killer content

With branded entertainment such as 'Gamekillers' selling Axe, marketers are plunging into an array of new-media platforms in what's become a 21st century wild, wild west

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mgraser@crain.com

When BMW of North America launched its much-heralded short-film series "The Hire" in 2001, the automaker had few options to get the films seen by consumers. The shorts wound up on their own website, were screened in some movie theaters, played briefly on cable TV and eventually sold on DVD.

If BMW launched those films today, it certainly would have a lot more distribution options. Sure, "The Hire" was a bona fide hit, generating more than 100 million views, the auto marketer said in 2005. But in those"good old days," broadband penetration was limited, TiVo was just being introduced, cellphones were having a hard enough time playing music and the video iPod had yet to launch. Oh, and everyone didn't have a blog.

How things have changed.

Millions of consumers have turned from their TV sets to their computers, video-game consoles, iPods, handsets and other mobile devices for content. And all those screens give marketers a wide variety of platforms to reach customers with branded-entertainment projects they're producing or will produce soon enough.

All of this is good news for marketers looking to get into the branded-entertainment space and start producing their own projects. What all this essentially means is that branded entertainment is no longer an expensive option with few places to put it-there are plenty of media choices. Marketers don't have an excuse anymore not to produce their own content for consumers.

But all these choices can be confusing for both marketers and their agencies-and not just because TV manufacturers are bragging about building the biggest screens ever, while others are showing off the smallest screens that can travel anywhere.

"Things are changing so quickly it is truly a brave new world out there," says David Lang, senior partner-director of programming at MindShare Entertainment, which produced for Unilever "The Order of the Serpentine" for Axe and a web series for Degree based on the Fox show "24." "In some ways it feels like the wild, wild west. We are constantly keeping up with what the new platforms are, whom they reach, when and how."

The number of platforms has certainly helped make marketers feel more comfortable about producing branded entertainment. It's also gotten some of them-including Procter & Gamble Co., General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Sales USA's Scion-to say they will spend less on traditional TV spots and devote more of their marketing dollars to entertainment programming to reach customers.

Yet, while all of these tools may be available to marketers, most brands still aren't taking full advantage of them.

For example, Starbucks Corp. only recently launched a Starbucks Entertainment channel on iTunes. Nike has also put up branded fare on the service as part of a product and marketing partnership with Apple Computer. But other brands have yet to post their short films or web series on it.

Some say that marketers aren't sure how to take advantage of iTunes just yet. Others say Apple isn't willing to make iTunes a haven for branded content. And then there's the issue of how to deal with unions seeking residuals when videos featuring actors or work from writers and directors are downloaded, even if it's free.

Another downside to all these platforms: They still don't come cheap.

Producing one piece of content is one thing. Making sure it can play in various formats and on multiple devices means producers have to pay to repurpose the projects to make them viewable.

"The proliferation of media has probably caused the greatest amount of chaos in terms of budgeting and the expense of it," says Jon Kamen, chairman-CEO of Radical Media, which recently produced "The Gamekillers" for Axe and MTV, and is going into its third season on Sundance Channel with "Iconoclasts," a co-production with Grey Goose's entertainment arm. "It does cause us to think more creatively on how we can intelligently produce for these various platforms within a reasonably economic model. For larger projects, if it's cleverly thought out, there are so many pieces that can be used [across various platforms], and it can become quite cost-effective."

At the same time, not every project should appear on every platform. What works on a TV, for example, may not have the same effect on an iPod screen.

Blanketing platforms with the same piece of content is "the absolute worst thing a company can do," Mr. Kamen says. "Each medium has a certain appropriateness in terms of the type of content. There are some ideas that work beautifully across all platforms, but usually those ideas have to be developed and, from their inception, planned for that appropriate exploitation."

And then there's whom you want to reach. Not every type of consumer can be reached using each platform.

"There's a tremendous opportunity for clients ... but we have to do our homework in making sure we use the right distribution platform in reaching a client's target audience," Mr. Lang says. "Not every platform is for everybody or for every project. Everything we do is multiplatform. But it is crucial to hit the right consumers in the right platforms at the right time.

"What we really try to do for our clients is understand their target audience, where they live, how they communicate, when they communicate, when they want to be talked to and when they want to be left alone. That's just as important."

For the launch of Unilever's Dove Calming Night line, MindShare Entertainment produced three webisodes starring "Desperate Housewives" star Felicity Huffman. "That program was aimed at moms," Mr. Lang says. "Moms are a difficult target to reach with entertainment because of their busy, crazy schedules." Dove posted the films on DoveNight.com and promoted them on TV, the web and in print. Millions of women visited the site to watch the films as a result.

"The major lesson we learned was that if you build relevant entertainment for them, they will come," Mr. Lang says.

As for BMW, the company's short films continue to find an audience years after they first bowed back in 2001. And they're being watched on the newest platforms to have emerged recently-sites such as MySpace and YouTube.

Ironically, however, it's not BMW that's posting the videos. It's the very consumers the automaker was first trying to reach.

"The fact is people will seek and find different content in many ways," Mr. Kamen says. "They will prefer certain types of content on a portable device untethered to any one spot. At the same time, they will look for the visceral experience to be entertained by the gigantic screens in theaters or a big screen in their home."
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