From The Fine Bros to the force, both YouTubers and brands have been finding ways to monetise feelings and experiences. TenEighty explores the rise of experiential marketing and what this could mean for the future of brand deals.
The latest legal debate didn’t take place in a galaxy far, far away, but rather, on Twitter. A tweet by streaming service Disney+ asked fans to “celebrate the saga” that is Star Wars by tweeting their favourite memories of the franchise to the account. Selected responses would appear “somewhere special” on 4 May, a date associated with the series and its catchphrase “may the force be with you”.
— Disney+ (@disneyplus) April 27, 2020
Yet filing a formal agreement for every single tweet containing the hashtag “#MayThe4th” would prove difficult. “My favorite Star Wars memory would have to be the time Disney tried to lay legal claim to every tweet on Twitter that used a particular hashtag,” responds one Twitter user. Another replies to say that a Terms of Service agreement can’t be posted online with the assumption that “anyone who does something falling in line has seen it and agreed”.
It was, it seems, a misunderstanding, with Disney+ later clarifying that the disclaimer only applied to responses to the initial tweet using the hashtag and mentioning their account. The promotion never intended to use all May The 4th tweets and was – and is – intended to market the feeling of nostalgia associated with the classic film franchise.
However, attributing legal disclaimers to memories and feelings is always a tricky task. Arguably the most well-known instance of a brand causing confusion with the law came in 2016, when sibling duo The Fine Bros (made up of Benny and Rafi Fine) announced React World, for others to licence their reaction video formats globally.
“The first of its kind program that allows people and companies to licence all our popular shows online, so that anyone […] can create your own versions in a fully legal way and be part of a new and exciting global community,” says Benny, in a now deleted announcement video revealing the project.
Rafi also adds that the scheme is similar to that of Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent, saying that “it’s the same show format, but licensed legally to be created in other locations”. Series such as YouTubers React, Teens React and Elders React would be available for individuals to license.
One year prior, in 2015, the brothers filed a trademark application for the “React” brand, relating to “entertainment services, namely, an on-going series of website programs in the field of observing and interviewing various groups of people”.
Though both the news of the licensing opportunity and The Fine Bros’ plans to trademark “react” were met with criticism from the wider YouTube community. Reaction videos, which see creators film their responses to other online content, was already an established video style on the platform prior to the application being filed.
“The fact that they’ve been able to copyright an idea so innate, a concept so bizarrely ambiguous and murky, is the scariest part to me here,” says I Hate Everything in his video on the subject. “This much control over something as simple as a reaction – you know, that thing that humans do automatically without even thinking – perfectly summarises the ridiculous, business-controlled state that YouTube is in now.”
“This much control over something as simple as a reaction […] perfectly summarises the ridiculous, business-controlled state that YouTube is in now.”
Elsewhere, Philip DeFranco responded by saying he didn’t think The Fine Bros should have the trademark for “react”.
“Even when it’s the other ones where it’s like Elders React, stuff like that, even that is concerning to me,” he says. “That is so much power. If anything, I am shocked that they were issued [the word].”
The Fine Bros responded to the criticism in a follow-up video, apologising for confusing terminology and stressing that they “do not own the [react] genre”. The pair later abandoned their plans to trademark the word “react”.
As ideas, both Disney+’s #MayThe4th and React World involved using emotions as part of their business model, from nostalgia to the concept of responding to a piece of media. Yet, from a marketing perspective, promotions which focus on special moments – known in the industry as “experiential marketing” – isn’t an entirely new phenomenon.
In 2017, Teenage Dream singer Katy Perry placed glitter balls around the world with the opportunity for fans to listen to a then-unreleased single. (Chained to the Rhythm.) Last year, fans of the late electronic DJ Avicii were able to pre-listen to his posthumous album TIM if they activated a symbol inside one of six cubes at the same time as someone else in another part of the world.
“People are now more cynical about brands than they’ve ever been,” writes marketing agency Sense on a page of their website. “Brands are struggling to remain relevant and meaningful by simply using traditional marketing communications.”
“People are now more cynical about brands than they’ve ever been. Brands are struggling to remain relevant and meaningful by simply using traditional marketing communications.”
It’s a problem faced by YouTubers and other online personalities too, with social media creators still having to deal with stigma around sponsorships and ad campaigns. A study last year by UM, commissioned by Campaign, found that 55% of 18-24 year olds find hashtags on sponsored posts annoying.
More recently, the promotion of mobile game Raid: Shadow Legends has received a backlash from viewers, with gaming news site CCN describing the company’s approach as an “aggressive marketing strategy”.
“Experiential marketing gets to the heart of what motivates people, positioning brands as useful, interesting, relevant and desirable,” Sense’s webpage continues. “The best campaigns put people first, aiming to delight, provoke, challenge, inspire, motivate and, ultimately, produce tangible results.”
The idea of a challenge has been taken up by YouTubers in the past few months when promoting brands and content. Ahead of the launch of his solo album, KSI invited fans to contribute a verse to his song Poppin, with the winner appearing on the deluxe edition. Elsewhere, Seán McLoughlin (known online as Jacksepticeye) gave fans the chance to win a signed YouTooz figurine if they could come up with the best meme about it.
As an advertising method, experiential marketing can certainly bring brands, creators and audiences together – not least if it involves fans being creative.
Known in the industry as co-creation, Albizu Garcia from the content app Gain writes in Social Media Today: “The rise in ad-blocking technologies and decline of organic reach on social networks has forced marketers to find more creative ways to reach their target audiences.
“To combat these challenges, brands across all industries are lining up to co-create content with their users and industry influencers to help them reach their target customers and tell their brand stories.”
Garcia goes on to cite LEGO Ideas as an example of co-creation, a project from the toy company which allows fans to submit ideas for future products, with popular ideas being considered by the brand’s review team.
Yet, some stigma remains over sponsorships secured by online creators, and previous instances mentioned above have shown what happens when businesses cause confusion on the legal side of things. Failing to make it clear to the audience how they can get involved in a fun and authentic way only leads to backlash, with the more corporate approach having the potential to further increase the hostility against brand deals.
Recent promotions have shown that when it comes to capitalising off of experiences, the advertising needs to be genuine and considerate.
It has always been the case with advertising, but if creators continue to do that, then engagement – one of the main ways of measuring a brand deal’s success – will follow.
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