Jul 14, 2023

Your brand is Barbie

Everyone is talking about the new Barbie movie, and like most producers in Hollywood, on opening weekend, I expect to be watching the box office returns with envy. Brand marketers will be watching, too. Most will be thinking, “Mattel is so lucky. They have a product that lends itself to entertainment. I wish we could do this for our brand.”

But they can.

The relationship between traditional advertisers and consumers has changed, dramatically. For decades, commercials were a necessary evil, something a consumer had to endure in order to watch Friends or a football game. Sometimes, the commercials were even entertaining. Now, new generations are trained to skip them, or pay to avoid them.

My company, Sugar23, has been producing films and TV series and managing talent since 2017. Over the past year, my colleagues and I have begun communicating directly with brands. 

Every marketer we speak with recognizes that it’s time for a change. But so many are stuck in a bloated, stale methodology relying on traditional 30-second spots, DTC marketing, and sponsorships. Brand marketing budgets are shrinking rapidly and returns are diminishing. And change is hard. 

The new opportunity is for brands to co-create—and consequently, own—the entertainment they have historically interrupted. And create a profit center rather than a pure expense. 

Marketers spend billions putting their names on stadiums, race car hoods, and sports jerseys. They (rightly) know that if they are part of the relationship the audience has to the content, the brand will get value for it. Crypto.com reportedly paid $700 million to put its name on a building in 2021. But it doesn’t tell the Lakers how to play their games, or which uniforms to wear. Busch Light doesn’t tell its Nascar drivers which oil to use. The brands simply author the experience the consumer has with that content. But why does this paradigm not apply to film and television shows? It should. And, as we’re starting to learn, it can.

Our first effort was a documentary series called The Turning Point, coproduced by Trevor Noah, Time Studios, and—here’s the twist—P&G. The show landed on MSNBC. It looks like a Hollywood studio made it, not a global consumer product company. In fact, there was no product placement or reference to P&G products anywhere near the show. It simply connected with the value set of the corporation. 

I speak with A-list talent, athletes, and musicians regularly, who are eager to engage with this model. No movie star ever woke up, called their agent, and begged to do a deodorant commercial. But in this model, the brands are creating paths for celebrities to do the things they want to do, because our model is not branded content. It’s entertainment, paid for by brands. 

We already know that entertainment has the power to shift consumer behavior. This usually happens by accident. The chess industry boomed after The Queen’s Gambit made its move. Could any marketing campaign for any stakeholder in the chess industry have been more effective than this show was? My childhood favorite, Back to the Future, inadvertently launched the skateboarding industry into the stratosphere. Drive to Survive drove masses of new consumers to F-1. On the flip side, Merlot suffered when Paul Giamatti’s character proclaimed it was undrinkable. 

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