The smartest marketers are getting with the programme

Advertising-funded TV programming offers marketers a unique way to convey brand values through content that the target market will actively seek out, says Mark White

Branded content has created a buzz recently, receiving renewed focus and interest from the advertising community. Partly in response to the growing enthusiasm for branded content, and partly to demonstrate the influence that television advertising still commands, Thinkbox, the TV marketing body launched in February, recently published a best-practice guide to branded content, or advertiser-funded programming (AFP).

Branded content has long been an available route to engage and entertain TV audiences. Many advertisers have been taking advantage of its potential for some time – Gillette World Sport, produced by Sunset & Vine, has been running for 18 years and is transmitted in 200 countries worldwide.

The threat of ad avoidance has simply emphasised what we have always known to be true – consumers want to be entertained, whether by programming or by advertising. Consumers are also demanding more complex, high-quality viewing experiences. The rise of cognitively demanding dramas such as 24, which overlays multiple complex storylines, illustrates that today’s viewers expect a great deal more from their televisual experience.

AFP offers advertisers the opportunity to reflect this evolution in audience expectations through their content. AFP can be described as “any means by which an advertiser can have a deeper relationship with programming output”. But put another way, AFP can do everything that programme sponsorship does for a brand – and considerably more.

Sponsorship and AFP work for brands in similar ways. Both align a brand’s values with something that people are interested in – solid TV programming. Done well, this association can be deployed to achieve a variety of brand objectives: from enhancing, reinforcing or shifting brand image to launching new products. There are numerous examples where the on-air credits have been the first step towards creating a dialogue with an audience both off-air and through other platforms. In essence, it is about combining the brand- building strengths of TV, entertainment, loyalty generated by programming and relevant below-the-line communications to create a strong communication package.

So how does branded content add value to TV sponsorship and why should an advertiser consider it?

Well, it’s certainly true that TV sponsorship opportunities are in great demand. But by co-creating its own programming, a company can exclude its competitors, avoid a bidding war for existing programming and make sure that its branded content activities fit neatly into the marketing cycle, rather than rearranging its agenda to fit the availability of suitable programming. The longer lead times in the development of branded content programming also mean that marketers have more time to plan and budget for their through-the-line communications.

Beyond these benefits, there are additional opportunities for advertisers, from title rights to exclusive off-air content creation to integrated credits and franchise creation. All of these things have the potential to make AFP a strategic vehicle for a brand, whereas TV sponsorship, with a few notable exceptions, is often tactical.

This is all very well in theory but, as a marketer keen to explore the possibilities offered by gaining truly intrusive access to your target market, where should you start?

First, be aware that branded content is not product placement or editorial about a brand. It is focused on portraying the brand’s values, aligned through programme content, or through association with the demographic target market – or, ideally, both.

It is also worth remembering that any show will have to fit within a programme director’s vision of their current, or future, schedule. So it is vital to do your homework, or better still work with either a commissioning editor (programme controller) or a production company well versed in making TV that hits the spot.

With respect to funding, TV shows have the potential to be fully or partly paid for by the advertiser, but all broadcasters work differently. An understanding of the different commissioning and commercial practices of individual broadcasters is required in order to achieve the best results. Often, the most sensible way to approach this is to develop the programme idea first and then discuss the business terms.

Lastly, it is vital to ensure that AFP is just one part of a holistic marketing approach. It is possible to really maximise return on investment by using the power generated by the core programme to deliver off-air value. This final but crucial point enables customers of TV to get the most out of AFP’s incredible potential to engage a target market and create a meaningful relationship through content strongly aligned to a brand’s values. v

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