Branded content and entertainment should be simple: produce a content property inspired by a brand, and delight an audience with its entertainment value or usefulness. It works for brands like Red Bull and Unilever, just as it works for Netflix or ESPN.
In 2013, I’ve been the jury president at the Dubai Lynx International Festival of Creativity for its inaugural Branded Content and Entertainment category, and a jury member for the annual One Show Entertainment. Regardless of where the event occurred, both juries were challenged to answer the question: what is good branded content and entertainment?
Like Hollywood, with its guilds and unions establishing the criteria for how talent is paid and credited for work, we need to better define how branded content and entertainment is awarded and ultimately perceived within the industry. The following are questions we should ask to determine the work we should celebrate:
What’s the story? This is a category for work that traditional advertising, and its process, often can’t, or won’t make. Does the content use a narrative structure, character development or offer an experience beyond advertising? Does it become sharable, and ultimately, an endurable property powered by the entertainment or utility value? Frank Rose, author of “The Art of Immersion,” summed it up well when he wrote, “content without story is just noise. Content without story and excitement is noise pollution.”
One area of debate is the role of technology, when coupled with story. Innovation is certainly important, if it enhances the audience experience. But technology does not make it more valuable, just as movies are not always better if presented in 3D. And agencies in their quest for hardware don’t help juries, submitting sixty-second broadcast spots as short films, or media sponsorships dressed up as original content.
Does it build an audience? When I was at UCLA, one of my instructors liked to remind us that “films” were made by students for class projects, while “movies” an audience paid to see on a Friday night. Are we making movies? Do we create an audience, and ultimately convert them into fans? I’m not just talking Facebook likes, but inspiring fans to do something -- buy a ticket, subscribe to a YouTube channel, show up in costume at a convention…whatever shows they actually care about the content. We can measure its effectiveness, and if leads to customers. But first make something good enough to take up space on a customer’s iTunes, DVR or newsfeed.
What’s the deal? Premium content is about a value exchange. People want it, and are willing to give something for it. How do we get it? Does it employ a development or distribution model from outside advertising? Getting a deal done with a programming exec for a TV series is a lot tougher than going through the ad-sales department. We need to factor in the degree of difficulty for the work, especially when the content value is what creates the audience, instead of the media buy.
What is the role of the brand? How does the content originate from the brand idea? Is it sustainable as a platform or property, and does it enable other marketing strategy, to ultimately build a media or entertainment brand? Does the content build a brand franchise?
Macy’s “Yes Virginia” platform (which I¹ve had the privilege to work on) demonstrates this, most recently launching a royalty-free musical staged in schools across the country, creating a script and score, awarding $100,000 in production grants, and telling the story via YouTube videos from proud parents. All of this emanates from the brand¹s annual holiday "Believe" campaign, which includes a CBS prime-time specia, and "Yes, Virginia" DVDs, books and merchandise sold in stores. It's great content that consumers embrace, no different than if produced by Disney for a holiday film release.
Ultimately, we need to ask does the content make us feel something? Does it make us do something? And does it do something different, than advertising?
If we can better answer these questions, the trophies we win in Cannes will mean as much to the people on Wilshire Boulevard, and Main Street, as they do on Madison Avenue.