The history of product integration is as old as content creation itself. In fact, most people would be surprised to know that the silent film Wings
(1927) was not only the first to win the Academy Award for Best Picture but also contained a plug for Hershey’s chocolate. I doubt that anyone is alive to tell us how that inclusion happened—whether it was an advertising or marketing spend, or simply based on the producer’s affinity for chocolate. At the very least, it reminds us that product integration is almost a century old.
Today this evolution has reached a pivotal moment. What was once a below-the-line advertising strategy based on relationships and happenstance is fast becoming a science. The ability for producers and content creators to connect with brands and advertisers, identify opportunities for integration and monetize those opportunities is growing exponentially.
Consider a scene from HBO’s original series The Newsroom. The character Sloan Sabbith, a financial reporter, turns to her producer on the show with a look of excitement and relief and says, "They finally got one for me … a Bloomberg terminal. This is a $24,000 system that gives me instantaneous access to all the financial information in the world.”
That line introducing the Bloomberg terminal might seem like a minor detail to viewers, a simple element of the news-making process at the fictional network ACN. But for Bloomberg, HBO and the producers of The Newsroom, the reality is more complicated.
This story point is product integration designed to elevate the Bloomberg brand with a non-traditional audience and to help drive sales of the terminals to business consumers. By the same token, the integration provided The Newsroom with not only a memorable and authentic detail but also revenue to elevate and execute the story the producers wanted to tell.
On its surface a simple line of dialogue, the introduction of the Bloomberg terminal and its inclusion in scripts and important plotlines required close collaboration between Bloomberg, HBO and the producers to ensure credibility, consistency and relevance. It was a moment that was carefully cultivated, researched and executed within the show. It had benefits for all involved, and most importantly it was seamless to the viewer.
For The Newsroom, the relationship helped enhance the quality of their programming with a credible brand that is meaningful and authentic to the series and its audience. For Bloomberg, the insertion drove visibility for the brand, allowing it to penetrate a premium network that’s advertising-free and potentially reaching a new audience—a critical goal for the company.
Over the past decade, advertisers and brands have been searching for new ways to deliver the message about their product or their brands, particularly in our current era of ad skipping and commercial avoidance. In the world of cord-cutting, binge-watching and DVRs, the challenge is immense.
Consumers have made it clear: They want content on their terms and at the price, time and on the device of their choice. Against this backdrop, the practice of brand integration has taken on even greater importance and currency.
For producers and creators of content, there are several keys to effective integration, including:
Alignment: Identify the Right Partners
The key to ensuring an integration that elevates the creative work is a match of the right brands with the right content. An integration can be seamless, clever and creative, but if the brand identity doesn’t suit the characters or story, the result will be jarring and artificial.
Michael Marinello is the head of global communications, technology, innovation and sustainability at Bloomberg and oversees brand integration efforts with the entertainment industry as part of his role. "We get a lot of incoming requests from the entertainment industry on engagement in movies and television,” he recalled in a Bloomberg interview. "I pitched Corbis the idea of Sloan on The Newsroom having a terminal. It could be integrated into the story to show how she uses it to report on the news. They realized, here was something they felt that they could actually make happen.”
"Placing the Bloomberg terminal was something that Aaron Sorkin was very much interested in from the get-go,” said David Henri, VideoFX supervisor of The Newsroom. "He wanted the Sloane Sabbith character to have a Bloomberg terminal. She’s a financial news reporter for the network, and [Aaron] knew that Bloomberg was a natural fit.”
Execution: Establish an Effective Partnership
Once you have identified your brand partners, you should work to establish a clear understanding of their needs and ensure that it meets with your creative process and plans to include the product. As you are producing your content, it is essential that you collaborate closely so that any integration is consistent with their expectations and yours.
It is essential that they are embedded in a seamless manner, whether through product use by characters, images or just inclusion in the script. As Benjamin Levy from Bloomberg’s legal team observed, "We wanted to make sure that the character that was using the terminal was doing so in manner that is compliant with how our customers are supposed to use the terminal.”
"Sometimes the real world and the fictional world don’t line up,” added Henri, "but both sides worked well together and it came out looking great on screen.”
Measurement: Measure and Share in the Success
It is critical to measure the success of partnership. This includes reviewing the target audiences’ reaction, using widely-accepted measurement tools for audience ratings and engagement, and creating reports that provide real analysis of the value. Brands and advertisers are expected to demonstrate a return on their investment, and if a producer makes that a simple process, she or he will enhance their ability to access marketing budgets and seize opportunities to develop a long-term relationships with brands. Some of these metrics include audience demographics, social following, Nielsen and other viewership ratings.
Research from a 2014 MPG study suggests that unlike popular perceptions of commercial breaks, embedding and brand integration are actually beneficial to the audience viewing experience. Of the study’s respondents, 73% found brand integrations are less intrusive than TV commercials, while 63% said it made brands and products more relatable and 62% said it’s good to see which brands and products are being used.
One factor seems to remain constant: The cost of creating great content keeps going up. The competition for dollars and investment in content is significant—a fact of life whether you are a veteran studio producer or network showrunner, an independent filmmaker or a storyteller who is pushing the content boundaries on social media. Product integration can be a vehicle to offset those costs, and if done properly—like in The Newsroom—can bring new revenue while enhancing the story and ultimately attracting a stickier and more engaged audience.
So how does a producer begin the process of seeking potential brand partners to collaborate with? Until recently, producers have had a couple of options.
OPTION A: Hire an independent production coordinator who could cold call hundreds of brands and agencies.
OPTION B: Allow the networks or studios to supervise integration efforts, monetizing that integration for themselves and not pushing the creative alignment at the producer level.
I work for Corbis Entertainment, a company that has been proud to partner with the Producers Guild for the last several years. Our solution to this problem was the creation of our Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), which launched last year.
With BEN, we’ve tried to take an important step forward by creating the first global marketplace for brand embedding across film, television, OTT, digital, social and celebrity content—incorporating technology, search functionality, planning and analytics as essential elements of the deal-making process. Simply put, we’ve worked to create an online marketplace where content creators, brands and media agencies can collaborate directly on ideas and opportunities while conducting transactions with simplicity and transparency.
Marketers need to plan their product integration by delivering opportunities against budgets and audience demographics. Importantly for both the producer and advertiser, BEN measures the impact of insertions through advanced research tools that account for ratings across multiple platforms, allowing both parties to understand what was delivered, at what cost, and to measure the return on investment. It’s a solution that we’re proud of and one that’s flexible enough to continue to develop as technology and industry practice allows.
Some producers may worry that cracking the puzzle of product integration represents a distraction from (or imposition on) their creative process … or worse, threatens to distract the audience from the story onscreen. But our research has indicated that audiences actually have come to expect that the brands they encounter every day will find their way into the content they watch. Rather than a distraction, brand presence makes the content more credible to them.
As producers, understanding the value of embedding can be a critical weapon in your arsenal as you look to monetize your content while remaining true to the creative values that inspired you to tell those stories in the first place. Using new technology can streamline the process, simplify and enhance those opportunities and create a new model of collaboration, cooperation and success.
We’ve been proud to guide and facilitate that engagement, hopefully providing storytellers with essential revenue and real-world authenticity. Best of all, technology has evolved to a point that makes forming those relationships easier than ever, letting storytellers stay focused on what they do best.
- Mark Owens serves as Chief Revenue Officer for Corbis Entertainment.