Branded content focus: Thinking outside the cage

Ahead of next week's BCON Expo event in New York, realscreen presents three branded content case studies, the first of which looks at Volkswagen's partnership with Discovery Channel for 'Shark Week.'
October 25, 2013

Ahead of next week’s BCON Expo event in New York, realscreen presents three branded content case studies, the first of which looks at Volkswagen’s partnership with Discovery Channel for ‘Shark Week.’

While most brands are grappling with the implications of the information superhighway, Volkswagen took a somewhat more aquatic detour.

For the past two editions of Discovery Channel’s ‘Shark Week,’ the automaker teamed with the cable network on a branded docuseries about an underwater shark cage shaped like the re-vamped Beetle. The goal: show off the classic car’s new design to the young male drivers in the flagship strand’s viewership.

Produced in association with the brand’s creative agency Deutsch Los Angeles and media agency MediaCom last summer, Beetle Shark Cage followed marine biologist and TV personality Luke Tipple and a team of engineers as they designed, built and tested the submersible in shark-infested coral reefs around the Bahamas.

The campaign scored MediaCom a pair of Bronze Cannes Lions trophies, among other ad industry accolades. For the follow-up, the team transformed the vehicle into a 2013 Beetle Convertible with three thrusters and a dive plane so it could effectively fly through water on a sub-aquatic road trip that viewers could follow online in real-time.

The idea to build the cage was a result of two months of brainstorming, research and consultation with marine engineers, auto engineers and scientists by the creative team at Deutsch and Discovery’s in-house production team, who executed the idea for VW.

“Deutsch presented a bunch of ideas to us that were very much outside the box and very ‘out there,’” says Mark Lewis, Discovery’s director of ad sales and marketing. “We would counter that with our own ideas [and] once we landed on the idea of turning the Beetle into a shark cage, everything rolled very quickly from there.”

Essential to the campaign’s success was a plausible integration that would not upset viewers. Conscious of some of the feedback ‘Shark Week’ has received from conservationists over the years, VW and Discovery framed the series as an educational exercise in engineering and design, and ensured the vehicle did not disrupt the underwater environments it traveled through.

“We do a lot of content for the network in general so we have a really good sense of how far is too far,” Lewis explains. “One of the guides we use is ‘Is it entertaining?’ That is first and foremost because while we really want to [provide] value to our partners, we have to keep in mind that people watch Discovery for a reason.”

volkswagen's custom shark cage for discovery's 'shark week'

Tipple brought with him connections to the people who could design and construct the cage, including a high-end custom yacht builder who built it out of high-performance aluminum. Director Christina Bavetta (Mermaids: The New Evidence; Gold Rush: The Dirt) helmed the series.

Although Lewis declines to reveal the project’s budget, he calls it “a little bit more [of a] robust budget than we might spend” on a series. All production and post work was handled in-house, which helped balance out costs.

“It’s a little bit different when you look at a 60-minute show versus this,” he says. “Some of our costs are amortized, in that we’re extending it digitally and socially.”

Besides ratings, Discovery uses a combination of custom audience research and social media tracking to gauge success on such projects, such as custom Twitter hashtags and social engagement on the network’s platforms.

“Unlike a lot of integrations there is this super car that can tour now or can be displayed,” says Mary Clare Baquet, who co-executive produced Shark Cage for Discovery with Matt Katzive. “We built something that functions and works and is tangible. That’s a cool extension of this that is a little out of the norm.”

Although Discovery owns the IP to the Shark Cage, the network will loan it out to VW for as long as the brand’s experiential and events teams need it. “We built it as part of this earned-value execution but we see it as an item that they can use,” says Lewis.

After two years, Lewis and Baquet are not ruling out the Shark Cage’s return in 2014, but both feel the campaign has raised the bar for the network’s in-house production team, which is eager to tackle a different challenge.

“We’re ready to explore something bigger and better,” Baquet says.

  • ┬áThe one-day, realscreen-presented BCON Expo event takes place at Convene in New York on October 30. For more details, visit
  • This feature originally appeared in the current September/October issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
realscreen magazine - september/october 2013
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