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Can you explain how branded content partnerships occur between narrative content creators and brands?

Most branded content partnerships come as a result of deals and pitches between brands/agencies and narrative outlets like networks and streaming platforms, who receive proposal requests from brands on what they’re looking for. Sometimes brands/agencies might reach out to a network or show that they already think aligns well with their brand. Another big source of branded content comes from “Upfronts,” which are big presentations that every network creates each year for advertisers that explains what they offer, their new and returning shows, the stats and demos they reach, and what opportunities brands have to partner throughout the year across their platforms.

Branded content offers content creators money, first and foremost. It’s a revenue stream, a way to capitalize on the audience that has been built in a (hopefully!) tasteful, authentic way in order to fund more narrative content. But brands have been making branded content since the dawn of mass media. The soap operas of the 50s were named such because they were funded by brands like P&G, who made household cleaning products. 

At the end of the day, a traditional branded content piece has the ability to entertain and market products or services, but cause-based marketing has the power to actually change the world.

With audiences being as savvy as they are now, and with so much high-quality content to choose from, brands really have to work harder to be the content versus interrupting the content, which is where branded content comes in. The holy grail is to match a brand and a distribution platform (or network, or show) that shares the values and demographics to make a more targeted message that appeals to that specific audience with something relevant and entertaining.

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Food Network – Playing with Fire

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IHOP – Tiny

How do you match up ongoing and big-name narratives, like movies, with brands?

Well in this case the movies ARE the brand. Just like a traditional advertiser, they are looking for a targeted audience to get the message out about their movie so people come to watch it. And to be honest, it’s a more complicated process with movies and we’re really just the end result of the chain. The deals are made between the distribution outlets and the movie studios (in our case Sony and Disney-Pixar). 

If [brands] ultimately want consumers to believe in and purchase their products, they need to connect with them on a deeper level, past the straight sell. 

The studios work with the marketing teams to do a media spend and ideate on content that aligns with the particular network and the movie – which is the most basic definition of successful branded content. It’s not a broad movie trailer that plays everywhere, it’s a targeted piece of content that integrates the themes, voice, and (in some cases) the talent of a network with the themes, voices,  and (in some cases) talent from the movie. We help at the ideation phase, but most primarily at the execution phase when it’s time to make something.

Discovery Channel – Terminator

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How do ideas for branded content form? Do you pitch an idea or do you brainstorm with a team after some commitment? 

Ideas come from everywhere, and they’re usually the result of a team effort. But all of our ideas snowball from years of being fans of pop culture, being inspired by the great work of others, constantly searching for inspiration, and taking ALL of that in the context of who the program and advertiser are, who our audience is, and how we can best reach them.

With audiences being as savvy as they are now, and with so much high-quality content to choose from, brands really have to work harder to be the content versus interrupting the content.

In most cases, the project comes from the network, and we start thinking once the content pitch is sold and we know the parameters. TBS came to us with Onward already attached, wanting to make something custom. From there, we brainstormed away. Since Onward was a movie with a heavy 80s vibe that matched well with the TBS audience, we thought it’d be fun to make an 80s rock ballad summarizing the key points of the film for something irreverent that would stand out. We pitched a bunch of other ideas too, but we were glad this one stuck. It’s been an earworm in our head ever since.


Do you consider social positioning when working with partnerships - are there some matchups that initially seem misaligned? 

Our clients do a great job of aligning brands to their programming/content, so we really just work to make the absolute best branded content we can from the parameters we’re given. But it is super important to make sure the match is a good one, that’s really the secret formula for making the most successful partnerships. We spend a lot of time outside of a normal workflow helping relevant brands and distributors come together for shared opportunities.

Inspire A Difference – Inspire a Difference

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The work you did for Jumanji spanned five media networks! How does a massive partnership like that come about? 

That came to us already sold in from various partnerships Sony made with Discovery and Viacom networks, who they work with a lot. We’ve had great relationships with both Sony and Discovery/Viacom for years, so they approached us to help bring these ideas to life – building a big jungle set to house the biggest stars from the movie and network together in one place. The resulting content was so successful because it really tapped into the best of both the movie and the show, and I think audiences enjoyed seeing The Rock and Joe Kenda from ID together in one place, getting the fans of Discovery networks excited about seeing Jumanji.

Discovery Channel – Jumanji

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Can brands ever successfully position themselves within the cultural spheres of media-making, or is that disingenuous?

Absolutely, but they have to be very subtle and authentic. Anything too branded or sales-y will be rejected in force, especially on social media and in the dreaded comments section. But I think audiences are completely open and welcoming of good stories and captivating content, whether a brand is funding it or not. We’ve done a lot of work in the cause marketing/prosocial space, where brands tell stories of real people making a difference in their communities and call attention to these projects and initiatives. In this case, the brand is very minimal, maybe just a logo at the end, and the rest is just a good story. Those have really resonated with nothing but love from people around the world. And the same can be true with funny or dramatic narrative content funded by a brand, the work just has to be authentic and relevant.

Brands have been making branded content since the dawn of mass media. The soap operas of the 50s were named such because they were funded by brands like P&G, who made household cleaning products. 

How can brands engage with culture responsibly? What responsibility to brands have to do so? 

The responsibility brands have really correlate to their bottom line. If they ultimately want consumers to believe in and purchase their products, they need to connect with them on a deeper level, past the straight sell. They need to make content that represents their audience and the issues they care about, the dreams they have, the anxieties they share. If they do that, they’ll be accepted, and there’s no limit to the content they can make and the change they can create.

Red Robin – Upworthy

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What would be a “dream” narrative media to partner with? Animal Crossing? Taika Waititi’s latest? Tiger King?

Oh man, we’ve had so many dream partnerships already (some mentioned above) building a tiny house of pancakes, telling a long-form documentary on Nat Geo about the benefits of botanicals around the world, test-driving (read: crashing) a custom Terminator-inspired ATV through an obstacle course we built, having the stars of Playing with Fire compete in a Food Network cooking competition, helping kids learn to design cupcakes based on their favorite kung-fu animated character, we’ve been really lucky. 

We also get a tremendous amount of joy in making cause marketing and prosocial content where the branding is usually very subtle. This allows us tell the story we want to tell without much of anything getting in the way, and the results are so powerful. We’ve done this for a few years, such as it was showcasing the men and women who’ve left a life of crime and dedicated it to the protection of the communities that need it most (Upworthy and The CW's Black Lightning) or helping ID launch their cause-marketing content platform, Inspire a Difference, which showcases their talent and everyday people leading the fight against social injustices. 

We think the need for this type of socially engaged content (through audience demand and brand initiatives) will only continue to increase and we always hope to make a difference through these partnerships. At the end of the day, a traditional branded content piece has the ability to entertain and market products or services, but cause-based marketing has the power to actually change the world.

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