers have sold channel-branded merch for years, personalities like Keith Habersberger from the Try Guys and the members of Dude Perfect have pushed further, creating product lines as part of their own personal “brand.” Marketers can capitalize on this trend by partnering with influencers to promote an existing product or collaborate on new branded offerings. Those brands can, in turn, sponsor that influencer’s videos, creating a symbiotic partnership rather than a one-sided business deal.

Looking ahead, sponsored livestreams will serve as another valuable option for brand collaboration. With platforms like Instagram, Twitch, TikTok, and Facebook plunging into the livestream wars, influencers have an opportunity to create brand-sponsored content in real time, driving connections and conversations with audiences.

With so many channels to choose from, it might be difficult for marketers to make decisions on the best avenues for sponsorships. AI can help with this by analyzing existing content — including sponsored shows, films, and videos — to determine which outlets have historically worked for similar products. AI could even suggest genres a brand might not have considered before, helping marketers produce the best new content with data-driven recommendations, not just instinct.

Brand-sponsored television, films, and social media are not just a marketing method of a bygone era. As more opportunities become viable across channels, brands will have the ability to reinvent the way they sponsor content. While these shows and films certainly exist today, brands should look toward the future, weighing audience preference toward influencer content and original streaming shows as they make sponsorship decisions.

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