Branded entertainment gets a bad rep when it’s more promotional plug than entertaining distraction. But when it’s done well, you get content that connects with consumers in the best way possible — creating goodwill for a company while selling goods at the same time.
The nudge to buy something is what good advertising is supposed to do. But when it comes to branded entertainment, the best examples in 2013 saw marketers take a more casual approach and embrace the soft sell. They’ve learned what works in movies and on TV and put storytelling to good use.
They had to. There are too many distractions now and consumers have itchy trigger fingers with their DVR remotes and computer mouses, ready to hit the skip-ad-button. But the chance to experience a good story and pass it on? Turns out there’s always time for that no matter who’s telling the tale.
Here are some of the year’s best brand-backed standouts (in no particular order):
VOLVO’S “EPIC SPLIT” WITH JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME
Views: More than 65 million
Popular on Variety
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Volvo Trucks are surprising bedfellows after the Muscles from Brussels used two moving trucks to perform his signature split. Volvo Trucks already had entertained viewers with a series of surprisingly captivating stunts (in one, a hamster is used to ascend the edge of a cliff). But the campaign took on a life of its own when JCVD helped the effort go viral.
The point, of course, wasn’t to sell tractor trailers to average consumers; it was to build up a brand in a segment the way John Deere or Caterpillar have among people who will never drive their vehicles. But the JCVD stunt will now likely also benefit Volvo’s more traditional car division, making it cooler among younger consumers who may have never thought of checking out the brand before.
WILL FERRELL’S RON BURGUNDY PITCHES DODGE’S DURANGO
Views: More than 21 million
When it comes to SUVs, Dodge’s Durango wasn’t on most buyers’ minds. But “Anchorman 2’s” Ron Burgundy changed that almost singlehandedly, with Will Ferrell playing the over-the-top newscaster in 70 spots for the SUV. The stunt worked, boosting Durango sales by more than 40% this year. But take note: This could only be done with a star willing to put in the time to help a brand — rare when studios broker promotional partnerships around their films.
CHIPOTLE PUTS FEAR IN PROCESSED FOOD
Views: More than 11.7 million
Chipotle’s haunting “The Scarecrow,” developed with CAA Marketing, poignantly put a spotlight on processed food with an animated short, app-based game and cover of “Pure Imagination” by Fiona Apple that demonstrated how a fast food chain can effectively make customers pause and think about what they’re eating while promoting itself at the same time.
HONDA HELPS SAVE THE DRIVE-IN THEATER
Honda Motor Co. went old school with an effort to save aging drive-in movie theaters unable to upgrade their venues with new digital projectors. The Japanese automaker wound up helping nine theaters across the country and put a spotlight on an area of the exhibition biz that’s become an aging relic but a nostalgic part of car culture.
SAMSUNG GIVES AWAY JAY Z’S ALBUM
In its ongoing quest to topple Apple’s iPhone from the top rungs of the smartphone ladder, Samsung paired up with Jay Z to launch an app and give away 1 million copies of “Magna Carta Holy Grail” to owners of its smartphones 72 hours before the album’s release. The three-day head start may have cost Samsung $5 million (deal is said to be part of an overall $20 million deal with Roc Nation) but the move worked, rewarding Samsung owners and making them seem cool at the same time.
DOVE PUTS FACE ON REAL BEAUTY WITH “BEAUTY SKETCHES”
Views: More than 61 million
In a series of well-produced documentaries, Dove uses a sketch artist to compare the way women view themselves and how others they’ve met do with startling results that prove life changing for not only the subjects but the viewer as well. Improving a customer’s self-image should also help Dove boost its own image with its core audience.
VIRGIN AMERICA REINVENTS THE SAFETY VIDEO
Views: More than 8 million
Virgin America already had established a fun profile for itself when it comes to airlines, with its mood lighting, inflight entertainment options and overall brand personality, but the company, together with Virgin Produced, took things one step further with “VX Safety Dance,” a new safety video that passengers actually want to watch. Directed by Jon M. Chu (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and the “Step Up” dance franchise), the video features dancers performing how to put on your seatbelt and what to do in case of an emergency landing in an energetically innovative way that will surely have other carriers rethinking the way they present their safety procedures to passengers.
COVER GIRL CATCHES “FIRE”
While promotional partners are no stranger to backing tentpole releases, CoverGirl got creative with Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” embracing the film’s marketing efforts that included the launch of faux luxury magazine Capitol Couture and building a series of ads and videos that featured makeup and overall looks themed around each of the book and film’s districts, helping bring Suzanne Collins’ world to life.
AIRLINES OFFER UP THEIR CAPTIVE AUDIENCES TO STUDIOS
Airlines have always had a captive audience on board their planes, but some carriers got a little more creative in how they work with Hollywood to market movies to them. American Airlines, in the midst of revamping its planes with seatback screens and inflight entertainment options, backed the release of Disney’s “Planes,” even featuring an animated version of its new jets in custom-created commercials. Meanwhile, Air New Zealand plastered the dragon Smaug on the side of its planes to promote “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” and Delta Airlines helped promote “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” with ads for the film on its website and other media.
AUDI REVS UP YEAR-ROUND DEALS
When it comes to entertainment, carmakers typically put their marketing dollars around a single summer tentpole, but Audi made sure the German auto brand was associated with top properties year-round, with showy promos in and around “Iron Man 3,” “The Wolverine” and “Ender’s Game,” while also sponsoring the Emmys, AFI Fest and the Toronto Film Festival and hosting events around the Golden Globes and Oscars. It also one-upped Mazda this summer with a humorous short starring the two Spocks around the release of “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Mazda was the film’s official car partner.
Also noteworthy: Infiniti produced “Deja View,” a choose-your-adventure film. Jaguar cast “Homeland’s” Damian Lewis in its own film, “Desire.” Canon gave new filmmakers a push with “Project Imaginat10n.” Doritos put a WWE fan in the ring at “SummerSlam.” And a brand could have generated some buzzworthy goodwill with fans of “Veronica Mars” by picking up the tab when its creator was raising money for a bigscreen version on Kickstarter. The film bows at Sundance.
Forecast: A brand will step up to produce an original series for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or the new videogame consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Carmakers will also generate considerable mileage from high-profile placements in films like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Need for Speed.”