The New Form of Advertising: Branded Entertainment

As we’ve talked about many times here on this blog, Branded Entertainment is a modern and sophisticated vehicle for brands to reach, connect, and earn trust in consumers. Consumers are numb to being blasted with repetitive ads that advertisers hope will keep their brand “top of mind” when making purchasing decisions. Traditional advertising is losing it’s effectiveness, and rather than doubling down on impressions and ad buys, smart brands are embracing the future and pivoting their stance. These are the brands that are connecting (read: advertising to) with consumers through storytelling and branded entertainment. 

Consumers have been distracted by ads for a long time, but we’ve now reached an age where the connection is the value. In today’s internet world, we have ad blockers, Spotify Premium, YouTube Red among others to free ourselves of ads. In yesteryear, when ad ad came on the TV we would get up and get a drink or water or use the bathroom.
Branded Entertainment has emerged as a new form of advertising, but one that is accepted by consumers. I asked our friend Wilson Cleveland to expand on this topic. 
Enter Wilson…

Eliza Dushku from Leap Year

In the TV world, networks green light shows they believe will draw a large audience. They rely on advertisers to buy inventory of spots during those shows for six-to-seven figures per-episode in order to recoup their investment. That model doesn’t work as well in digital for many reasons but summed up, quality content costs money, period and the very nature of the internet makes its advertising rates exponentially lower than TV.

The cost of ONE 30-second spot during new episodes of TV’s highest-rated comedy, The Big Bang Theory is approximately $350,000 (Nielsen). That’s roughly $5.6 million ad revenue CBS recoups per episode for a show that averages 16.7 million viewers every week.  By comparison, PewDiePie – YouTube’s most popular creator with 43+ million subscribers earns roughly $43,000 (SocialBlade) in ad revenue per video and averages approximately 10.8 million views every day.  

Online video isn’t cheaper to make, it’s just harder for creators/platforms to monetize. Economically, networks can’t invest millions on a digital series expecting to recoup their investment through digital pre-roll and banner alone.  To get a digital series green lit, networks have to get a brand on board to cover the production costs, same as you. The challenge is, brands don’t like spending money on content created for any other purpose than compelling customers to buy their stuff.

So if you’re hoping to get a brand to back your idea, you need to approach them from the jump.  Are you down? Great! Here are 5 things you need to know:

  1. FIND BRANDS THAT NEED YOU (AND THEY DO NEED YOU)

As an independent filmmaker or producer, you’re better-positioned than you might think to tell stories that interest you creatively and support a brand economically.  See, advertising – particularly digital advertising, has become progressively less effective in recent years thanks to ad blockers, click fraud and a myriad of other factors.  Instead, brand marketers are shifting more annual budget toward content marketing, social media, and influencer campaigns.  So we’ve got that going for us.

When first investigating brands to approach, ignore the big names that will inevitably be top of mind.  If you already know who they are, they likely won’t need your help. Why? Because the mere fact you’ve recalled the brand on your own means you’ve probably seen their ads on TV or billboards or online banners. That means they already have at least one, likely multiple ad agencies who feel they’re doing just fine without you siphoning a morsel from their Jurassic-sized budgets.

$43,000 in revenue per video.

Most of the brands I work with are smaller units of big financial companies, non-profits or middle-market B2B services companies that the gen pop is less aware of. These are the brands that have the money and vested interest in getting their name out there and doing something cool to break through the clutter. Financial, non-profit and B2B brands need compelling messages to attract the attention of busy decision makers. A brand’s message may be one of dozens or hundreds its audience sees in a day, so it needs to be useful, unique and fit into their target audience’s day-to-day experience. Valuable and/or entertaining content creates an ongoing relationship with the audience, particularly through social media channels that can evolve into buying customers and brand advocates. That makes your awesome idea awesome and potentially useful.

A well-produced series or short has the potential to improve a brand’s awareness and reputation. High-quality entertainment is frequently shared, improving a brand’s reach and its industry standing. Existing customers also have a reason to pay attention to continued messaging from a company when it puts out highly relevant entertainment.  Plus, branded entertainment fosters better organic search rankings in content quality and authority.

Once you’ve identified a handful of brands, visit the press page on their site to get the name of their internal marketing, PR or communications contact (pro tip: it’s the person listed at the bottom of every press release).

But before you reach out…

  1. KNOW THE BRAND

Your initial outreach to any brand should be a succinct, informed and customized answer to their one inevitable question: “How does the story you want to tell help my brand sell more stuff?”

First, you’ll need to think like a marketer. Check out sites like Adweek and Ad Age to get a digestible crash course in what “thinking like a marketer” looks and feels like. Next, try familiarizing yourself with the brand’s needs and goals. What story isn’t being told and how can your project help them tell it a different way? How does your script or idea align thematically with its brand narrative?  Use free tools like Simply Measured to audit the brand’s social media followings and compare with your own audience demographics. You want to look for overlaps in audience data – age, interests, geography, etc.  Why?  Because if your audiences are similar, chances are the brand will trust your ability to create content their customers will engage with. For example, when I open my YouTube channel analytics, it shows my subscribers are comprised primarily of men 25-34 and women 18-24. The content I typically create just happens to appeal to that demographic more than others.  This is useful data to mention if I’m pitching a brand looking to raise awareness among or currently selling to those audiences.

