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

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"You know what really touched me? When we watched the videos coming in, and just the way that these women — it meant a lot to them. They said it changed their marriage; it changed their relationship with their mother. It became this really beautiful, relevant experience for them. And therefore, it was great for the brand,” said Stephanie Sarofian.

Sarofian is a senior vice president and managing director at Digitas, and what touched her were the results of an online campaign that her agency created, one pushing cream cheese.

The Real Women of Philadelphia has been amazingly successful for any ad campaign, let alone one that relies on online video. Hosted by celebrity chef Paula Dean, the campaign invites viewers to create their own cream cheese-based recipes. Winners get $500 and become site hosts, offering tips in their own videos.

“It’s such a simple and elegant process for letting the community take over and become the spokesperson for the brand,” Sarofian added.

The promotion, now in its third season, has broken through to become more than a recipe contest. It’s become a virtual community for women across the country.

It’s also lifted the sales of Kraft Foods Co.’s Philadelphia Cream Cheese by 35%, has won an Effie award for effective marketing, and has gotten a lot of people to think of the product as more than just a bagel spread.

The Stars Are in Charge

At Digitas, Sarofian runs a division called The Third Act, which is devoted to brand marketing. That puts her at the front of the new wave of branded entertainment, a wave that will have an enormous impact on what videos succeed online.

Ashton KutcherBranded entertainment isn’t new. It dates from the earliest days of television, when soap operas got their names from the soap companies that sponsored them. It’s not even new online: consider The Hire, a series of short online films made in 2001 and 2002 by BMW starring Clive Owen.

But what is new is that celebrities are now taking an active role in creating branded online videos. They’re developing projects exclusively for the web, and they’re reaching out to find brands for partners. They’re completely open to working a product into a story-line and doing it in a way that goes beyond simple product placement.

For actors and actresses, creating branded entertainment gives them a chance to be con- tent creators, something they don’t get to be when reading other people’s lines.

“Most of these celebrities are creators at heart, and they want to be in a room working with writers and brands and content creators and creative directors. This is their opportunity. They’re actually having a blast,” said Sarofian.

Selling Out and Buying In

One of the key events for online branded entertainment is Digitas’ NewFront, which is a 1-day conference where just as much activity goes on behind meeting room doors as on the main stage. Digitas held its fourth annual NewFront event in New York City in June.

NewFront derives its name from the television tradition of upfronts, or advertiser meetings that pitch a slate of shows months before they air, looking for yearlong commitments. NewFront acknowledges that entertainment and advertising now take part in a yearlong marketplace and that brands need to always be thinking about how to spend their budgets, not just once per year.

Celebrities are jumping into online branded entertainment, Sarofian said, because they know they can’t depend on movies or television shows that are sold yearly.

“They have to be in this game, in every facet of this game, all year round,” she said.

This year’s NewFront saw Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Isabella Rossellini, Tyra Banks, and Zach Quinto all take the stage to pitch online shows directly to the major brands that could cut checks and make their projects a reality. Last year’s event included Martha Stewart and Teri Hatcher.

For the brand’s part, they love working with celebrities because their Hollywood partners come with built-in fan bases. That guarantees any project a certain number of eyeballs. The celebs typically reach out to their social network fans and followers to promote the shows.

The curious thing, for anyone old enough to remember, is that it wasn’t that long ago that A-list celebrities wouldn’t risk their reputations on commercials. Now, they’re so unconcerned about looking like sellouts that they’re driving the projects themselves. What changed? Why are they so comfortable working with advertisers? 

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