Can branded entertainment be entertaining?
No, I don’t think so. Who in their right mind wants to sit through a 60-minute ad? We see a lot of it: brands given media deals or simply posting long-form content loaded with branding and product that goes on to die a sad and lonely death in some barren corner of a streaming service.
It’s not so much the branded bit that makes it bad; it’s the lazy, familiar ideas that are simply not good enough to compete with the incredible choice and creativity of brand-free programming available today. Martin Scorsese recently released a three-hour and 30-minute epic on Netflix featuring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Ray Romano and Stephen Graham. Good luck getting people to watch your dog biscuit documentary.
But what about brand-funded entertainment? A different model. At its best, a brand co-funds or fully funds an idea that is so good that people actively seek it out, watch it, talk about it and tell other people to go to watch it. This is not about crowbarring in product and messaging. It’s about a brand investing in creativity and engaging its audience with a story that they can own. Imagine that – someone willingly sitting down with your brand for an hour or so. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
But it isn’t easy. Getting something on TV isn’t difficult, but getting something on TV that people actually want to watch is. So how do you compete with an industry that’s pumped up producing bigger, better and more shows than ever before? How do you stop it from becoming a vanity project with no payback to the brand? How do you measure success? Why would a brand possibly want to get involved when you can just simply pay to interrupt your audience?
Well, some brands have cracked it spectacularly. The obvious example that everyone knows is Red Bull Stratos. Not a sugary can of rocket fuel in sight; just a strong point of view on the world and an idea so big and ballsy that it blew everything out of the water – ads and telly included.
A more recent example is Nike’s #Breaking2 (pictured, above). Another moonshot attempt to do the unthinkable and break the two-hour marathon. Again, a brand with a searingly clear point of view and an idea so audacious that people were willing to hunt it down and give up an hour of their lives to watch it.
These are obviously two monster brands with deep pockets and a reputation for creating ads that are very watchable. But there are some great examples of smaller brands that don’t have such creds. A collaboration between Berocca and Ant Middleton (the beardy SAS guy) doesn’t sound like it’s worth moving your thumb a few millimetres towards the "4" button on your controller. However, it’s an incredible story and well worth 47 minutes of your life. Age UK co-produced a one-off Christmas special with Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds that resulted in the charity’s biggest day of donations ever.
In the US, Netscout’s Werner Herzog documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World resulted in the most new-business inquiries in the brand’s 30-year history. Ron Howard’s Dads, a documentary on fatherhood and paternity leave for Dove Men+Care, has just been sold to Apple. Patagonia’s hour-long Artifishal: The Fight to Save Wild Salmon has exceeded 2 million views on YouTube.
What binds these examples together is thinking bigger than "Where’s my product shot?". It’s brands with a very clear point of view on why they exist in this world, allowing them to rise above the weeds and tell a meaningful story that is authentic to them while being culturally relevant to people and, most importantly, entertaining. It’s having the confidence to keep the programming pure, while using interruptive advertising to ensure the brand never gets lost.
This is not the classic 360-degree thinking of blasting an idea out through every channel. It’s an ecosystem where every part pays into each other: trainers in the documentary can be bought in store; the talent fronting the adventure is the face of the brand. A strong sense of purpose runs through every touchpoint.
This scary new landscape of brand-funded entertainment isn’t for every brand and certainly doesn’t spell the end of the interruptive advertising we know and love. Nor is it a grim replacement for traditionally funded programming. But, if done correctly, it does give brands an exciting opportunity to tell longer stories and reach audiences where they actually are. It also gives brands an opportunity to contribute to culture rather than simply interrupting it by creating programmes people actually want to sit down to watch.
Aidan McClure is founding partner and chief creative officer at Wonderhood Studios.