Where New Stories and Resources Live

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Still from 'Carmilla.' Picture courtesy of Shaftesbury.

Are you starting to think about the next story you want to bring to life? Do you plan to self-finance, or will you be exploring funding opportunities from the private sector? There is a group of content partners with a virtually untapped fountain of engaging new stories to uncover ― and the funds to bring them to life. Their stories are also rooted in audience insights that provide invaluable validation about which segments will be eager to consume the content, and, sometimes, even the character traits and scene details that will resonate the most with them. This emerging group of content partners are the marketing leaders behind product and service brands.

For so long, brands and their stories have lived as often-unwanted sales pitches in 15-, 30- or 60-second “formats” between segments of a show, or as obvious product placements that interrupt the audience’s immersion in a story. But now, creators and brands are co-creating some of the most innovative new entertainment, from short-form series to hit films.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating conditions for more of these mutually beneficial collaborations to emerge. While audiences are burning through content at extremely high rates, brands are pulling back on paid advertising as direct selling can seem insensitive during these times. At a time when brands have an elevated need to drive sales, engaging stories that audiences want to dive into can be, all things considered, less costly for them.

Here are some ways that storytellers can benefit by collaborating with brands, including insights on why co-creation can be valuable to all parties that create and air the content.

Unearthing the right insights

What if you could pitch a show to funders or platform partners with the data to prove that it could be a hit with key demographics? This is the kind of data marketers work with every day.

Brands compete in saturated markets. To give themselves a competitive edge, they dig for consumer insights to understand what will make their target audiences choose their products over others. This is how a brand’s positioning is defined ― and refined.

But brands need to have more than the right product features for the right consumers. They need a purpose that resonates with their target audience. They need a story.

While brands’ sizeable research budgets help them build and test various iterations of their messaging, many don’t realize that they can leverage their insights to create stories that build lasting bonds with their audiences. Traditional advertising agencies focus on condensing stories into short spots; entertainment creators can develop a brand’s purpose into hit stories.

Combine a storyteller’s knack for compelling narrative with a brand’s access to valuable consumer insight and you might end up with something like hit web series ‘Carmilla.’ The show was the product of a collaboration between Canadian production company Shaftesbury and Kimberly-Clark’s ‘U by Kotex’ brand.

Shaftesbury Senior Vice President of Branded Entertainment Kaaren Whitney-Vernon explains that ‘Carmilla’ broke through because the team truly understood their audience and what it wanted to see more of. The web series was eventually extended to a multiple-season run and spurred a hit film adaptation dubbed in 20 languages.

Story creation, not story integration

Stories born out of a brand’s purpose and rooted in audience insights entertain while enhancing consumer sentiment towards a brand. Here begins a virtuous cycle: the content finds its way into viewers’ conversations, who organically spread the word to others who may want to consume it.

Because of this, more brands are seeing the value of investing in developing stories with content creators. Nike and National Geographic produced the film ‘Breaking2.’ Patagonia has created Patagonia Films, a platform devoted to its collective of storytellers. Kitchener Ontario’s Diva International partnered with Media One Creative to form IR Films, which developed documentary film ‘Pandora’s Box.’

Whitney-Vernon cautions that without investing in the development of engaging stories “brands are missing the opportunity to grow in this new age where [they’re] not in control anymore. The consumer has the capability [to create] any kind of story around the brand [and share it].”

If owning their narrative matters to brands, so does intellectual property. Co-creation opens new opportunities for brands to generate revenue. Whitney-Vernon contrasts: “With product integration, the brand doesn’t own any of the rights to the content and is just renting the space.” The possibility of generating revenue from content adds additional incentive for brands to invest in collaborations with storytellers.

Creating content that generates multiple revenue streams

Brand content collaborations can open multiple revenue streams ― content sales for the production team and brand as well as product or service sales are obvious ones. Not to mention advertising revenue for broadcasters or platforms when they are included in a collaboration (or acquire the content to broadcast or stream it).

Speaking of broadcasters and streamers: Collaborating with them can help unlock additional insights about their audiences, which producers can harness to develop highly engaging content. That’s why producers working on branded entertainment such as Shaftesbury are looking to deepen their relationship with broadcasters. “Broadcasters have a wonderful way of delivering new content […] and best practices on what engages their audiences,” Whitney-Vernon explains.

Short-form travel series ‘For Glowing Hearts’ was recently developed by Destination Canada and Bell Media. Through research, the team realized that travelers seek more than new scenery or culture ― they want to be transformed. The series leveraged talent from Bell Media’s programming and premiered on Bell Media specialty channels, then made its way onto Crave and elsewhere online.

What’s in it for entertainment producers ― other than a sale? Terms of deals between brands and creators, and even broadcast partners, vary from one project to the next. Such a collaboration, however, should be an opportunity to structure a deal that benefits all parties involved. Creators, for instance, could negotiate a commission on a brand’s sales over a definite period.

Access to more — sometimes global — resources

In addition to offering funding and insights, brand partners can connect producers to other resources that can support their projects.

How does guaranteed marketing exposure at no cost sound? Brands can provide promotional support through owned and paid platforms such as product packaging, in-store displays, their websites and social media. Integrations into a brand’s influencer and media buy strategies are also possible. After all, the promotion of co-created content is much more engaging than a direct sales push. And in the case of global brands, the promotional value they can offer is all the more reason for broadcasters or OTT platforms to invest.

Lastly, brands can also leverage their relationships with other organizations  that can provide production support at all stages of a project, from shooting footage to developing marketing material.

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