Madison & Vine Is Dead, but the Time to Invest in Branded Content Is Now

Marketers Have the Unprecedented Opportunity to Move Upstream in the Content-Development Process

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Forget branded entertainment.

Forget brand-inspired content.

Forget product placement, brand integration, advertainment and every other buzzword. They're just boxes, and boxes are a way of separating some things from everything else around them. Boxes wind up in corners.

There's something far more significant and wide-reaching happening in the content space. What we call it is secondary.

Having a branded-content strategy is as much a mistake as having a social or a digital strategy. Instead, marketers need to understand the role of content in their overall marketing strategies. The difference is significant. It bridges content to everything else they're doing and holds it to the same standards. It treats content as a scalable, accountable discipline, rather than a cool check-the-box tactic. It uses narrative to connect to audiences in meaningful ways.

Brands that seek to understand, even shape, the emerging content models, to probe and experiment, will have a hand in developing new ways to engage audiences and deliver messages. Brands that don't explore the space -- or, worse, ignore it or dismiss it as irrelevant to their business -- risk losing touch with consumers.

There are disruptions at every point along the content assembly chain, from how it's imagined, developed, financed and created to how it's distributed, marketed and consumed. Legacy models are under duress, and much is at stake for all players: writers, directors, producers, networks, agencies, marketers and audiences.

Yet for many brands, content dwells in a ghetto, rarely connected to, surrounded or amplified by other marketing activities.

The marriage of content and commerce is a long one, dating back to Rennaissance painters and 19th-century theater promoters, never mind the earliest days of radio and TV -- when brands discovered talent and took creative risks on new forms of storytelling (soap operas).

Its more recent forms emerged about a decade ago, a response to technology-enabled consumer empowerment. Then, the collaboration between creators and funders was an uneasy one. Hollywood saw an untapped wallet, while brands acted out of fear. The initial results -- glorified product placements designed to thwart ad-skipping -- were tactical, clumsy and disconnected from marketing goals. Not surprisingly, they were viewed suspiciously and assigned a low status in the realm of marketing solutions.

Dark Prophesy

Yet brands such as Nike and Dove began to make more ambitious forays. They didn't just insert messaging into existing content but developed and shared their own stories. They invested in talent and bold ideas. They discovered audiences had an appetite for content that was relevant and delivered value, regardless of its source.

Today, a new model is emerging, one born not of desperation but a true willingness to innovate. Content creators want (they want!) to work with brands to develop new communications forms. Anthony Zuiker, creator of "CSI" and the groundbreaking "Dark Prophecy" transmedia tale, spills over with enthusiasm when he talks about partnering with brands to tell stories that begin with tablet apps and encompass text, audio, video and whiz-bang special effects and interactive experiences.

He's far from alone. Brands are no longer confined to the concepts dreamed up by one "creative" department; they have the ability to mine the creativity of the world's leading storytellers. Producers such as Mark Burnett, Simon Fuller and Ben Silverman are among those who realize brands don't just come to the table with money but with meaningful consumer insights. Brands know what's relevant to moms or authentic to teens. They know how to influence behavior and grab attention.

On the distribution side, content aggregators such as Netflix, Hulu and YouTube are now original-content developers, creating new opportunities for storytellers and brands alike. Storytelling is sometimes dismissed as frivolous. But as Frank Rose notes in his book "The Art of Immersion": "Storytelling is central to human existence ... [stories] are the signal in the noise."

Brands have an unprecedented opportunity: not to insert-message-here or plant logos on the sets of TV shows and films, but to move upstream in the content-development process. To enable new forms of storytelling. To develop programming that engages target audiences. To be stakeholders in the creation process rather than slappers of bumper stickers on finished products.

With most of the flavor and meaning sucked out of the phrase branded entertainment, there's been a lot of discussion about what to call this space.

I think I have the answer: It's called "marketing."

Scott Donaton is president-CEO of Ensemble, the content arm of Interpublic Group od Cos.' Mediabrands.
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