Brand or product placement?

Michael Neale and Dr David Corkindale

  • University of Adelaide Business School and University of South Australia
Michael Neale is managing director and principal consultant for strategy consultancy firm, Literally Brilliant, and a visiting fellow at the University of Adelaide Business School. Dr. David Corkindale is Emeritus Professor of Marketing and a Senior Research Associate in the Ehrenberg Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia.

One of the key roles of the chief marketing officer today is to ensure investment decisions in marketing initiatives deliver good value for money.  

Yet they are frustrated in understanding the value of product placements within this mix. And for one very simple reason: Product placements are broadly defined and as a result, mean very different things to different people. This makes comparisons of one proposed product placement with another very difficult for commercial evaluation.  

As it turns out, there is a similar problem in academic research literature.  

We have spent the past few years collaborating to better understand the effectiveness of product placement as changes in media and in-market trends make it a more popular tool for marketing practitioners. Very quickly, we became aware of this fundamental problem – no one is exactly sure what you mean when you say ‘product placement’.  

Advertising is a relatively well-defined marketing tool. Traditionally, on free-to-air TV for example, it involves a 30- or 15-second spot among a small group of other advertisements inserted into a break in regular media programming. The media can be bought on the basis of reach and frequency with media schedules also considering the nature of programming within which the advertisement will sit. Creative execution is left almost entirely to the discretion of the marketing practitioner and their advertising agency.  

By comparison, a marketing practitioner may have relatively little input into how the product appears in a product placement. Duration of exposure can be very brief or very long, product placement can be integrated or unintegrated in the story or program theme, in the foreground or background, and associated with a ‘hero’ or not. The name can be mentioned, demonstratively used or just in the background. The alternative forms of presentation are almost endless.  

From our own experience, speaking to other marketing professionals and after reading the research literature, we believe two big factors radically differentiate classes of product placements: Product manifestation and program integration.  

1. Product manifestation  

Product manifestation is a topic little explored in marketing research literature. We believe a product placement requires the appearance (manifestation) of an actual product.  

Appearance of a logo by itself, for example, on a sign or billboard in the background, constitutes a brand placement but does not constitute a product placement. Our contention is that although a brand placement has intrinsic value, particularly in building awareness and recognition, it is fundamentally different to product placement, which can play a significantly different role. Both can aid awareness and recognition, and provide positive associations with aspirational characters/situations.  

However, product placements can be more instructional too, demonstrating how products can be used. Further, having the product appear in a normal setting, although somewhat aspirational, helps the viewer to perceive the product is part of everyday life. In this way, the manifestation of the product helps to ‘normalise’ it for the audience.  

Many of the important studies use the terms ‘product placement’ and ‘brand placement’ interchangeably. Here, academic research literature has not aided the practitioner. Actually, in some cases, it has contributed to the confusion.  

There are overlaps. We see product placement as fundamentally subtle, but the product must be recognised somehow. In a daytime cooking show, an ingredient may be visible for three minutes as it takes a central place in preparation of a recipe. But the packet (and logo) must be visible if only for a couple of seconds; something must tell the viewer what the product is – or it is pointless.  

2. Program integration  

This brings us to the concept of program integration, which is complex but well explored in academic research. Product placements can be passive, where they sit passively in the foreground or the background, or active, where they are used by the characters in the program. Further, if they are used, they can be incongruent or congruent with the plot.  

When a product placement is used in a way that is incongruent with the plot, it is instantly recognisable as a ‘product placement’ because it looks forced or out of place. Conversely, plot congruent product placements seem natural with the product’s use, adding to the realism or integrity of the program.  

Finally, there is congruence with the program itself. Is there a natural fit between the product and the program? A food ingredient, for example, is much more likely to be congruent with a cooking show than a brand of sunglasses.  

Of all the different variables explored in the research literature, program integration appears to be the most important with respect to effectiveness. Plot integrated and congruent with the overall nature of the program tends to deliver the best outcomes.  

Very simplistically, CMOs should check their proposed product placements involve them being actively used, adding to or facilitating the plot and having a natural fit with the program. If it does not, it is not a fully integrated product placement and is unlikely to achieve the  outcomes associated with them.  

Have a clear understanding how the product will be used and its importance within the plot expressly included in the contract. Similarly, particularly if the program is new or unknown to the CMO, have the contract expressly address the congruence between the product and the program itself.  

We believe there needs to be adoption of a more sophisticated taxonomy to better describe product placement variations for practitioners and academics alike to better understand and evaluate product placement opportunities in the future. This will be particularly important as product placements become more commonplace in marketing plans.    

Tags: brand strategy, marketing strategy, product placement

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