If aliens descended on Madison Avenue in search of this thing called branded video, they would return to the mother ship with a single video in their tentacles: Dove Evolution. By Dove's impression, this video has been watched more times on YouTube than there are humans on the planet, or grains of sand on the beaches of Earth.
In the context of a landscape that is endlessly innovating, we need to look beyond a single viral-video-gone-wild as our guiding light. These days, branded video has no standard format, length or distribution strategy, which is why we call it "video" instead of "commercials," "film" or "trailers." And that's precisely the point, says Mark Naples, managing partner at WIT Strategy. "Video is so sexy because there are no rules about it, and everyone gets to write their own rules."
Below, a handful of industry experts explore five approaches to branded video beyond the Dove paradigm.
Commercials are not dead if consumers like them. "TV commercials need to have universal appeal," says Jared Kopf, co-founder of widget sensation Slide.com and CEO of AdRoll.com. "Once you have that universal appeal, then you should distribute it online and allow people to replay it, remix it and watch it how they want and when they want."
The Mac/PC ads
They're a long-running series of 30-second spots that were aired on TV and then posted on Apple.com.
Kopf explains that users uploaded them to YouTube, and they were widely spoofed.
An unbranded version of the commercial was posted on YouTube two days before it aired on TV by a Saatchi & Saatchi employee who worked on the campaign. Here's why it works: The video piggybacked on a well-established viral phenomenon in the gamer world, a WoW player named Leeroy Jenkins. Saatchi & Saatchi PR representative Erin Poole maintains that they did nothing to promote the video or seed it in gamer forums -- they just uploaded it to YouTube. I'd be more dubious if the geek legend that preceded it didn't have such strong viral legs.
As Mark Naples describes, "The video came directly out of interaction with consumers online. Virals are nice and let's talk about how many millions of plays and all that stuff. But that ad has appeared on Monday Night Football, college football -- all over. People talk about convergence all the time. This thing has a life all of its own. That's genius for Toyota."
Commercial fan sites
Firebrand, Honeyshed, Droga5 and VeryFunnyAds are four websites devoted to celebrating TV commercials and explicitly branded entertainment. With different user interface executions, they should be respective indicators of the continued relevance of TV commercials online.
Brand-produced video can have any number of purposes, but its interactive component needs to serve those purposes.
"Good branded video needs to bring value to a consumer, either in the form of entertainment, information or thought provocation," says Ruby Gottlieb, SVP and managing partner at Horizon Interactive. "Good branded video encourages users to extend it virally for whatever reason they see fit."
The just-launched American Express OPEN Forum widget campaign
This campaign is powered by The Fifth Network in conjunction with Digitas. American Express' 300x600 widgets, with six short informational videos, are running on niche business blogs, news sites and a handful of architecture-related sites like this one (right-hand side).
"The brand gets the kudos, the users receive six streams of very important information, the site derives [advertising] revenue and at the same time provides a service to its user base… win, win, win," says Bill Caspare, CEO of The Fifth Network. Whether the campaign is successful is yet to be seen, but they're tracking video completions, time spent with the widget, "unmute" rates and of course, calls-to-action.
Marc Ecko's StillFree video
A shaky camera follows Ecko past heavy security as he proceeds to tag Air Force One with graffiti that reads "Still Free." Ecko maintains the video was watched more than 114 million times, in addition to the outpouring of press from TV news anchors who thought the stunt was real -- even the Secret Service reportedly launched an investigation. What was the point?
"The president that flies in it doesn't own the plane, the people own the plane," Ecko explains. "It's a symbol of our freedom to express ourselves." As is the Ecko brand.
Dave Friedman, president, central region at Avenue A | Razorfish, calls the video, "Borderline viral genius here -- Ecko is a streetwise graffiti artist cum millionaire clothing designer who perpetrated perhaps the most successful viral/pop culture branding stunt of all time."
