As Viewers Go Ad-Free, Streaming Services Adapt With Product Placements

Brands still want to reach audiences through Hulu and Netflix

Hulu's Four Weddings and a Funeral had in-episode placements for Hotels.com.
Courtesy of Hulu

Subscribers to Hulu’s ad-free plan pay twice as much as limited ad customers each month to avoid commercials. If they watched the service’s original comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, though, they still saw an ad for Hotels.com.

In an episode where a faux reality TV show sponsors a wedding between two characters, a reality producer barked a promotion for Hotels.com at the bride, whose bridal train was emblazoned with the brand’s logo. This integration isn’t unusual for Hulu or other streaming services, either. Viewers are spending more time watching programming on streaming services, but since many of those OTT offers either don’t carry ads or offer ad-free tiers, brands are finding another entry point through product placements and brand integrations.

The Hotels.com integration in Four Weddings and a Funeral is one of nearly a half dozen worked into the program alone, including Amazon Alexa, Coors Light, luxury consignment site The RealReal and Toyota. The tie-ins are illustrative of Hulu’s hands-on approach to finding product placement opportunities in all of its originals, including programs like The Mindy Project.

“When a show is greenlit, my team immediately talks to the producers and the studio of that particular show to have a general conversation around having brand stories woven [in],” said Nicole Sabatini, Hulu’s vp and head of integrated marketing. “Simultaneously, we’re having ongoing conversations with advertisers. It’s an ever-evolving collaboration.”

Different services, different inroads

At Hulu, a team headed by Sabatini coordinates brand placement and integration opportunities, but on other platforms, the process is more convoluted. For instance, Netflix doesn’t have a team dedicated to product placement or integrations, a Netflix spokesperson said, so paid integrations are often coordinated through other channels.

Viacom, which creates programming for streaming services and other third-party outlets, is just one company offering advertisers a way in.

“Every brand wants to be on Netflix,” said Harley Block, svp, brand partnerships, Viacom Digital. “It’s an ad-free environment, but it’s where a massive amount of attention is. Since you can’t buy ads there, how can we help brand partners get into that environment in a way that makes sense?”

Trinkets, a series developed through a partnership between Netflix and Viacom property Awesomeness, features a multi-episode product integration for retailer Hollister, one of a few integrations they have coordinated. That integration was managed on the Viacom and Awesomeness side, but Netflix was looped in as the integration was worked into the script.

Routing brand integrations through content producers works on Amazon Prime Video, too. Branded Entertainment Network, which helps brands strategize and execute product placements, recently arranged deals directly with producers to place Cheerios in Amazon Prime Video original series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel along with two Netflix originals, said Erin Schmidt, BEN’s chief strategy and client service officer.

There’s been a steady uptick in client interest in streaming service integration over the last six years, Schmidt said. But it’s not just streaming originals that can benefit brands. Linear television integrations, long a staple of the TV industry, eventually end up in an OTT environment anyway, breathing new life into integrations as shows attract new audiences.

Working out the kinks

Leo Kivijarv, evp and research director of market research firm PQ Media, said brands are particularly drawn to product integrations because of their insulation from ad-skipping or ad-blocking technology. The absence of traditional ads on some services is another benefit: Because there’s less noise from ads, there’s a better chance of a brand integration sticking out, Kivijarv said.

But there are also downsides to integrations on streaming services. For services without ads, advertisers aren’t able to drive a brand’s messaging home with multiple advertising spots. Plus, measurement options on most streaming services are murky at best, complicating and limiting a brand’s ability to measure the effectiveness of placements, Kivijarv said.

Ultimately, though, brands want to be where consumers are. As viewing habits continue to shift to streaming, finding a way to make it onto emerging platforms will only become more essential.

“What advertisers and brands are going to need to do is leverage the full ecosystems of those brands to reach people,” said Billy Boulia, group connections director at the agency The Community. “It’s going to become even more important to go in deep with the Apples and the HBOs and the Disneys.”

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