When it comes to defining branded entertainment, for those of us not intricately involved in the process of content production, it seems rather obvious. Branded entertainment is content that is partially or fully funded by a brand which features that brand, or its messaging, somehow throughout.
For those working within the space, it’s apparently a more perplexing issue.
During the closing session of the third annual Realscreen Branded Entertainment Forum, dubbed “The Great Branded Entertainment Debate,” a panel comprised of execs working in the medium tackled the question of what branded entertainment is, isn’t, what it should be, and the relevance of the term itself.
Panelists included moderator Scott Donaton of branded content specialists Ensemble; Bill Davenport of W+K Entertainment, the independent content arm of ad agency Wieden+Kennedy; Mark Koops of Trium Entertainment, the prodco behind YouTube series Recipe Rehab, which is headed to broadcast TV via ABC in the U.S.; Jeremy Chilnick, head of production at Warrior Poets, the prodco behind Morgan Spurlock’s “branded feature” POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold; and Kevin McAuliffe, head of the branded entertainment group at NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and chair of this year’s Forum.
Donaton began the session with a provocative proclamation, calling for “the death of branded entertainment” in the interest of defining the content as storytelling, pure and simple. That led to discussion about the nature of the term itself, and whether it does more harm than good in the perception of the content. McAuliffe, stating that branded entertainment has been with us as long as televised entertainment, said that “the term just kind of ‘fell out’ of the industry,” while Davenport, who had served as a judge in the branded content category at the last Cannes Lions Advertising Festival, confessed, “I don’t even know what branded entertainment is… [In Cannes] we debated that for hours and hours and got nowhere.”
So while there appears to be some confusion within the industry as to what branded entertainment actually is, there seems to be a clearer idea of what it shouldn’t be – a commercial masquerading as content. Panelists throughout the day concurred that if the aim of the content is to promote the brand, then it’s best to be honest about it, but to also take the steps to ensure the content is entertaining and engaging.
“Telling great stories involves brands,” said Koops, who recalled that in past experience as managing director of Reveille, some networks would be reticent to have easily identifiable products featured on-screen, even when the content called for it. “Life involves brands.”
Koops maintained that the approach to integrating brands into content is key. “Transparency is everything – I’d rather be told up front that ‘This is being brought to you by…’”
But not everyone in the game is keen on being transparent, as Chilnick found out when approaching creative agencies to be involved in the Greatest Movie Ever Sold project, a documentary about branded content that was essentially funded by brands. Citing the inspiration for the movie as a “particularly egregious product placement” in NBC’s Heroes involving the Nissan Rogue, Chilnick said that when trying to sell creative agencies on the idea of the doc, “We were shut down by every agency… [but] when we contacted CMOs of brands directly, we got them on board.”
Contrary to some people’s perceptions of Spurlock’s production company, it is completely open to working with brands on projects, as long as creative integrity can be maintained. Chilnick says Warrior Poets utilizes a “gut check” approach to sizing up potential projects involving brands, where “if it makes you feel uncomfortable saying it out loud,” then it’s probably not for them.
Still, circling back to McAuliffe’s earlier point, the funding of entertainment content by brands is not a new phenomenon, and in a multi-screen world with an insatiable appetite for fresh programming, it shouldn’t put anyone’s knickers in a knot if a logo or product pops into the frame – as long as it’s being done transparently.
Pointing to Red Bull’s support for Felix Baumgartner’s historic jump “from the edge of space” – an event cited several times over the course of the day – Koops surmised, “You wouldn’t have been able to have that entertainment experience without them.” Thus, producers looking for funding partners should be open to the possibilities branded content can provide.
“Financing can come from a network partner,” summed up Koops, “or from a Fortune 500 company.”