Branded Content: Not a Good Idea

Branded content. It sounds awesome, doesn’t it? After all, our industry is married to the content industry.

TV commercials keep the lights on at every broadcast network, and indirectly keep the cable bill low enough that HBO can exist. Content producers make their cool shows and make it worth brands’ money to put commercials on the air. Magazines and newspapers know they can write all the cool articles and do all the cool photo spreads because of the ads. And we can all aspire to be directors.

But most of the time, something that’s going to make a perfect TV or Web show, proper video game or film is going to be an idea that doesn’t inherently play directly in line with the brand story (like, let’s say, insurance.) Because, what makes a great show, game or film? Artistic merit, humanity, story, talent. These occasionally overlap with marketing demographic, industry sector and brand penetration, but more often than not, they do not. God, that’s sad. We’re sort of in denial about that, aren’t we? But I think perhaps it’s best that we accept it: Great art does not necessarily have a brand angle. So there’s going to be some compromise to make the content and the brand story align with each other, and if the brand is footing the bill, guess who’s going to win that argument every time?

The problem with the notion of branded content being a sort of “direction we should all go in” is that it will end up hurting content, which in the end is going to hurt the industry.

So here is the real, immediate problem with content right now that we should be working to solve: It’s a giant pain in the ass to buy media online. Say you are a car company and you want to budget $50 million to TV media and $50 million to online media, for people who watch Lost. For TV, it’s dead easy: You make an ad and make one call and, bam, your ad is on the show, money spent, eyeballs zapped. For online media, it’s not so simple;there’s not actually $50 million worth of media to be bought online for the people who watch Lost, and certainly not with one phone call. But the interesting thing is that all those people who watch that show on TV (and that show in particular) are spending a crap load of time on the Internet, doing all sorts of interesting things. There’s no one way to capture audience yet. Every time we undertake a marketing gig, along with whatever banners we might be able to buy, we usually have to also build a custom solution from scratch.

So let’s take insurance as a category. There is a good example here: Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Look it up if you never saw it on TV, but I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It’s a nature show, sponsored by a brand. But it is actually a good idea for a show that was sold to a brand, and has nothing to do with the brand. They took some cool content — and, man, who doesn’t love lions taking down a gazelle? — and stuck their name on it. And 20 years later, even though I only saw the show a few times, I still remember Mutual of Omaha.

This is actually super Internet friendly, and future-proof. The Internet will always want good content, including games and utilities. Good ideas will never go out of style. It would be really great if that was the “new thing,” that brands and agencies and our industry in general were all just trying to find a way to make new kinds of content that people really liked, and multiple brands could sign on.

So what’s the answer? The biggest change needs to happen with how we treat content, particularly how online and television content interact. Television is a viable medium — it’s current, it’s passive. We all need to turn our brains off once in a while. And it’s still better than the Internet in terms of really absorbing someone else’s story.

But storytelling also needs to have an element of participation or interaction for when we don’t want to turn off our brains. For that to exist on a grand scale, like it does on television, in our ad-supported capitalist society it needs to have a model where it can be “free” because of advertising.

On top of that, in case you haven’t noticed, the Internet is hard. It’s difficult to create this stuff, far more so than linear content. And on top of that, it’s unproven to a large extent. There hasn’t been a massive success in terms of unbranded, interactive content online (though of course the makers of World of Warcraft would disagree), let alone branded.

Hulu is a good example of centralized content with multiple brand participation, but is still kind of trying to create the Internet version of a TV network. Funny or Die is maybe a better example, because it has a narrower vision and subject matter, and it’s way more “Internet” in the sense that it has some element of user ratings and vaguely user-generated content. In the gaming/social area, Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin have been hugely successful in terms of numbers, but maybe not intensely profitable from advertising revenue.

So the answer really is that we as an industry — and by “we” I mean big agencies and more specifically big agency/media companies — have to find a way to make and/or fund online content, utilities, games and platforms that can be owned or sponsored by many brands. And rather than wait for Hollywood or Silicon Valley to build them and then buy ad space from them, maybe we should think about building our own.

Benjamin Palmer is CEO of The Barbarian Group.