The Case for Branded Entertainment's Lingua Franca

To Solve Its Identity Crisis, Industry Needs to Create and Learn a Common Language

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Are you listening, Mark Twain? It's me, Rob . Folks are lamenting the demise of Branded Entertainment, so naturally, your "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" quip comes to mind.

To me, what our industry is experiencing is your typical awkward phase. Why, even a mulleted Mr. George Clooney palled around with Jo and Tootie in "The Facts of Life" purgatory while waiting to grow into his heavenly looks and charm. Whatever the case, all this mortality talk has me reflecting on my decade on "Madison & Vine"-or whatever the heck we're calling the business now. And this identity crisis, I think, is a big part of the problem.

We need to create, learn and speak a branded entertainment Esperanto. One firm's patented Stealth Embedded Programming Integration (SEPI(tm)) is another's Strategic On-air Brand Sponsorship (SOBS(tm)). While a silly, shifting set of proprietary buzzwords isn't going to amount to a hill of beans, standardizing our terms will help us communicate and compare. Our industry's content, production and distribution partners should share a more-scientific script -- not get frustrated, then distracted by the next ill-defined fad.

Content creation is the latest branded-entertainment panacea. While some brands should be content creators, auteurism is not the only option. Hollywood marriages come in all shapes and sizes. Many brands like riding shotgun with shows: They integrate SKUs into storylines, leverage talent and cross-promote through retail and social initiatives. Others seek more control over the material and distribution, so they create content. These brands essentially become the entertainment vehicles.

A host of factors influence what's best for each brand: product category, brand attributes, campaign goals, budget. I envision an electronics brand being central to advancing a plot, punctuating a passion point or helping to carve out a character; a toothpaste-centric project, conversely, seems far from seamless.

Over time, we've seen the more-gratuitous product placements of reality TV give way to sophisticated storytelling that weaves brands into scripts. Brands that forge contextually relevant alliances -- the property, specific placement opportunity and audience must be a good fit -- have the chance to be culturally relevant MacGuffins or humanized as heroes, villains and extras that characters interact with. Unlike ads, this reinforces brands' roles in everyday American life.

The secret is good, old-fashioned matchmaking between a brand and a property and then finding the rhythm of the show.

Some positive news: An Association of National Advertisers survey says 63% of marketers plan to participate in branded entertainment projects in 2012 because they allow them to make a stronger emotional connection with consumers (78%), align their brand with relevant content (75%) and build affinity with a desired demographic (73%).

While some firms offer tools to measure the "effectiveness" of branded entertainment, we're still learning the metric system. Before there's decent measurement, we must know what we want to measure and ensure it's meaningful. We have reams of data that we still don't know how to use and we don't compare apples to apples; we study Apple and Tropicana data sets for wildly non-parallel placements. It's no surprise that two-thirds (65%) of ANA members are dissatisfied with measurement research.

Marketers need to know what they want to accomplish with their branded entertainment efforts and select research firms that measure this. Is it product awareness or purchase intent? Are you trying to assess the media value of deals? Keep tabs on brand integrations by shows, dates, screen time or social chatter? Don't just hit autopilot. Know where you want to wind up so your agency can map the best route.

While 83% of ANA survey respondents said they measure the impact of their integrations, tellingly, 63% find this challenging. Marketers still don't know whether initiatives work.

Which brings me back to my point: Ambiguity is bad, boxes are good. As relationships between brands, media and audiences evolve, innovative thinking and new technologies create unique ways to connect and gain insights. As new tactics expand our playbook, we desperately need a lingua franca.

So let's create a Branded Entertainment Glossary -- or at least a working model -- to encourage the standardization of industry terms. It should be crystal clear to all practitioners that the deal we're discussing is a "branded-integration swap for an on-pack show promo with no backsies," so we can classify it with parallel programs.

Just so long as we agree to call it anything but that .

Rob Donnell is president and founder of Brand Arc, a Los Angeles-based agency that develops entertainment marketing campaigns for clients such as Toyota, AT&T and Roche Pharmaceuticals.
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