Branded Content Breaks Into Web Video

NEW YORK In Roommates, a three-minute series that debuted last week on MySpace, the characters make their way around Los Angeles in a 2008 Ford Focus. Welcome to the next generation of branded content.

The marketing method has multiplied in recent years as sponsors have sought to meld their products and advertising messages into television shows as a way of standing out in what’s become a cluttered universe. Now, as the output and quality of video content on the Web are improving, new forms of branded content are being tested there as well. The online integrations are shorter in length to match the platform’s penchant for clip-sized consumption.

Other big marketers are starting to invest in scripted online branded content as well. Disney had one of its films written into an episode of Kate Modern, a series that debuted in July on the British social network Bebo. And Volvo is featured in a new 12-episode series on MSN titled Driving School, starring Craig Robinson of NBC’s The Office.

That said, branded content applications constitute a very small piece of the money spent on video advertising, which in 2007 is expected to reach $600 million, according to media consultant Veronis Suhler Stevenson.

But some projects tested in the last year are starting to pay off. In the Motherhood, a five-minute comedy series starring Leah Remini and developed by WPP’s MindShare Entertainment for clients Sprint and Unilever is being renewed for a second “season” after debuting in April. Five new episodes are set to run online and across Sprint’s mobile video network in the first quarter of 2008. Meanwhile, MSN confirmed it is renewing a reality series called Chef to the Rescue. New sponsors have not yet been announced. The first series, in October 2006, was sponsored by Kraft.

According to industry executives, video on the Web is still in the early stages of development. “It’s the Wild West,” said Cary Tilds, svp, head of digital media operations at WPP’s Team Detroit, which developed client Ford’s Focus integration with the Roommates series. But she sees it becoming a dominant form due to user demand. “Digital video in general is seeing much better response than standard Flash banners. And rich media has also seen those successes,” Tilds said. “So when you can couple that with a brand experience, the results are very positive, which is why we are doing” the Focus integration on MySpace.

For Ford, Roommates is an effort to “speak a different language” and reach younger customers, said Usha Raghavachari, car and crossover communications manager at Ford. “One of our target demographics is similar to the profile of the young women on the show-recent college graduates who hold ‘the world is your oyster’ ideals,” she said.

Jeff Berman, general manager of MySpace TV, underscored the value proposition for advertisers. “Given that we’re now at 115 million users—with active users every month who are spending on average between 20 and 30 minutes each day—this is a pretty exciting way to reach people,” he said.

At Sprint, Anita Newton, vp, marketing, said the Motherhood project “exceeded all expectations,” as about 5.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the series during its initial run on MSN and the Unilever and Sprint sites. “That’s more than a top-rated cable program at a fraction of the cost,” she said.

But the Motherhood project was more than just a series of five-minute videos, said Newton. It also provided an online forum for moms to submit their own stories and to vote on others, some of which became the basis for episodes in the program. “It filled a need and became a virtual conversation that replaced one mom talking to another over a picket fence,” she said. Season one enabled Sprint to promote the benefits of a cell phone. In season two, the message will be more brand specific and will feature Sprint’s new PDA device, the Centro. “There’s a huge need for moms to become the CEO of the household, and this product is well suited to keeping her life organized and her family connected,” explained Newton.

David Lang, managing director of MindShare Entertainment, said that Motherhood viewing broke home-page records on MSN. “Relevant content will induce people to watch and stay, ” he said.

Mark Charkin, vp of international sales for the London-based Bebo, said that authenticity is the key to any integration and that it must go beyond simply “a Gillette razor within the video clip.” The company struck a deal with Disney in August to promote the film Hallam Foe. As part of the arrangement, one of the film’s stars, Jamie Bell, made a cameo appearance in an episode.

But others aren’t convinced that online integrations in short-form series are the best investment. General Motors tried it once, in a 2006 microseries called The Courier, which featured its Pontiac brand, and hasn’t done one since. However, a company rep didn’t rule out possible future plans for one.

But for now, she said, GM is focused more on integrations in properties “where we can have a deep, ongoing association.” She cited deals with CSI on CBS and Damages on FX.

James Kiernan, vp, digital director of MediaVest USA, said branded Web content has potential for the right client but, to date, “Those resources are still better applied to the television space, where you are reaching a significantly larger audience and the programming continues to be at a higher production quality.”