Product placement just ain’t what it used to be—and boy, is that a good thing. What originated as an old-school Hollywood function to beat housewives over the head with brand names and ‘must-have’ products, has transformed into a modern, data-driven marketing tool that works for everyone involved.
For years, BEN, a Bill Gates-owned product placement agency, has been at the forefront. As one of the first companies to utilize AI to identify, match and facilitate product placement opportunities across film, TV, music videos and social media, you will not only see their work everywhere, but not see it everywhere.
Historically, they’re behind some of the most iconic placements in Austin Powers, Forrest Gump, and ET, but more recent placements range from the adorably obvious (the family eating Cheerios in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) to the unexpectedly inconspicuous (see: flipped Chevrolets in Deadpool or Microsoft phones in Get Out).
“BEN is growing every year, and we’re breaking our records for number of integrations and revenue quarter over quarter,” says Erin Schmidt, BEN’s Chief of Traditional Integration. “Since 2015 we’ve increased the BEN’s revenue five-fold and established the company as an industry leader with a valuation of more than $1 billion.”
Schmidt started her journey a decade ago at Norm Marshall & Associates, which was considered the grandfather of product placement. Corbis acquired the company in 2016 and soon rolled it into the organization we now know as BEN.
Since then, she’s focused on growing the traditional entertainment side of the business, executing integrations in everything from network television shows and films, to streaming platform originals.
“We’ve done thousands of integrations over the last few years,” she says, “with 90% of BEN’s growth coming from our existing clients.
“My team has been behind some of the biggest integrations with major impacts for our clients,” including Cadillac, Buick, Dyson Supersonic, and Old Navy.
“The key to effective AI is data, and BEN has 40 years’ worth of industry data to work with. We collect both structured data—such as likes, comments and views—and unstructured data, including images, audio, and text within the content itself.
“Unstructured data is especially difficult for humans to quantify, but our AI has the ability to break this information down, thereby effectively analyzing every aspect of the content. Using this data, we create customized algorithms for each client that are guaranteed to predict the best content opportunities for generating results.”
In practice, this means that the AI can surface shows, films, influencers, streams and social media platforms—perhaps even audiences—that a brand might not have previously considered otherwise.
After each campaign, BEN’s deep learning neural networks allow its technology to process the data from the results to learn, grow, and adapt.
“Ultimately, this means that the AI will make stronger recommendations with each use, which elevates our capabilities and allows us to truly target the best channels for every individual brand and campaign.”
To date, the company has worked with fashion and beauty brands across the board, including L’Oreal, Luxottica, Chanel, Dyson Supersonic, No. 7, Old Navy, Gap GPS, and Levi’s.
“A high point for us was in the early 2000s, when there was a boom of shows that highlighted fashion all over TV, from Sex and the City to Gossip Girl to Entourage.
“We were challenged to find the best fit for each product at a time when there were so many options.”
When the 2008 recession hit, however, BEN saw a fast decline in such programming, with bright, flashy entertainment giving way to more somber dramas.
“We had to adjust our strategies to ensure our beauty and fashion brands could still make an appearance while respecting the tone of the era.”
When it comes to product placement, fashion and beauty aren’t as straightforward as other verticals, like snack food and cars.
“Every placement we execute is story-centric, and with fashion brands it’s more difficult to find the right balance of character and brand voice. Wardrobe can define a character, so we have to be careful about what brands and specific pieces a character wears on screen.”
As such, BEN has to approach these kind of placements in a manner that’s respectful of both the costume designer’s vision and the brand’s image. “Without mutual agreement, one or the other is compromised, which is why many fashion brands are very discerning when planning any product placements.”
Take eyewear brand Persol. Wanting to reposition itself among its luxury competitors a few years back, the company approached BEN for help.
“We targeted globally famous A-list actors to wear Persol glasses, which resulted in on-camera Persol moments across film and TV at a regular cadence over the year.”
One style of Persols, which were out of circulation at the time, were actually brought back into production after Tom Cruise wore them in a film (skyrocketing demand).
“This demonstrates how impactful strategic, targeted placements can be, especially when we keep the brand’s goals at the center of each decision.”
Despite the challenges COVID-19 has presented globally, the pandemic may have even done some good for the likes of BEN.
“More people have greater access to entertainment than ever before,” Schmidt explains, “and they’re looking for content that will lift their spirits, provide a few hours of distraction, and help them connect with a community.”
This spike in viewership, combined with the fact that traditional filming has been put on hold, has opened the door for brands to experiment with advertising methods they hadn’t previously considered.
“Brands have realized the value, flexibility, and ROI of integrating products directly into content, rather than relying only on traditional advertising. Product placement has proven to be an extremely versatile part of the marketing mix, and will see even more prominence as things return to normal.”
Of course, changing landscapes spur changing challenges, and BEN is not exempt.
“Right now, we’re seeing an increase in ad-skipping and ad-blocking, and advertisers need to adapt to these audience behaviors.”
As more content hits our screens, “a trend that will only increase in the coming years”, she feels marketers also have to be more flexible than ever.
“To overcome these challenges, brands will need to adopt sophisticated technology. I see BEN sitting at the intersection of these developments, helping brands make sense of the deep, ever-growing ocean of content that exists, and connecting them with the right opportunities for partnership across every entertainment channel.
“Becoming part of the content will only continue to grow in importance — it’s an advertising method that never dies, as the content lives on past its original airing and will be accessible to audiences for generations.”