By David Ward
A scene from Hulu's new horror series Into the Dark features a strategically placed neon sign for Miller Lite. Hulu and MillerCoors inked a deal earlier this year to include beer placements in four original TV series, as brands look for creative new ways to reach viewers of streaming, ad-free programming. Hulu/YouTube
It wasn't that long ago that product placement was viewed as a luxury for marketers, who would pay up for the opportunity to have their product appear in a movie scene or TV show for a few precious seconds.
But as consumers' entertainment consumption patterns continue to change dramatically, a growing number of brands and organizations are starting to look at product placement in a new light, fueled by integrated marketing and more and more affordable programming options.
Stacy Jones, CEO of influencer and product placement agency Hollywood Branded, says she's seen a big uptick in inquiries from companies that are interested in learning how to leverage product placement to raise brand awareness and drive sales.
"Obviously, a big driver is the fact that ad skipping is a reality across all viewing platforms," Jones says. "But what is truly driving marketers to take notice is all of the content opportunities that their core target audiences are watching that don't have traditional advertising options, namely Netflix and Amazon."
Product placement is also emerging as a great equalizer because brands large and small can now gain sustained, cost-effective national exposure with the right product placed in the right entertainment setting.
"By being recognized by fans in some of their favorite TV shows and movies, product placement helps our brand to make an association in the mind of the consumer with their favorite show and also helps validate the importance and popularity of the brand," says Jack Walker, VP of marketing at seasonings, hot sauce, dinner mix, and fry batters brand Slap Ya Mama Cajun Products, which works with Placed4Success on product placement opportunities. "That is something you cannot find in other forms of marketing."
Multiple Paths for Product Placement
In many ways, product placement is a bit of a split market. On one side are the the high-profile, multimillion dollar deals between brands and movie studios, networks, and major production companies, that can result in, for example, a specific car or smartphone brand being highlighted throughout the latest blockbuster action movie or popular network or cable TV series.
"For the broadcast networks, product placement — or in their terms, 'brand integration,' — is often included in upfront [advertising] conversations when marketers are first making their ad-buying decisions," Jones says. She's quick to add: "Brands that are only looking at those big ad spends or want to go into one really big partnership are going to end up paying more money at the end of the day."
"Product placement also has that celebrity influencer component to it. A major star in a major show who's grabbing one of your products will stick in a viewer's mind."
— John Fluke, owner and CEO of Placed4Success
On the streaming services side, companies such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu are providing brands with product placement opportunities in their premium ad-free content, with deals such as the one Hulu signed with MillerCoors to include its beer brands in four original series: Ramy, Into the Dark, The Act, and the reboot of Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Yet marketers with limited budget and/or niche audiences should consider daily, weekly, or monthly programming opportunities. These deals, which involve both fee-based and no-fee product-for-placement deals, are generally executed by a small set of veteran product placement specialty companies in New York and Los Angeles. "It's definitely 'inside Hollywood' in that it's a very small world that's not easy to break into because it's all about relationships," Jones says.
While these type of buys involve pay-to-play fees, many opportunities arise simply because the TV series wants the show to look authentic with products that their characters are likely to use or refer to, says John Fluke, owner and CEO of Placed4Success.
Fluke, whose brand clients include Tito's Handmade Vodka, Slap Ya Mama Cajun Products, and Rebel Green, a line of natural household cleaning products, adds: "You need to be tight with the set decorators, prop masters, art designers, and set designers, from discussions regarding the pilot, pre-pilot, pre-production, and all the way through post-production. When The Big Bang Theory was on, we were on the set pretty much every day, dropping off product and meeting with the set designers and writers."
Because so many producers and other behind-the-scenes professionals strive for continuity in both their sets and the products on those sets, brand managers can't just dip their toes periodically into the space and settle for one-offs.
Beth Bell, founder and president of Green Product Placement, which specializes in eco-friendly brand placements, stresses that marketers must be patient when executing product placement strategy. "It's a long game," she says. "Post-production and project release take much longer than online, social, or print. The brands that have had the most success keep at it for years."
Audio Versus Video Product Placement
Product placements, especially verbal product mentions, are associated with a boost in online conversations and website traffic, according to a study released earlier this year by Beth Fossen, assistant marketing professor at Indiana University, and David Schweidel, marketing professor in the Goizueta Business School at Emory University.
The study examined nearly 3,000 product placements for 99 brands during the fall 2015 television season. "What we found was that verbal product placement was just as effective as the integrated audio-visual placement," Schweidel says. "Whereas the visual-only placement, the passing screen shot, those were the ones that really didn't move the needle."
Audio placements are a growing consideration because many viewers are consuming TV content while also having one eye on their smartphone, laptop, or tablet. Schweidel stresses that the more obvious product screen shots are often seen by viewers as overt brand marketing. "With audio only, where the character is mentioning a product, that's part of the entertainment programming," he says.
Jones, from Hollywood Branded, says that verbal mentions are likely to be fee-based, suggesting that the best approach is to integrate verbal and visual product placement into a TV show or movie whenever possible.