Virgin Mobile's "Sugar Mama" platform
This platform is "one of the first to offer customers cell phone minutes in return for qualified engagements to watch "advids" or other types of online ads," says Greg Castronuovo, SVP, group account director, entertainment, at Initiative. "The early days of UGC seem to be steeped in promotional reward for the consumer advocate who creates video that proselytizes the product, but online allows us to track and reward both the creator and the preacher. Pass the basket around. Hallelujah!"
The Delta SiteSeer Challenge
This is an "Amazing Race"-style campaign where visitors can watch Delta-produced informational videos about 12 top travel destinations. Visitors earned bonus miles for voting for their favorite video destinations and could download or share the videos.
"This Delta campaign nicely linked Sky Miles members to personalized travel packages to the featured destinations using their Sky Miles," notes Mark Beeching, chief creative officer at Digitas. (In the travel vein, Avenue A | Razorfish's Funship Island for Carnival Cruise Lines is also worth a mention.)
Holiday Inn Express' The Smart Show
This was a nine-week road trip across the U.S., which concluded in November. The videos are available as content on Blip.tv, and season two is already in development. The Smart Show is groundbreaking because it's episodic. "Don't just put a viral film out there," Beeching argues. "Once you've built an audience, feed it. Brand content creators need the stamina of a broadcast in terms of ongoing, webisodic programming."
These can turn out huge results when they're well executed.
"Collaborative video participation is… all part of this whole transparent brand marketing trend that I think is really refreshing," says Rebecca Hill, associate group account director at Questus. "People have come to ignore the brands and products [in viral videos] and rely heavily on the content at play. That is why this type of participation between the brand and the consumer is so much more interesting."
Axe's "World's Dirtiest Film" contest
This campaign used brand-created video to encourage user participation and hosted the entries on Collegehumor.com. "David Spade hosts the brand-created versions, Axe loves the viral collaborative video thing, and they do it pretty well," Hill notes. "Axe does a great job of distribution and uses targeted blogs in its sweet spot demographic to get the word out."
The Gmail video
More than 1,000 people submitted videos of themselves passing the Gmail logo along. Google strung the best ones into a video that's received more than five million views in the last three months since its debut on YouTube.
Doritos 2007 Super Bowl ad
"It cost $12.97 to produce and generated $10 million-plus in publicity along with a 14 percent increase in sales," says Dean Harris, partner, Silvermine Marketing, and Brandweek's 2005 Marketer of the Year. "My guess is that high production costs will not win the day in the online video world. In my view, well-produced, well-priced (but higher than $12.97) video will win out."
Don't be afraid to wear your training wheels. Pre- and post-roll may be the targets of widespread industry scorn, but they're occasionally used effectively.
"The sexy, grand slam, home run stuff is great, but most people build brands and sell products in a far more 'one brick at a time' manner," says Randy Killgore," CRO at Tremor Media.
Hugo Boss' recent pre-roll campaign
"Luxury goods companies have been slow overall to embrace digital advertising," says Kilgore. "Hugo Boss ran a nice, aggressive pre-roll campaign for its non-clothing products that I believe probably surprised prospects by choosing online video and thus freshening opinions about HB."
"Saw III" post-roll campaign
My personal favorite was a post-roll campaign orchestrated by Palisades Media Group for Lionsgate's "Saw III" that ran on Break.com last fall. Jigsaw, the creepy "Saw" villain, addressed Break.com users specifically and told them he was watching them. The shock value was so great that I looked for more videos on the site that were hosting the post-roll -- a complete reversal of typical user aversion to in-video ads.
As 2007 races to its finish, we still don't have a standardized video ad format, scalable ways to buy video inventory or pervasive technology to navigate and target (contextually or otherwise) the universe of user-generated content. But improved targeting, interactive functionality, distribution tools and creative maturation will take 2008's branded videos to new horizons. Look to tech companies like Panache and Freewheel.tv to provide some of that necessary infrastructure.
Digitas' Beeching concludes, "This is just a beginning. Interactive video will not be about video inside a web experience but interactivity inside a video experience."