Former Story Lab exec & brand-funded programming expert Luci Sanan tells TBI why advertisers and producers (and even commissioners) should become better friends – and why unbranded content is the future
‘Branded entertainment’ encapsulates a myriad of different models and outcomes. For many, it is synonymous with being a right old pain in the ass: a long, stressful process that they don’t really understand and so avoid.
Brands are aware that if they want to reach an audience, they need to go where the audience is – and it certainly isn’t in an ad break
However, we can’t ignore it. It’s an increasingly integral part of the entertainment ecosystem and creates a whole host of opportunities with good budgets & marketing support. We must learn to embrace it and try to understand it.
We’ve always had brands funding content, but people don’t want to watch ads, and have lots of choices not to. Advertisers are competing for attention and they wield a lot of power over media owners, who themselves want to mitigate their financial risk, whilst still being able to source the best content.
Furthermore, I think that most execs – unless they are a bit lazy – inherently want to experiment and innovate with new business models and try new things out. More importantly, however, the audience does not care who funded the content, or how complicated the deal was, so long as it’s good.
Renovating the model
Having worked in both the traditional broadcast and brand-funded ecosystems, I agree with the common sentiment that the two worlds often don’t understand each other’s objectives, values and cultures.
However, with an increasing number of production companies and broadcasters working in this space this is changing. We are seeing an increasing number of well-produced, properly financed shows that have good marketing support, good ratings and a positive outcome for all the many stakeholders, which are built on forging new alliances and new ways of doing business.
Ad-funded programming has, historically, had the undesirable reputation of being an expensive, convoluted sponsorship that no channel wanted to pay for and no one wanted to watch anyway; often ending up as part of a media buy aired in the middle of the night and best forgotten.
This has changed: ‘entertainment ’is key. Branded entertainment has evolved and is more versatile, with distribution across all media and many models, all with the aim of building an emotional connection overtime.
It’s a relationship built editorially, led by narrative with high production values that engage their audience: content that people want to watch. Channel 4 in the UK has been a leader, forging the way with primetime, editorially led content commissions, such as the revamped renovsation show Changing Rooms, which was made possible by the paint brand Dulux, amongst several other notable titles.
This kind of investment gives the brands a platform to do more; to use entertainment as a hook to capitalise with the audience, from in-store activations to social content and brand perception.
Lopping off the logo
Furthermore, we are now regularly seeing completely editorially led content that doesn’t contain any product, sponsorship, brand colours or even glimpse of a logo. Brand involvement has become much more subtle, and product placement is often not a necessity. We are seeing the emergence of UNbranded entertainment.
HBO Max’s brand-funded, Emmy-nominated doc series The Cost Of Winning, an against-all-odds mini-series about a college football team from Baltimore, didn’t feature the brand (but we will – it was Gillette). Instead, the show created a whole host of off-screen assets and talking points for the shaving brand – it was content that mattered to its target audience and instigated real action.
AMC’s new four-part series Thick Skin, which follows an all-female cast on a journey to de-stigmatise obesity, was funded by a pharmaceutical company (Novo Nordisk) that has launched a reportedly ground-breaking new weight loss drug.
No product or logo is featured whatsoever, but the series will undoubtedly change the narrative around an important health issue. To their audience, to potential purchasers of this new drug, this content matters.
I am often asked why brands will pay for an entire production, without their product or logo being on screen. Well, increasingly brands are aware that if they want to reach an audience, they need to go where the audience is and it certainly isn’t in an ad break. The audience doesn’t want to watch a long advert disguised as entertainment.
Brands need to engage with issues and themes relevant to their viewers, in order to matter, and in order to create cultural trends and change behaviours. They’re also desperate to get one over their competitor.
And, there is no shortage of brand CMO’s who dream of their EP credit and a trip to the Emmys. Without a doubt, now is the time for producers, IP & media owners to capitalise on advertisers who want to engage an audience through the power of entertainment.
Luci Sanan runs independent consultancy firm 53 Degrees North Media, set up to provided strategic and commercial consultancy producers, media owners and brands. She has previously worked for The Story Lab, DRG, Banijay International and Small World IFT.