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Inside the Content: Q&A with BEN Chief Product Placement Officer Erin Schmidt

Jordan Kelley, Content Director,

Reese Witherspoon's character exits her Buick in "Big Little Lies"
Reese Witherspoon's character exits her Buick in "Big Little Lies"

Ever since Superman crashed through that Marlboro truck in his epic battle with General Zod in Superman II, films and television have implemented product placement - brands paying for their product to be featured in order for that product to gain exposure. In the lifetime of product placement being commonplace, its favor and effectiveness with audiences has vacillated, leading to various degrees of success. However, in today's current media climate, the timing for product placement has never been better - that is according to the folks at the Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), the Los Angeles Based product placement, influencer marketing, and licensing company.

Brand Storytelling caught up with Chief Product Placement Officer Erin Schmidt to learn more about how product placement has changed to better suit the current media age (and the current consumer), what opportunities for product placement are currently available, and what's in store for the future:

How has product placement in entertainment changed in the last 5 years? What about in just the last year?

The business has changed almost entirely over the past five years, largely driven by the emergence of ad-free streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+, and the availability of better data and more sophisticated measurement tools. What used to be seen as a vanity play by major brands is now a sophisticated marketing strategy being used by companies of every size and across every industry – from emerging digital brands like Chime and Spotify to established stalwarts like General Motors and Frito-Lay. Brands have woken up to the idea that getting inside the content isn’t just the best way to reach audiences who have shifted to streaming or are tuning out during ad-breaks, it’s also the most effective way: the brands we work with are seeing sales lifts of 46% among their target audience as a result of integrations and have seen impressive brand lift as well.

Over the last year, the pace of change has increased rapidly as streaming services take hold. The reality is that every show today is a streaming show. Take an example like the CW show, All American. While the show had about 1.7 million Live+7 impressions when it ran on the network, over its first 30 days on Netflix it received nearly 3.8 million impressions. And those impressions continue to grow month after month on streaming. This shift to streaming should be applauded by brands as it gives them an opportunity to rethink their relationship with both creators and with audiences.

What opportunities are available to content creators and producers of entertainment today that said creators might not even be thinking about?

Creators and producers are realizing more and more that products help them move their stories forward and make their characters and settings more realistic. Product placements need to go beyond simply getting a product on screen – they should take into consideration the moment, the context and the character. A well-executed placement helps the creator define a character or bring a moment to life, while helping the audience immediately relate to the story. It’s disruptive to the viewing experience when you see a character drink a can of unbranded beer or use an unbranded computer. When done right, it seems natural that the family in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel would eat Cheerios or that Ray Donovan would drive a Cadillac. The products these characters use tells you something about them that a generic box or badge never could.

This is even more true today given the current COVID-related protocols in place on productions around the globe. COVID-related measures can add as much as 10% to a total production budget. Producers are turning to brands to help fill this gap and are increasingly open to finding opportunities for products that will help them get their story made in the best way possible.

A box of Cheerios appears in the kitchen in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"
A box of Cheerios appears in the kitchen in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"

How will the post-pandemic production boom affect the amount, variety, and quality of product placement in entertainment?

The effect of productions being on pause for months last year has definitely created a boom in activity at the moment. This is especially true for films. Netflix alone has announced that they will be releasing over 70 films in 2021. That’s 5 to 6 times the distribution of a typical studio in a year! This has resulted in many more small- to mid-size budget films getting produced, and has created an opportunity for more diverse stories and characters to enter our homes and lives. Our research has shown that when stories reflect the diversity of our population, they find an audience. Those stories are also more effective at creating a connection between brands and the audience that is watching. For example, a client whose product was featured in a diverse storyline within the series Love in the Time of Corona showed a 38% higher sales lift among non-white audiences than other viewers – and a 35% sales lift among total viewers for the product overall.

Another area we’ve really seen take off is daytime content. A recent Nielsen study showed that 65% of people working from home say they watch shows or stream video during breaks, and around 50% say they keep their TVs turned on while working. Combined with the increasingly personal appeal of talk show hosts like Drew Barrymore and Kelly Clarkson, these shows aren’t just drawing audiences but also providing brands with an opportunity to feature their products in a manner that is genuine and heartfelt.