"With Bumble on Riverdale, we crafted that to build the brand into the storyline to reflect the messaging the brand wanted to get across," Jones says. "We also worked to have a visual of the Bumble app in use."
Measuring Product Placement Marketing
There are media/brand monitoring services, such as Concave Brand Tracking and Critical Mention, that can track product mentions across all platforms, as well as help marketers analyze how a product placement impacted brand awareness and gauge the impression left with consumers.
But Vatche Arabian, senior manager, strategic communications at FLIR Systems, which makes thermal imaging/night vision infrared cameras, says that when it comes to the metrics of product placement, it's crucial to remember that not all placements are created equal. "We look at many different things: first how much exposure did we get, and how did the quality of it compare to others," he says.
Arabian says product placement metrics go way beyond box office receipts or other entertainment performance measurements. For instance, a prominent placement of several of FLIR's hand-held thermal imaging cameras in a summer action blockbuster, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, was used as a promotional trailer clip across social channels. "Not only did this give us a chance to use the actual clip from the film of a very high-profile placement, but we found that it was shared across networks and media outlets like Entertainment Weekly," he says.
Though its products are sometimes used by consumers, FLIR is primarily a B2B company. But Arabian says product placement in movies, like Sicario: Day of the Soldado and Rampage, and TV shows, including CBS's SEAL Team, Netflix's Ozark, NBC's Chicago PD, and HBO's Silicon Valley, can raise the brand's profile for potential commercial-application clients as well as buyers in the government and defense sectors. "With our product placement program, we've partnered with over 80 different Hollywood movies and TV shows, receiving over 180 confirmed exposures for FLIR, and reaching over one billion viewers through the content they enjoy watching," he says.
However, for many brands, the default for product placement measurement is social media channels. "Social media is a core focus and product placement, or exposure, just adds to this strategy," says Laurie Shaw, COO at the Coffee Beanery coffee shop chain, which works with Hollywood Branded on its product placement executions, such as a Coffee Beanery kiosk that was featured in several scenes in Universal Pictures' 2019 film comedy Little. "We choose films and projects that align with our values and of course demographics, where we currently have customers or want to build brand awareness."
Though most of the Coffee Beanery franchises are east of the Mississippi, Shaw says product placement gives the brand national awareness. "We definitely have quite a few customers from California, which can be attributed to our being involved in films," she says.
Melina Marcus, co-owner and co-founder of Rebel Green, says the benefits of an effective product placement go well beyond marketing. "We can see a difference on the initial sales pitch when we have a face-to-face meeting with a distributor or store buyer," she says. "When we tell them casually, for example, 'You might have caught our products in Sheldon's kitchen in The Big Bang Theory last week,' they are impressed, in spite of themselves, and you can see their faces light up."
When measuring the impact of product placement, Placed4Success's Fluke says brands also need to factor in the long tail of these marketing programs, given that many films and TV shows live on for years in syndication, streaming services, and even DVDs. And, unlike TV commercials, product placements can't be edited out or skipped over. "Product placement also has that celebrity influencer component to it," Fluke adds. "A major star in a major show who's grabbing one of your products will stick in a viewer's mind."
Targeted Product Placement Strategies
It's easy for marketers to overlook that entertainment content is branding, not realizing that product placement can be a way for movie and TV producers to shape how their products are perceived by viewers.
Bell, from Green Product Placement, says more production companies are now looking at including environmentally friendly product placements to drive storylines and help define characters. "As these types of products have grown in terms of mainstream retail shelf space and consumer use, there's a feeling that that should be reflected on-screen," Bell says.
These more targeted opportunities are increasing just as the amount of entertainment content now available to consumers has exploded, with a seemingly endless amount of marketing vehicles via traditional broadcast networks, cable TV, movie theaters, and the growing number of video-on-demand and streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix.
"Right now, we're on content overload," Jones says. "The OTT platforms do create more opportunities, but there's just so much that it can be hard to know what's going to be great and what's not going to be great." She adds that she reads tens of thousands of scripts and tries to think like an entertainment executive when evaluating what might be good for her brand clients.
Bell agrees. "Be somewhat choosy, but not too choosy. Utilize opportunities to send samples to hair and makeup or crafts services for an extra opportunity to build brand fans," she says. "And make sure you have some great-looking cleared advertising that can be used onscreen, so even if your product is not needed, maybe they need that brand's ad for a bus ad, for example."
Brands should also realize that many productions need the products as much as the brand needs the placement, because those products can save them hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout a TV season or film production. "Money doesn't always have to change hands between the brand and the production company," Fluke says. "If you give them a product and they put it on the air, it cuts down their production costs."
Even with myriad opportunities, Jones points out that a heavy-handed strategy will inevitably backfire. "We typically seek ways to make the brand partnership very organic and streamlined," she says. "When the scene ends up being focused entirely around the brand, and it becomes the center of the conversation, things can go awry and just too much in your face."