In the past few years, the nature of producing entertaining content has shifted, and brand creators have increasingly moved from a ‘one-campaign-at-a-time’ mentality, to a fluid, expanding stream of content pieces – with budgets and audiences to rival Hollywood and TV.

By now, it’s bordering on common knowledge that a successful ad can’t simply interrupt a consumer with a hard pitch – with social and interactive no longer simply ‘nascent’ technologies, even the most traditional CEOs and CMOs have jumped on the bandwagon — real engagement and regular interactions with consumers is critical to success today, doubly so for young audiences. But in the past few years, the nature of producing entertaining content has shifted, and brand creators have increasingly moved from a ‘one-campaign-at-a-time’ mentality, to a fluid, expanding stream of content pieces – with budgets and audiences to rival Hollywood and TV.  The 21st century just turned 14 – welcome to a new age of branded entertainment.

The term is broad, but the concept is simple – advertisers should think of their advertising as entertainment franchises, not ads. Watching a new Old Spice commercial feels more like tuning into the next episode of a favourite show, than it does watching a TV spot.  And yet, would anyone argue that it dilutes the brand or distracts from the sales funnel? Clearly not. The ‘Old Spice Guy’ campaign, and its many digital permutations, infused renewed energy into the brand is arguably one of the most successful consumer package goods revivals, almost entirely surrounding the brand-as-an-entertainment-franchise strategy. A successful piece of entertainment increases awareness and creates a relationship with consumers that leaves them open and willing to consider a sales pitch at the right time – not to mention acts as an opportunity to create new revenue streams. With current consumer insights strongly supporting the audience’s openness to branded entertainment, the ground is fertile for brand to try something new. 

Is Branded Entertainment the Right Approach?

With the unprecedented change of the media landscape since the advent of the internet, the barrier of entry to branded entertainment has all but been abolished. But fortune still favours the bold, and consumers can smell a watered-down, toe-dipping attempt to noncommittally play in a space that is quickly filling up with titans of the craft. Creating quality content requires money, a willingness to experiment, and the talent to produce something worthy of note. While the last item can come from a creative agency, the first two come from a belief and investment in the philosophy that consumers no longer see brands through an ‘us and them’ lens. Rather, plugged-in consumers know that brands are an integral part of the media tapestry that allows them to play, share and connect with both the professional and personal contacts in their lives. In fact, according to a study by Edelman Insights, a third of Americans of all ages (and over one half of those 18-34) expect a brand to not only provide entertainment, but to provide free content online – it’s become an integral part of their daily flow.

Moreover, attitudes towards advertising have changed in youth:

Of people between the ages of 12 – 15, only 30% have any negative association with the knowledge that they’re being advertised to. That leaves a very open-minded 70% who are willing to engage with and interact with a brand message.

And one mustn’t search very far for examples of brands doing it right in all industries, and in all media. 

For a retail example, we need look no further than Macy’s, a 155-year-old brand that has proven it’s not reticent to adapt and evolve with its demographics. Two divisions currently serve the millennial market, mstylelab, which caters to the 13-to-22 age group, and Impulse, which is geared toward shoppers from age 19 to 30. Looking at the younger half of the demographic, mstylelab has created content in a variety of media to engage and expand its offerings.  For starters, their mstylelab web portal acts as a digital magazine, covering trends, tips and an easy way to shop online. But the legacy brand also plays in original video content, such as ‘The Next Style Star’, a competition reality web series created with Maker Studios beauty and fashion channel The Platform – each episode features contestants vying to create the perfect look for various occasions based on the season’s latest trends (and Macy’s clothing brands, naturally).  It’s product placement built from the ground up with a focus on entertainment first. 

The household appliance space is relatively free of major branded entertainment campaigns, but since 2006, there’s been only one blender you’ve ever heard of online.  BlendTec entered the viral video game comparatively early, and their model has become one of the most successful branded video series online - this one gets a nod for sheer consistency of performance. Originally displaying the blender’s prowess by puréeing outlandish items like hockey pucks and glow sticks, ‘Will it Blend?’ retains its freshness with an extremely simple premise: invest in a unit of one of the newest tech gadgets soon after its release, smash it, cram it into a blender, and flip the switch, whipping it into a powdery amalgam of silicon and metal. Today, the channel has over 237 million video views, and over 700,000 subscribers.

In the toy space, Mattel has once again shown its pioneer status in the past years with its Team Hot Wheels initiative, where its iconic toy brand takes on a life-size scale, and stunt drivers create mind-blowing experiences by challenging physics in real courses.  Videos live online, and Mattel claims it allows the Hot Wheels experience to appeal to kids “from 5 to 55” (only the size of the toy changes), providing thrilling content unavailable anywhere else, and proving that their automotive innovation can take place on a 1:1 scale as well – and break world records to boot, amassing over 13 million views on a long jump video in spring 2011, and accomplishing another world record double-loop stunt in June 2012. Today, the initiative has expanded to include a thrilling animated special – one that will also be made into a feature length DVD by fall 2014.

The above are just a taste of how, across industries and across media, branded entertainment has evolved far past its inception in the world of 1950s soap operas, and is now touching us on whole other levels.  The past few years have made it clear: brands have something to say beyond the products they’re selling, and consumers are willing to listen.