What impact does the exponential growth of created content have on measuring the efficacy of brand placement/brand integration?

Product placements can now be measured the same way as any TV or even digital spend. There’s data to measure the impact of placements on everything from brand lift to in-store sales or even visits to a physical location. Our first step in working with a brand is to understand which metrics are most valuable to them, and then we build a solution that fits their needs. This can take different forms for different brands. Some are interested in measuring the impact of a placement on specific brand attributes or on overall brand awareness against specific target audiences. Others are looking to understand how product placements impact visits to their website or product sales. In either situation, tools and data are available to help us measure the value of integrations relative to other forms of marketing spend.

Another way the growth of content has helped bring sophistication to our industry is through artificial intelligence. More shows and movies means there is more data for AI to analyze. We’ve trained AI to use unstructured data from the thousands of shows being created to make predictions about which new shows will perform best. It’s one of the hardest jobs in our business – knowing which new show will be a hit – and our AI has been tackling it with great success. In 2019, our algorithm predicted 10 out of the top 10 new shows on broadcast TV. Even last year, with so much change happening to TV schedules given the pandemic, our algorithm predicted 8 out of the top 10. That type of insight helps brands makes investments with more confidence.

Lizzo enjoys some Flamin' Hot Cheetos in her "Good As Hell" music video
Lizzo enjoys some Flamin' Hot Cheetos in her "Good As Hell" music video

How does the current streaming service model and the half life of the content on those services affect the value and efficiency of spending on brand integrations?

The continued availability of content has brought down the effective cost of product placement significantly. We like to say that integrations are the gift that keeps on giving, because when your brand is inside the content it continues to be seen every time that show is viewed. For example, Cheerios was integrated into a Grace and Frankie season 6 episode that premiered in January 2020. In its first month on Netflix, that episode had 4.4 million impressions. But over the course of a full year, the episode was watched 8.3 million times – nearly double the 30-day total. When season 7 drops we’d expect viewership of season 6 episodes to spike again. Our analysis shows that people go back and watch previous seasons right before a new one is released. Even older integrations keep on giving gifts to Cheerios: one from season 1 of Alexa & Katie that released in March 2018 still accumulated over 3 million impressions for the brand during 2020. This results in CPMs for those integrations that continue to get lower month after month after month.

Another benefit of streaming is that content is available simultaneously around the globe. With Netflix now in over 200 million homes worldwide and Disney+ at 95 million just one year after its launch, brands have the opportunity to reach audiences all over the world with a single investment rather than having to create multiple versions of ad creative in multiple languages supported by market-specific media buys in each territory they want to reach.

TV is everywhere, but where else are you seeing a rise in product placement?

The growth and importance of music video cannot be underestimated. Music videos reach massive, passionate audiences and the importance of artists as tastemakers and trend setters is unquestionable. Brands like Frito-Lay have taken a cross-entertainment approach to product placement, ensuring that their brands are getting in front of ad-averse younger audiences by getting their snacks placed inside everything from Selena Gomez and Lizzo music videos to hit streaming shows like Never Have I Ever and On My Block to influencer content across TikTok and Instagram.

We’ve also seen brands increasingly focus on entertainment as an essential way to communicate their values and to ensure that their marketing efforts align with their DE&I initiatives. Old Navy has done a wonderful job with this. They set out to align with entertainment content that told authentic and inclusive stories to match their brand messaging. Their integration into the Netflix series Queer Eye included key brand messaging around Old Navy’s product assortment and inclusive sizing. The integration resulted in significant improvements for the brand on attributes such as ‘it offers clothing for all body types’ and ‘its clothing has a diverse range of consumers.’

Netflix's Tan France takes a client shopping at Old Navy
Netflix's Tan France takes a client shopping at Old Navy

About Erin Schmidt

Erin Schmidt is Chief Product Placement Officer for Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), a Bill Gates company. A recent Cynopsis Top Women in Media honoree, Erin leads BEN’s efforts to help brands navigate the shifting entertainment and advertising landscapes. With over 15 years of experience in the industry, Erin has been involved in iconic product placements including James Bond switching his favorite drink to a Heineken, Ant Man working in a Baskin Robbins instead of a Chipotle, and Steve and Nancy eating KFC’s finger lickin’ good fried chicken in Stranger Things.


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