Product placement is a tool often used when brands employ visual storytelling in their marketing. I personally feel it’s vital to keep this placement subtle.
When brands decide they want to spend their precious marketing budget on shooting some authentic content for marketing purposes, it is very tempting to ask creatives to make sure the brand’s product gets sufficient exposure. I do totally get this from a commercial perspective, but feel that in the long term a brand’s marketing is better served when this placement is done subtly. Viewers these days have become very savvy at spotting marketing traps and can be turned off very quickly.

Credible

An example I’ve used a couple of times before is Under Armour’s video with their sponsored athlete Michael Phelps. The only product placement here is the clothing Phelps wears, and this placement is absolutely authentic. Phelps would have worn this clothing anyway, whether the video was shot or not. It looks absolutely natural for him to wear these shirts and shorts.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xh9jAD1ofm4
The Phelps video serves as a great illustration of the most important aspect in product placement in authentic visual storytelling: it has to be credible. The person featured in the story has to be a good match for the brand’s product that is being featured. It can be extremely painful watching an athlete use a product that has no connection to them whatsoever. In my opinion, in this scenario, everyone loses. Viewers are turned off by the blatant promotion, the athlete loses credibility for promoting a product that is such a horrible match, and the brand does not establish a sustainable and positive impressions with its customers.
 

Subtle

Another important aspect is keeping the placement subtle, that is, not too overt or in your face. In the Phelps video mentioned above, no close-ups of the Under Armour logo are included. Instead, the logo just sits naturally on the shirt in shots where the subject is Phelps. It is amazing how quickly viewers can be turned off by including just one telling shot of a logo or product. In a sense, by including this shot in a video or photo series, the story loses its disguise and viewers will see it for what it is: marketing.

Frequency

Quite related to the previous point, I feel it’s vital to really take is easy on the frequency of showing the brand in visual storytelling. Of course the brand does have to make an appearance at some point, otherwise producing the content can hardly be justified from a marketing perspective. However, by limiting the number of shots that show the brand, the authenticity of the content is retained. Using the Phelps video as an example once again, not every single shot features Phelps wearing Under Armour. Furthermore, it is not until the ending credits of the clip that the Under Armour brand first makes its truly unambiguous appearance and viewers can be a 100% certain the video was commissioned by that brand.
One of the brands I’ve produced storytelling content for actually worked with a very clear target for this frequency: one in five photos should somehow feature the brand’s product. It’s extremely useful for me as a photographer to be told about these demands. I can keep this in the back of my mind while shooting or culling the photos and make sure the brand’s demands are met when I send the final deliverables.
 

Making the connection with the brand

Finally, I’d like to suggest a number of ways brands can make sure viewers will associate that awesome authentic visual storytelling content with the right brand when they’re done watching.

  • Put a subtle logo at the end of a video or at the end of a photo series.
  • In the case of producing content for an apparel brand: make absolutely sure the athlete / model wears the right clothing. With professional athletes this can sometimes be a bit of a challenge if the athlete isn’t briefed properly, so take good care here.
  • In the case of producing content for a non-apparel brand that produces a material product: figure out an authentic way the person whose story is featured can use the product. I urge brands not to come up with some contrived way to match a person with a product and instead put some work into finding a match that is actually credible. Preferably, the main character would already be using the product even before the content was produced.
  • In the case of producing content for a brand that does not produce a material product that can be featured: this is the hard one. Think of insurance firms, banks, travel agencies and such. Personally, I haven’t worked with a brand that falls into this category, and therefore cannot draw from experience in answering this question. My gut tells me to look hard for a format that will allow the brand to be apparent in the format the content is delivered. Text could possibly aid here, while distributing via social media can also make it clear to viewers who is providing this quality content.


To wrap this article up, I’d like to emphasise once more than in order for product placement in visual storytelling for branding purposes to work, it has to be done with extreme caution. Finding a good match of subject and product is vital, while the actual product placement itself has to be done subtly and with limited frequency. In the end, both viewers, the main character in the story and the brand itself have to win in order for this format to work.
 
The photos included with this article are of Richard Verschoor, a young Dutch racing driver currently enrolled in the Red Bull talent programme. Like in the Under Armour example, the placement of the Red Bull logo is subtle and present in most shots, but never takes away from the actual content.