Last month I joined over 3,000 delegates at the PromaxBDA event in Los Angeles. We were there to learn from the finest talent from Hollywood, Burbank and beyond, and there was much to inspire marketers who wouldn’t define their brands, first and foremost, with the word “entertainment”.
Here are 7 thoughts that stood out across the three days of conference sessions, panels and workshops.
1. Understand your North Star and make it work for you
Senior marketers on a panel discussion featuring four diverse TV-centric brands – Hallmark Channel, Nickelodeon, Food Network and Syfy – were united in demonstrating how they stayed true to their core brand propositions.
Susanne McAvoy, EVP Marketing from Hallmark, showed how she and her team had identified their brand’s “North Star” – emotional storytelling. It was at its most potent during the run-up to Christmas and McAvoy reinforced how creatively they had worked with diverse partners to strengthen their proposition with viewers. Examples ranged from a virtual reality rollercoaster at a Six Flags theme park to a new Guinness World Record for illuminated Christmas trees, and a float in the Macy’s Christmas Parade featuring a 90-year-old Tony Bennett crooning with Miss Piggy. These entertaining brand partnerships reinforced Hallmark as ‘The Heart of TV’ at a time of year when this claim was most in tune with how people were feeling, in a way traditional advertising or on-air promotion would have struggled to do.
2. Adopt a viral mindset
Next, a contrarian view from James Percelay of the viral marketing agency Thinkmodo: ask first how you can be entertaining and only then attach the message. A contrarian view because decades of conventional marketing wisdom says the place to start should be rigorous market and consumer analysis followed by insightful strategic planning leading to a clear brief before creative development starts. Percelay challenged us to think differently. The content has to be entertaining first and, he asserted, its success in gaining media coverage (with no media buy) is likely to be in inverse proportion to the number of product points crammed in (ideally none at all).
Proof this approach can work came in the form of several case studies that garnered acres of news coverage and millions of views across the globe. A campaign to promote Verizon’s smart driving app, Hum, saw a Jeep transformed into a vehicle that would lift 9 feet in the air to drive over cars in a traffic jam, while Thinkmodo built a “golf hovercraft” for Bubba Watson to promote his association with Oakley. This is a very different form of marketing but think about how you could apply it to your brand.
3. Make your content relatable
Echoing James Percelay’s thinking, the team at NBC’s iconic late night comedy show Saturday Night Live claimed brand integrations with the highest levels of impact come from entertaining content based on human truths, citing the content they created across six seasons for Subaru’s integration with comedy sketch show Portlandia. A great example is No You Go in which the two central characters send up the sometimes over-friendly nature of Pacific Northwesterners as their cars meet at an intersection. Reflecting truths about both the Portland setting of the show and the Subaru brand enabled the SNL creative and production team at Broadway Video to build for Subaru “a personality I like”, which for them is the key to branded content success.
4. If you’re tackling a social issue, be authentic
Not surprisingly there was quite a bit of discussion in LA about “Kendallgate” – Pepsi’s well-intended but ultimately disastrous use of Kendall Jenner in a TV spot aimed at linking the brand with social justice protests. Pepsi found sympathy on a panel discussion about the rise of in-house creative studios, featuring representatives from Marriott Hotels and yogurt brand Chobani, since the Kendall Jenner spot was the work of Pepsi’s own much-heralded content studio Creators League. However, the consensus was the mistake was not that they were brave enough to tackle a social issue but they made the product the solution. As the Planner Martin Weigel argues in a recent blog post, if a business wants us to believe it’s driven by a world-changing purpose we need to look beyond its advertising for evidence.
5. Foster creative conflict but don’t make it personal
What can the very best teams in the US entertainment industry, measured by recent award-winning success – FX Networks, CNN and National Geographic – teach the rest of us about how to make it work?
In a lively panel discussion, there was loud agreement that the best creative groups have cultures in which argument and debate are encouraged, but only if directed at creative ideas and concepts, not people. Stephanie Gibbons, head of marketing at FX Networks, mentioned a Harvard Business Review article about the creative process (I think it must have been this one). One of the key points was creative teams need to work in a safe space in which disagreement and criticism are OK so long as the shared goal is to make the creative work as good as possible.
(Incidentally, Charlie Mawer and I write a lot more about the excellence of FX Networks in our book The TV Brand Builders – How to Win Audiences and Influence Viewers).
6. Get more women behind the camera
Diversity was a major thread of this year’s conference and Dr Stacy Smith from USC presented a convincing case not just for the scandalous underrepresentation of female directors in Hollywood but for the creative advantages they can bring. When women are behind the camera, the USC study demonstrated, more girls or women end up being depicted on screen (including more over the age of 40), more stories featuring women are told, more racial/ethnic groups are represented and more women are hired in key production roles. This feels important for all brands and their agencies, not just those in the entertainment sector. As an agency with over half of our creative and production teams represented by women, at Red Bee we feel we’re on the right track at least.
7. Never underestimate the power of emotion
Finally, another key point from the panel discussion featuring the three best in-house teams in US TV, this time from CNN’s VP Creative Marketing Whit Friese. It was notable that he referred instinctively to CNN as an “entertainment” brand (which emphasizes the fact the descriptor can apply to all content brands competing for audiences) and underlined the importance of emotion in connecting with people, even for a news outlet. As evidence of that, CNN’s multi-awarded image spot Why We Go was just one of several powerful campaigns that led to CNN being named Global Marketing Team of the Year. Coming in a week in which we were reminded by the brilliant researchers at System1 of the power of emotion in shaping our decisions about who to vote for, it was a timely reminder that if a piece of content doesn’t stir the emotions in some way it’s unlikely to have a positive impact, whether in the entertainment sector or beyond.
Our core belief at Red Bee is that brands that entertain have a competitive edge and the PromaxBDA conference in LA provided yet more inspiration for non-media brands from the masters of entertainment marketing.