Corporate sponsorship isn’t new. The active production of “branded content”, however, is a somewhat new phenomenon.
Broadway Joe on Broadway, brought to you by Dow Chemical, may have never happened, but today’s brands are bringing you everything else. And it isn’t just about slapping on the Coca Cola logo on American Idol. It’s Whole Foods developing a 20-part half-hour series called Dark Rye, featuring anyone from artists seeking social justice to entrepreneurs rebuilding Detroit. It’s Intel partnering with Vice to produce the Creators Project, an initiative that makes art happen with technology (from Intel); it’s Samsung getting Jay Z to drop his album exclusively through its phones; it’s Red Bull being as much a sports drink peddler as a media giant.
Those may have been previously expensed as marketing costs, but these initiatives are becoming rightful brand extensions in themselves, and is perhaps the future of content. Is it good for the creative industry and brands that rely on them for the associations it brings? The economics, on the face of it, seem sound – the marginal cost of distributing a cultural good is low, but the fixed costs in creating one can be high, either because the thing is expensive to make, or the labor involved demands a high wage (i.e. Jay Z). Giant corporate behemoths can come in and be a source of income and technical support to the otherwise starving artists and storytellers. Naturally we are also faced with brands possibly chasing the lowest common denominator for the widest appeal.
Or not. Consider Netflix, who collected enough data (the Atlantic has a great read on this) on its audience to engineer its way to the award-winning/crowd-pleasing content: House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Brought to you by Netflix, first a distributor, and now a media company. As Dow Chemical shall be, some day.