How HSN and 'Eat Pray Love' Turn Content Into Commerce

Shopping Network's Promotion of Upcoming Julia Roberts Film Offers Marketers Lessons in Branded Entertainment

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Joseph Frydl
Joseph Frydl
The business of marketing and the business of entertainment are fundamentally about the same thing: Turning audience attention into commerce.

The two industries share a common purpose: Marketers, through a variety of means, cultivate audience attention in order to sell products such as shower gel. The entertainment industry cultivates audience attention through content to sell that content (through subscriptions, ticket sales, advertising).

And both industries also face a difficult reality: Audience attention is scarce. It's fragmented across an ever-growing number of media choices and it consumes an exponentially growing volume of information.

With a common purpose, a common challenge and (potentially) complementary business models, marketers and the entertainment industry need to increasingly work together to jointly develop content that can drive commerce.

Hence, branded content.

To promote the new Julia Roberts vehicle "Eat Pray Love," the Home Shopping Network is devoting 72 hours of airtime for programming that simultaneously plugs the Sony Pictures film and more than 400 products across multiple categories that are somehow related to the movie.

Sony wants to promote the film to the HSN demographic (women 30 to 50 years old). HSN wants to find new ways to sell products.

It may be tempting to dismiss the whole exercise as one big promotion-palooza. There's always the possibility that it won't be executed well and that it falls completely flat.

But in theory the promotion is a great idea that illustrates four principles behind branded content that any brand marketer can benefit from observing.

I Want My ... Branded Entertainment?
With all the rapidly expanding entertainment choices out there, why should audiences pay attention to entertainment that is branded? It's not likely audiences are waiting for the next piece of branded content the way they might for the next Julia Roberts film.

However, there are ways to use content that the audience cares about to drive the kind of commerce a brand cares about that go beyond traditional advertising and one-dimensional "brought to you by" sponsorships.

HSN is using content from "Eat Pray Love" to sell products tied to themes in the film (though the vast majority of products are not in the movie). Brand marketers should also be thinking about ways in which they can package ancillary content from an established property to market their products. It goes beyond product placement or integration and into creating experiences audiences are likely to pay attention to -- behind-the-scenes excerpts from shows or movies, cast interviews or additional footage.

Distributors and Distribution Are Central
Distributors have invested years and billions to cultivate what marketers want: audiences. And Sony Pictures wants to cultivate HSN's audience of 30- to 50-year-old women for its film.

Media companies (even those as unsexy as HSN) have established properties and assets that audiences care about. Smart, proactive media companies want to work with advertisers to use those assets across a full spectrum of branded-entertainment techniques (not only product placement). Amazingly, there is still some reluctance among brand marketers to engage with media owners in this way. The reason for the reluctance may be a fear that this kind of engagement clouds media-pricing discussions. Which brings up another principle to keep in mind. ...

Creativity in Deal Structures
Reportedly, no money is changing hands in the "Eat Pray Love" deal. Consideration in the form of media support is what HSN is putting forward in order to be able to use the "Eat Pray Love" property to sell products. And while HSN is a media network in the traditional sense, brand marketers very often have media of their own (like their product's packaging) that can be used as consideration in a deal to promote an entertainment property.

In the more typical case of brands buying (rather than bartering) media, media buyers want to push for better CPM rates.

But buyers can also ask media properties to create more customized programs that take advantage of their creative and programming assets. Smart media buyers do both but not enough buyers think about the latter.

Of course, nothing is free.

Customized branded entertainment programs cost more than straight media buys. Choosing to do them may have the effect of concentrating more of a buyer's media budget with fewer media properties, thereby sacrificing some reach. However, if you accept that the "audience attention" that inventive branded content can bring is as (if not more) important as "eyeballs," that can be a trade-off with tremendous benefit.

Creating Context Around Content
Using content to stimulate commerce is about more than a brand simply being present in content. It's about creating the right selling context around the content.

In the case of "Eat Pray Love," HSN is using the content in a very direct way to sell products.

For brand marketers not dealing with such direct selling channels, the task in any branded content exercise is to leverage at least some of the entertainment assets in PR, promotions, in-store and (whenever possible) in advertising.

Using entertainment assets in this way not only helps achieve specific marketing objectives but also can take some of the branding pressure off of the editorial and entertainment value of the content itself.

So while the "Eat Pray Love" platform on HSN is not the kind of sexy, original content program that generates a lot of attention as the next great example of branded content, it does offer some creative structural approaches for brands to start thinking about how they can take a page out of the entertainment playbook and use content to turn audience attention into commerce. From that point of view, it's already a success.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Frydl is co-founder of Indigenous Entertainment, which develops and packages content-driven marketing programs for both media and brand clients. You can reach him at joe.frydl@indigenousentertainment.com.
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