Back to the Future With Branded Content

May 20, 2009

With the breakdown in traditional media and the rise of technologies that allow consumers to block or skip ads (e.g., TiVo), companies seeking consumer attention are increasingly turning to branded entertainment.

In doing so, they’re returning to a model that prevailed in the mainstream media from the beginning of the 20th Century through most of the 1950s.

When national radio broadcasts were at their peak, many of the most popular entertainment shows bore the sponsor’s name. The practice carried over into the early days of TV with shows like “Philco Theater,” “Camel Comedy Caravan” and “Texaco Star Theater.”

Sponsors and their advertising agencies hired talent and oversaw production of the shows, with the radio and TV networks essentially serving as distribution networks for the branded content. The Internet is now that distribution network, one that’s more fragmented yet potentially more powerful.

A sponsor willing to put up big money in the golden days of radio and TV could basically guarantee reaching one-third or more of all Americans with their message. And they weren’t subtle about it. See this lengthy Camel cigarette commercial masquerading as a comedy skit.

Although the Internet has a much broader reach than TV or radio, it’s not as concentrated. Even the biggest YouTube sensations seldom get more than a few million viewers – less than a run-of-the-mill network TV show.

But what the Web does offer is the ability to target the people who are most likely to be interested in your product and get them spreading positive word of mouth. Doing it with entertaining content, rather than a straightforward product pitch, adds another arrow to the marketing quiver. And it can be far more cost-effective than spending millions to blast out a 30-second ad.

It’s not foolproof., a video channel sponsored by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch, lasted a couple of years and burned through more than $10 million before signing off earlier this year.

That didn’t stop Adidas from launching a similar site, Nike got a lot of attention with its “Naked Running Camp” video (watch for an appearance at the very end by Duluth-raised Kara Goucher)

Another fast-growing segment of branded entertainment is advergaming: sponsored video games. Advergaming has actually been around since the 1980s, when Coca-Cola commissioned “Pepsi Invaders,” a special version of the popular arcade game “Space Invaders.”

But it’s only in recent years that advergaming has really taken off, with spending quadrupling between 2004 and 2009, according to research by the Yankee Group. And with 2009 advergaming spending estimated at only about $320 million, there’s still a lot of room for growth.

At Fast Horse, we’re currently doing branded entertainment projects for a couple of our clients, and it’s an area that not only do we want to be in – we have to be in. As the communications world changes, marketing agencies must change with it, or risk being left behind.

I still love pitching a good story to a newspaper reporter, but there are fewer reporters – and fewer newspapers – to pitch to than there were last year or even last month.

Branded entertainment is a way to reach consumers directly, with content that will both inform and engage them. Fifty years ago, marketers knew how to do this – we just forgot about it for a while.

I don’t think we’ll forget again.