Why Brands Are The New Labels (And Publishers, And Producers...)

A stand out panel at SXSW 2011, Brands as the New Labels, found particular resonance this year.  Of course this isn’t exactly a new trend — big brands, particularly ones focused on the youth markets, have traditionally been responsible for helping to amplify the hottest new music.  Red Bull, Mountain Dew and Heineken are all great examples of brands that are winning by shifting dollars towards breaking acts, and experimenting with marketing campaigns and programs.

Gone are the days of artists hoping and praying for that major studio deal  — which later they learn isn’t really that major. Instead they can take a paycheck from a brand and get pretty much the same thing as what they would get from your typical 360 deal offering.  In fact, brands are finding success with this new approach.  Green Label Sound, Mountain Dew’s exclusive label designed to “empower independent artist,” releases singles, videos and remixes by buzz bands: Matt & Kim, Neon Indian, Chromeo, Cool Kids and Theopolis London.  And, it appears that The Cool Kids prefer working with a brand: “Labels suck,” the Cool Kids’ Chuck Inglish says with a laugh. “What can they do that Pepsi can’t do? We had a good experience with Green Label Sound — we got more from that single than we got from our previous album. I was tired of the album sitting around and just wanted to get it out.”

After a recent trip to Red Bull Headquarters in Los Angeles, I think an artist might be better off signing with a brand anyway.  The offices are certainly more fun!  Last time I visited Warner Bros, I didn’t see a half pipe in the office, or days dedicated to office-wide ping-pong tournaments. Plus, these brands are better positioned to market talent, as they can put a hefty budget behind their efforts.  Red Bull produces several impressive signature events that drive tons of awareness online and IRL. And because the advertiser is also the label, they can be very strategic in their approach.  Talk about brand integration… this is the 2.0 world.

My other takeaway from SXSW 2011 was the realisation that brand dollars don’t stop with the cultivating of new talent. Brands are positioning themselves as the new labels, no doubt, but they are also evolving into the content creators. There is, naturally, criticism of branded entertainment – it is necessarily the opposite of arms-length, unbiased reporting – but as the digital landscape has changed media integration, it has also increased consumer tolerance for brands looking for new ways to market. And if you want high quality content — whether that is music or print or video — someone needs to pay.  So, brands are stepping up as the new content publishers. They are still paying to be part of the story but now they are also experimenting with creating and distributing their own stories, too.  Case in point: media personality Shira Lazar covered the festival for Chevy, and Fuse TV’s Allison Hagendorf brought an inside look at SXSW for Nikon. (Full disclosure, my company IRL Productions produced the daily recap Nikon videos, included below.)

Early tech-adopter brand PepsiCo is trying out this approach, as well, seeding blog posts and videos on their employee blog and Women’s Inspiration Network (WIN).  PepsiCo’s Jamie Stein did double-duty as host, generating a significant amount of video and blog content over the course of the festival.  Pepsi also ran a “Davos of Digital” series of web interviews leading up to SXSW.  (More disclosure: I work with Pepsi on many digital projects, though I did not work with them on these particular projects at SXSW.)

On a larger level, brands are making a point of generating content on social sites as well – not just twitter and facebook (a must by this point for most big brands), but taking advantage of new intimate-feeling platforms like Instagram (NBCNews) and Bntr (HowAboutWe, Zappos).  Brands are going everywhere their customers are, and might soon be. 

So what does it all mean? Traditional media is rapidly changing across every industry. Many industries are still behind the times — music, book publishing, TV and cable – and getting up this new curve. Despite all the amazing innovation we have out there, it’s still anyone’s game on how to monetise. There are marketers everywhere taking risks and changing games – and new platforms to change them on.  A sign of the changing times are New York Subway platform advertisements, encouraging riders to scan this QR code, follow on Twitter and “friend” on Facebook. Even as short as six months ago, those messages weren’t as prominent. 

At the March 2011 Shorty Awards, Foursquare Founder Dennis Crowley pointed out that he saw an ad on TV encouraging people to discover the song in the Old Navy ad using Shazam. The call-to-action is then obvious: Purchase on iTunes.  Old Navy, Apple, a digital startup and an emerging artist all working together as one? That’s some epic progress – over some pretty blurry lines.  Expect more of this going forward.

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