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Branded Content Brings Ashton, Demi, and Tyra to Online Video

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“They’re comfortable because they see there will be no other way,” said Sarofian. They’re at the start of a revolution in the entertainment industry. Television studios will need to change, because brands no longer want to commit their marketing budgets six to eight months ahead of time. The entire entertainment ecosystem needs to feed itself differently, she added. The celebs developing online series are simply playing that new game, and they’re having a great time being creative.

The Mother of Invention

This current wave of branded entertainment online actually began with the 2007–2008 writers’ strike. The strike lasted for 100 days and created a financially desperate time when writers were willing to launch out into new areas.

While based in New York, Sarofian traveled to Santa Monica, Calif., and Los Angeles weekly during the strike to meet with writers who couldn’t get jobs and whose freelance rates had plummeted. She sat with them and talked advertising.

“They wouldn’t have sat with us five years ago, but we sat at round tables and talked about all the opportunities for them to write and create for brands,” said Sarofian.

Branded entertainment production companies including Jason Bateman and Will Arnett’s DumbDumb and Ashton Kutcher’s Katalyst Films date from this period, she said.

Even though audiences are more accepting now of entertainment mixed with advertising, creating branded entertainment still requires a careful balance. Sarofian’s job is to make sure the finished product reflects well on both the brand and the celebrity involved.

“We’re all very careful to maintain the integrity of creative projects or products,” Sarofian added. The brand’s product isn’t included as a prop but as more of a character. It’s an essential element that carries the story forward, as with the Real Women of Philadelphia campaign.

Brands and Stars in Harmony

“When it really comes down to it, we don’t say, ‘Oh, look, there’s a paycheck. Let’s do that.’ That’s not what it’s about,” said Kevin Jonas, one-third of the music group Jonas Brothers. “It’s about incorporating something you believe in and joining them to enhance not only their brand, but also yours.”

Jonas and his famous siblings have had several experiences with branded entertainment, and he’s positive about the outcomes. For celebrities, branded entertainment offers a chance to reach out to fans in a new light, or in a lull between projects.

“My experience has been phenomenal, so far. As a group, as an individual, me and my brothers, we’ve worked a lot with different companies, different brand marketing groups,” he said. “I’m just happy to be a part of it on some level.”

Working with Kraft Lunchables, Jonas has taken part in a mentoring promotion and a program that offers field trips to students at cash-strapped schools. He’s had a more creative role in branded projects for the site Cambio and is enthusiastic about the benefits that all his promotions offer.

“There are so many amazing things happening and so many amazing things to take in. Reading about it in a book is great and it’s definitely part of the learning process, but if you could incorporate it into your everyday life, I think it makes such a huge difference,” he said of the field trip promotion.

Targeted Content

Now that branded entertainment is a growing part of the online video space, it’s easy to worry about the effect it will have on content. Will the best new web series simply be long-form commercials?

A big part of Sarofian’s job is to help massage the stories so that the viewers don’t see the finished videos as ads. It’s worth noting that there are excellent examples of branded series online that feel just as fresh and quirky as indie programs. Consider Easy to Assemble, a series created by Illeana Douglas for IKEA (and filmed in a real IKEA store). It exists in a pre-fab IKEA culture, but it never feels like an ad.

“I think the quality is going to get better and better,” said Sarofian. “I think the quality is rising everyday" — not just because of the talent getting involved but also because of improved technology and the growing number of dollars invested. Some of today’s branded web series are approaching TV quality.

Branded entertainment is still advertising, and one of the big advantages it offers brands is the ability to reach the right demographic. Because the audience chooses to watch these shows, brands know they’re reaching a motivated base. And brands have the option of only getting involved in projects that reach the right viewers.

“It’s an evolved way of marketing to consumers. If you think about mass media, where you’re just pumping messages out and you’re reaching trillions of people, but maybe some were relevant, maybe some were not,” said Sarofian. “Now we have the tools and the analytics and the energy and the ideas and the insights to create content in whatever form it may take that is highly relevant and will reach the right consumers right at that moment where they’re looking for that particular entertainment or that information.”

Done right, branded entertainment benefits the brand, the stars, and the audience. Don’t be surprised if your favorite online shows in the near future have a corporate brand behind them.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2011 Streaming Media under the title "Here Come the Celebs: Welcome to Branded Videos."

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