Why we need sponsored entertainment, not branded content

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Instead of making short form films and buying likes, more brands should consider investing in sponsored entertainment that people will pay to watch, writes the producer of Werner Herzog's "Lo and Behold."

As the advertising world moves away from traditional TV campaigns, more and more brands are turning to branded content to connect with consumers. But for all the supposed difference between branded content and traditional ads, most brands approach both in the exact same way.

Too many brands see branded content as an excuse to make long, dull advertisements. Then, stuck as they are with a boring product, brands spend substantial amounts of money on a media buy to support these long ads. Success is measured by likes and shares. But that's not real success; the likes have simply been bought.

Supporting branded content with a media buy is a deeply flawed approach. It's the equivalent of a movie studio buying tickets to its own film to prove box office success.

Fortunately, there is a much more effective way to engage consumers and make an impact. For brands interested in a distribution strategy that does not require a prohibitively expensive media buy, there is sponsored entertainment.

Sponsored entertainment is not new. Many of the most successful film franchises—Lego and Marvel for example—are pieces of sponsored entertainment. Their purpose is to guide consumer interest toward related toys and other merchandise. In the words of George Lucas, "all the money is in the action figures."

The success of films like "The Lego Batman Movie" and "Logan" should have us advertisers asking a question. Why not skip the media buy altogether and put those dollars into entertainment we can sell?

There is no market for branded content. No one wants to buy a 5- or 10-minute film. Feature and television-length projects are different. They do have a global market. They can be sold to major distributors who will use their own media dollars to support them.

Big budget films and TV aren't the only way to reach mainstream audiences. The appetite for less expensive formats, like documentaries, is stronger than ever.

In 2016, we produced the Werner Herzog documentary, "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World." The film was sponsored by the network solutions company NetScout, but it was produced and distributed as an independent film. "Lo and Behold" premiered at Sundance, where it was purchased by Magnolia Pictures. NetScout recouped a portion of their investment from the sale and Magnolia used its own media dollars to promote the film.

Upon the release of the film, NetScout's annual impressions increased tenfold. To achieve those results with a traditional media buy would have required tens of millions. NetScout did it all for the cost of production.

In today's advertising world, distribution is perhaps the biggest determiner of the effectiveness of any brand-sponsored project. The bigger the release, the better the outcome.

Think about "The Hire," BMW's wonderful short film series. The films were well made, and remain a touchstone for advertisers who are looking to entertain consumers.

But surprisingly, filmmaker Luc Besson and Audi benefited the most from the BMW films.

Luc Besson loved "The Hire." He loved the series so much he based a movie, "The Transporter," on it. "The Transporter" was an immediate hit. Seeing the obvious potential of a feature film franchise, Audi jumped on board for the sequel and have been a major part of the franchise ever since.

From a brand perspective, which project was more effective? "The Hire" short film series or "The Transporter" franchise? It seems very likely that "The Transporter" franchise—several films and a TV series—helped sell more Audis than "The Hire" sold BMWs.

Again, that's because there is a global market for film and TV-length projects. No major studio is going to purchase and then distribute a series of short films.

Audi has consistently partnered with Hollywood productions. Significantly, the brand's market share has continued to increase in North America and the rest of the world.

Instead of making short form branded content and then buying likes, more brands should consider investing in long-form sponsored entertainment that people will pay to watch. Rather than making "The Hire," perhaps BMW would have been better off developing a project like "The Transporter" that could be monetized and distributed by a major film studio or television network.

Film and television properties have value. They make money and create revenue streams. Like "The Transporter," they also have a long life with multiple viewing windows: theatrical, DVD/digital, and cable. Branded content has none of these benefits. In order to collect likes and be seen, branded content requires a media buy.

Not every brand-sponsored piece of entertainment is multiplex ready. But every brand-sponsored project does have a chance to reach consumers through the same distribution channels used by popular film and television.

With our Michael Apted documentary, "Bending the Light," we used the film festival circuit to engage Canon's target audience of amateur and professional photographers and cinematographers. With Werner Herzog's texting-and-driving PSA, "From One Second to the Next," we used an educational distributor and popular streaming services like Netflix to place the film in 40,000 schools and millions of households.

One of our next projects is a documentary series based on the definitive history of soccer, "The Ball is Round," by sports journalist David Goldblatt. Over three billion people watched the 2014 World Cup, so there is a great opportunity for brands looking to reach the global soccer audience.  

There will always be a place for huge media spends, but it's not the only distribution strategy out there. Many of today's most proactive brands are finding success by skipping the media buy and making brand-sponsored entertainment that people actually want to watch.

—Rupert Maconick is the founder of Saville Productions.