Leap Year Season 2 Trailer

Branded Entertainment BTS

Hiscox Insurance used branded entertainment to increase sales by 35%

It’s important you never come at a brand like your idea is a silver bullet for their marketing problems. Brands don’t like hearing what they’re doing wrong or should be doing. Don’t poke that bear.  Find a way to explain how your show idea will help the brand tell its story in a new, innovative way.

I work with an insurance company client – Hiscox Insurance, who was looking to promote a new line of coverage geared toward tech entrepreneurs. Being a British insurer brand-new to the U.S. market, their core challenges were lacks of awareness and credibility with that audience. Our strategy was to lean into that reality – If you want to show tech entrepreneurs you understand them and their needs, we needed to make a scripted show specifically for and about realistic tech entrepreneurs founding a startup.  Long before HBO, we created a Silicon Valley dramedy series for Hiscox called Leap Year about five friends who get laid off from corporate jobs and found a startup.  Leap Year directly contributed to a total 35% increase in product quotes viewed and products purchased online over the course of two seasons.  But it wasn’t just the series’ high production quality or the parade of TV-familiar guest stars like Eliza Dushku and Emma Caulfield from Buffy, Craig Bierko and Scandal’s Josh Malina that pulled viewers through the Hiscox sales funnel.   

Here’s how we did it:

First and foremost, we went to great lengths to insure Leap Year’s storylines would feel relevant and authentic to Hiscox’s target buying audience of startup entrepreneurs.  Season one followed the five main characters through fundraising with season two chronicling their struggles to bring their “Skype with holograms” product, C3D to market. We set part of season two inside the actual Techstars startup incubator and cast Valley-friendly cameos like Rachel Sklar, Reddit Founder Alexis Ohanian, Guy Kawasaki and former TechCrunch writer, Ryan Lawler.  The result was a series that struck a chord with the target audience, established a trusting relationship with Hiscox and generated over 10 million views. General consumer surveys conducted after each season revealed aided brand awareness nearly doubled.  Brand impressions across traditional and social media hit 425 million by the end of season two and netted a total 55,000 followers for Hiscox across socials. 

  1. BRANDS AREN’T BANKS

Brands make useful partners beyond funding your production outright.  In fact, many will lend or gift you things you need in exchange for promotion value.  Locations, wardrobe, craft services, props, etc. cost money same as talent, gear and crew, right? Think about how you can offset those costs with help from smaller, local brands. Find clothing designers on Etsy or local boutiques and bars/restaurants/specialty stores on Yelp. The likelihood of getting free stuff increases if you have an existing following or body of work.  Sometimes the promise of a shout out on your socials or a credit in the project will be enough.

Branded Entertainment is fun, and we have fun on set, too.

Producer Wilson Cleveland on set.

  1. PICK YOUR CREATIVE BATTLES

Asking brands to drop cash on your project then step back is a hard sell. After all, most companies in a position to pay big bucks for branded content are hands-on if anything.  The bigger (and more consumer-facing) the brand, the more protective they are of their image.  

A couple years ago I co-created and produced a branded series for Trident Layers called The Webventures of Justin and Alden about two dudes who road trip across L.A. on a mission to make “the greatest web series web show that’s ever been on the web computer.”  The client insisted on the gum playing a starring role. They were very particular about how the gum could be featured – how you unwrap the gum, how you could show it, how you describe it, who was allowed to touch it. I mean, it’s gum you guys. That degree of meticulousness and product placement would make most storytellers burst into flame but we created a world within the series that was so completely absurd, it made sense for the gum to be treated as a character.

There have been cases where the further you get into the script, the company starts to get a little bit nervous. They will get a little protective because web series as marketing is still new to many brands. My advice to brands on the fence is always: Trust the people who are making the content for you. If you’re focused on how your product is unwrapped versus the story happening around it, you’re never gonna get there. It’s never going to help you as a marketing vehicle. Because it’s not an ad. The audience will not watch it and most networks will require a significant additional media buy if it’s overly branded.  Get the brand to pay for the groceries and sit at the table, but stay out of the kitchen. That’s the recipe for branded entertainment worth watching.

  1. NEVER PUT DOLLAR AMOUNTS ON PAPER BEFORE YOUR PITCH

Never assume how much the brand contact you’re pitching knows about the process or related costs of production. I’ve seen filmmakers who feel they need to attach pitches to low ball estimates to get in the door, only to hear the brand marketer say, “Oh wow, that’s much lower than we expected.” Face palm! Now you’ve potentially stuck yourself with making a $100K project for less. I’ve also seen filmmakers get greedy, assuming brands have unlimited budgets, so they come in too high not knowing they’re pitching an experienced exec who used to run marketing at a Fortune 500. Double face palm!  Now you’ve priced yourself out of your own idea!

Always sell a brand on your idea first, then price it accordingly.


Wilson Cleveland is a professional actor/producer/Internet personality and creator of the Webby-honored indie shorts like SPiN and Kept Man and brand-sponsored series like the Vox docuseries Courageous Leaders, The Temp Life, USA Network’s Leap Year, The Webventures of Justin & Alden and the Lifetime miniseries, Suite 7, among others.  His current project, Intricate Vengeance created for Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s New Form Digital studio is streaming now. Follow Wilson on Twitter @WilsonCleveland.

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