Why marketers should let brand integration history repeat itself

Today's entertainment outlets are ripe for product placement -- but it has to be relevant, stresses Caressa Douglas.

When developing branded content strategies and campaigns, today’s most prominent marketers and creators may fail to recognize the rich history of brands’ involvement in popular entertainment.

Brand integration in today’s shows and films is not a new concept, rather, it is a tactic long used by companies to connect with their audiences. Today is an exciting time for both the advertising and entertainment industries as investments in original content, globally, continue to explode at rates we’ve never seen before. Netflix alone invested $8 billion in original content in 2018. From social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, to emerging streaming services like Hulu and Amazon, distributors are spending billions of dollars to produce original content.

There is now more content available than ever before, with more than 600 original TV shows in 2017. This presents both opportunities and challenges for brands to creatively and authentically integrate into entertainment while reaching their desired audiences. Advancements like premium cable, ad-skipping technology and emerging digital platforms have dramatically changed the ways in which people consume content. eMarketer estimated that there were 34.4 million cord-nevers in 2017 (consumers who have never subscribed to traditional cable TV) and they anticipate that number growing to 41 million by 2021. That also means it’s even more difficult for brands to find their target audiences and hold their attention.

As this evolution continues, marketers need a nuanced understanding of how branded integration came to fruition in popular culture, how it has changed over the years and the challenges it faces. Most importantly, marketers must understand why integration is relevant now more than ever in the fast-paced age of streaming content via giants like Netflix and Amazon.

Today, consumers have multiple platforms across which to consume content, but back in the 1930s there was really only one platform: radio. Proctor and Gamble and later Colgate-Palmolive were two of the biggest sponsors of female-focused daytime radio serials in the 30s. "Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins" was the first daytime serial on radio broadcast to be sponsored by P&G – and would last for more than 15 years. "Ma Perkins," among other serials, targeted women who were at home during the day and tasked with doing the laundry. These serials eventually became the soap operas we know today. A brand dictated and developed an entire genre of television that still exists today by identifying their target audience, the content they were consuming along with the platform it was consumed on, and integrating themselves into the programming of the time.

Jumping to the mid-20th century rise of television, brands not only funded full shows through product placement -- such as Texaco in "Texaco Star Theater" -- but actually informed the creative direction of programming. The opening and closing theme song of the "Texaco Star Theater," for example, gave the gas brand an opportunity to directly promote its services. What might seem obvious and clunky to today’s viewers was wholly genuine to consumers of the time because Texaco found a way to connect with them by securing talent into the programming they loved.

Fast forward several years, when the ad boom of the 1970’s hit, and we saw a rise in dedicated product placement agencies. This then evolved into a new form of entertainment marketing through brand integrations, with prominent uses in the 80s including Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces in "E.T." That was a powerful moment for integrations, where audiences saw an otherworldly creature interacting with a part of their everyday life. This is, perhaps, one of the most notable and referenced integration examples, to date.

Integrations then became a victim of their own success, showing up with such prominence across television and film that they were the punchline in films like "Wayne’s World." As Mike Myers’ character states, "contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor," as he then eats Doritos straight from the bag, a slice of Pizza Hut pizza from the box and takes a long sip of Pepsi. In his own chair, Garth agrees with him, while decked out head-to-toe in Reebok wear. As critics of the commercialization of the film industry, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey found massive success in this satirical scene and it is often hailed as viewers’ favorite part of the film.

While this particular scene shamelessly called out bad integrations, there were several subtler integrations in the film that helped move the plot along. As two guys living in a suburb of Illinois, they used brands that viewers recognized and saw in their everyday lives. This helped create an authentic connection and resonated with, at the time, cynical audiences. Ironically, Myers and Carvey found a solution to the challenges of brand integration they were satirizing; by using brands authentically, they could create a win-win for the brand, the creator and the audience.

Entertainment marketing has undergone massive shifts since its inception in the mid-20th century, and as it continues to evolve, today’s most prolific brands must similarly continue to innovate in order to reach new audiences and remain successful.

Reflecting on the history of integrations is imperative for brands which want to succeed in this crucial form of marketing. What worked in the past, like a gas company sponsoring a comedy variety show, might not resonate now, but finding ways to reach audiences through the entertainment and talent they know and love certainly does. Wilson was more than a volleyball in "Cast Away", he was an essential part of Tom Hanks’ survival in the film and played a pivotal role in driving the storyline forward.

The brands that think like Hollywood producers or even major social media influencers and incorporate powerful storytelling that is authentic into their integration campaigns will be remembered. There are examples throughout history that continue to teach marketers that authenticity and creativity remain at the core every successful integration.

Caressa Douglas is the SVP of global strategic partnerships at BEN.