January 14, 2022

Digital Marketing Education

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What brands can learn about product placement following Peloton’s ‘Sex and the City’ appearance

Know the details

Context matters, and experts say marketers should find out as much information ahead of time even for placements they don’t pay for. Brands want to make sure their guidelines are being met by the appearance—an automotive brand, for example, will want to make sure its vehicle is being driven the right way and that there is no alcohol in those scenes.

“Always have a contract in place—it’s a simple one,” advises David Miller, assistant professor of management at George Mason University’s School of Business and the author of upcoming “Sweating Together,” a book about Peloton’s rise.

In many cases, including Peloton’s, a brand only has grounds to pursue legal action if the actual usage of the product is not its intended use, according to Schmidt. She said most big studios, including HBO Max, have clearance teams in place that have an understanding of what appropriate usage is.

Consider a representative

Agencies like BEN serve as intermediaries that act on the brand’s behalf, making sure their interests are represented with any placement deals. BEN’s Schmidt said her shop has recently seen “an influx” of brands looking for representation and help with navigating the space. Such agencies act as a “protector” for brands, and work with show producers on storylines to ensure the brand is represented properly.

Rob Donnell, whose former agency Brand Arc worked with Toyota on its successful “Modern Family” integrations, said that at their best, product placements can help further the story and define characters.

“It’s really incumbent upon the agencies helping the brand to take the brand down the right path and realize what their potential could be,” he said.

The rise of streaming is one reason that talent agency UTA is seeking to bolster its brand consultancy business by acquiring MediaLink, which has ties to chief marketing officers.

Read more: What MediaLink’s deal with UTA means for advertisers and agencies.

Ensure authenticity

Brands should remember that viewers can sniff out bad integrations. An authentic, seamless placement serves both the marketer and the media show. Nearly a decade ago, many criticized a Subway product placement on “Hawaii Five-O” as “shameless” for including a blatant monologue about the sandwich chain. Such a story is a cautionary tale, experts say.

“It’s never been about just showing yourself or just getting your logo out there or your name mentioned—there are probably more examples of bad brand integrations than good ones,” said Donnell. “People know easily when it’s too overt and I don’t think people actually mind seeing brands in stuff,” he added, noting that blurred out logos or labels turned away from the camera have more of a distracting, unrealistic effect.

Schmidt said marketers need to remain “authentic to the storytelling.” She noted that  “there are those moments where it’s cringe-worthy and feels you’re being taken out of this moment.”

Be prepared

Peloton’s experience provides a lesson for brands to always be ready for anything to happen. The fitness purveyor was fortunate to have an existing relationship with Reynolds’ agency and an opportunity for its new “fast-vertising” offering, but other marketers should expect to react if they know their product will be used in media. The brand had to act equally fast when the allegations against Noth surfaced, and it wasted no time in pulling the ad, saying it was unaware of them when the ad was made.

Digital ads are often the perfect channel to reach social media followers quickly and broadcast the brand’s perspective. Like Peloton, Crockpot found itself in a nonideal situation when its product was linked to the death of a main, and well-liked, character on “This Is Us” two years ago. The slow cooker maker worked with network NBC on potential follow-ups, including a public apology video by the actor, leading to a #CrockPotIsInnocent trending hashtag and an eventual boost in consumer perception.

“This is how modern marketing should go and Peloton’s strategic reaction was just perfect,” said Sukki Yoon, professor of marketing at Bryant University’s College of Business. “It’s very forward-looking marketing.”

Capitalize where you can

One of the biggest integration success stories experts cite is that of Eggo, when the Kellogg Co. waffle brand appeared on Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” Eggo made the most of a first season appearance, which brand executives were unaware of beforehand, by playing up the second season with initiatives including a branded spoiler blocker on Google Chrome, recipes tied to each episode, Eggo-box costumes and an Eggo waffle truck at the season premiere. Eggo worked with Netflix in a more official capacity for the second season, which it boosted with its own marketing. Experts said such ideas, including more traditional advertising with teasers on social media for example, are a smart strategy that build buzz. Such content plays are a new business opportunity for ad agencies, talent agencies and other marketing vendors–which are all fighting to claim such work from brands that must find new ways to reach consumers beyond traditional ads. 

“You don’t want to just let the integration hang out there by itself,” said Donnell. “You want to do as much around it as possible to make it as big as it can be.”

See Ad Age’s 2021 Marketers of the Year here.