Sugar23 pitches marketers on production in Cannes, using entertainment to ‘telegraph what the brand is really about’

Digiday covers the latest from marketing and media at the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. More from the series →

Marketers want to be part of culture rather than interrupt it. Changing consumption habits and the increasing fragmentation of the landscape require marketers to find ways outside of traditional advertising methods to connect with their target audiences.

But what that actually looks like in practice can be a tough nut to crack — capturing the zeitgeist similarly to how “Barbie” did last summer is rare. So how can marketers make entertainment that people want without the brand messaging overpowering the entertainment?

Michael Sugar believes it has to start with the approach. Brands need to produce entertainment that people would pay to consume rather than skip. Sugar, an Oscar-winning producer and founder of media production and talent management shop Sugar23, announced a partnership with Starbucks earlier this month and introduced Starbucks Studios through which the beverage behemoth plans to produce original shows and movies.

This week at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, Sugar and Sugar23 head of brands Matt Rotondo have been meeting with marketers to pitch them on working with the shop to produce original entertainment.

“It’s become so normalized to think of Amazon and Apple as streaming platforms that we forget they’re leveraging entertainment to sell consumer products,” said Sugar. “Because that’s the most scaled version of brands doing entertainment. What do ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ or ‘Ted Lasso’ have to do with buying things online or phones? But it’s a relationship that those brands have connected with the consumer through entertainment.”

Amazon and Apple’s streaming successes are just two examples of brands owning relationships with people through entertainment experiences that they actually want to participate in. Another might be that of the U.S. Open and how brands like Rolex and American Express are synonymous with that experience “by virtue of proximity to it,” explained Sugar. “The sweet spot for us is shows, movies, documentaries, podcasts, books, whatever the medium, that telegraph what the brand is really about,” he added.

“We believe brands telegraph what they stand for by the entertainment projects they stand behind,” said Rotondo. “That’s a shift in learning and acceptance that brands need to realize but it’s not dissimilar to how they attach to other forms of things people love like the tops of stadiums, jerseys, the hoods of race cars, those are all things that [brands] want to be a part of.”

Rotondo continued: “Yet, when it comes to entertainment, they show up waving their arms on the field. If they can in some places be ok with having proximity, [with their] brand being associated with that thing [they’ll benefit]. So part of the attribution is brand showing up at the front end of entertainment [as a producer]. The beauty of entertainment is you can do that at scale across a number of projects.”

While Madison Avenue and Hollywood can make for strange bedfellows — the UTA-Michael Kassan skirmish earlier this year was one indication that has been on display at Cannes, with Kassan throwing a party at the Hotel Du-Cap-Eden-Roc on Tuesday night where MediaLink had its annual exclusive party — the drive for marketers to find ways to be part of culture remains. Athletes like Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, who founded production studio A Touch More last fall, and celebrities alike have used Cannes to pitch advertisers and score brand dollars with the appeal of their cultural cache. Figuring out the symbiotic relationship that can produce more success like that of “Barbie” is certainly on marketers’ minds, even as the push for efficiencies and the rise of AI dominate the festival.

“So much of the world we live in is oriented around entertainment,” Stacy Kemp, executive lead of Deloitte’s CMO Program, said when asked about the appeal of standalone brand studios like Starbucks Studios. “So production feels like the right place to go.”

Whether or not more marketers will form production companies or partnerships to be part of culture will depend on the marketer.

“Hollywood and celebrity is a big piece of culture,” State Farm CMO Kristyn Cook said when asked about brands forming production companies. Case in point: State Farm created an intro video with spokesman Jake from State Farm to introduce Jason and Travis Kelce’s Sport Beach panel, illustrating that, even at Cannes, the allure of celebrities of the moment would have a predictably massive draw. “Where the industry is going, certainly everyone is looking for the edge,” Cook said.

It’s yet to be determined whether marketers will see becoming producers as that edge.

“Anecdotally, brands are really excited about what we’re doing,” said Sugar. “We’ve had an extraordinary week. We’ll see how it plays out over the next month or two but we’ll probably leave here with four to eight more partnerships.”

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