Restaurants and many other marketers are making big plans for smaller screens as part of the trend toward “branded entertainment,” in which chains produce their own original video content and distribute it online, where customers are spending more of their time.
Last week, Joe’s Crab Shack became the latest restaurant chain to partner with a comedy powerhouse to market itself online, producing with Comedy Central “Every Crab Has Its Legs,”  a spoof of ’80s power ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison. Comedy Central also produced and distributed “Growing Up and Getting Out,”  a Web series launched this summer with KFC to promote the chain’s Original Recipe Bites.
While Web videos — and accompanying promotions like KFC’s “Free Rent Contest,” which also targeted the young-male customer that the series was meant to attract — can involve a significant investment, they also give restaurant brands a chance to tailor specific messages to specific viewers who get much of their screen time on a laptop or tablet, marketing officials said. In addition, branded videos can attract the attention of a whole new audience or, in many cases, make incremental impressions on a core restaurant guest who increasingly turns to the Internet for entertainment.
“Our core audience continues to become more engaged online, especially with video content,” said Stephanie Mattingly, national media manager for KFC. “Therefore, we think branded Web series can be relevant to multiple subgroups within our core audience, depending on how the content is executed. The insight behind ‘Growing Up and Getting Out’ has significant appeal to young males, but we also tried to make sure the content was relevant to other KFC customers by creating relatable situations and characters.”
In KFC’s series, the main food product being promoted, KFC Original Recipe Bites, gets a more traditional product placement treatment, as the best friend of main character Mike eats them in every scene in which he appears. But the plot of each episode is driven by Mike’s struggles after moving back in with his parents.
Denny’s has taken a similar approach with its Web series, “Always Open,”  distributed by comedy website CollegeHumor.com . The program plays off the chain’s tagline, “America’s diner is always open,” and stars comedian David Koechner interviewing other comedians in a booth at the restaurant. They have plates of Denny’s food in front of them, but they mostly discuss offbeat topics like primal-scream therapy.
Denny’s food is a little more prominent in its second branded-entertainment series, “The Skillet Whisperer,”  yet the bigger draw is the star who is talking to the food, Cesar Millan, known to many people as “The Dog Whisperer.” Denny’s launched its series with Millan this past February with episodes in English and in Spanish as a way to further its reach to Hispanic customers online.
Branded online videos have a way of spreading to more traditional forms of advertising — and with critical success, as was the case with Chipotle Mexican Grill over the past year. The chain debuted in August 2011 an animated video advocating against factory farming, “Back to the Start,” which garnered millions of views on YouTube. The video was so popular that Chipotle decided to buy airtime for it during the national broadcast of the Grammy Awards in February. The spot won the first Grand Prix for the newly created category of Branded Content and Entertainment at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
Yet while page views and ad industry accolades can be tabulated and compared with costs to recruit comedic talent and to produce the videos, KFC’s Mattingly said calculating the return on investment for branded-entertainment efforts involves more than the dollars on the bottom line.
“When thinking about original branded content, it’s important to use the right metrics to define success,” Mattingly said. “Since one of our core objectives is to make KFC more relevant, we typically evaluate these programs based on their impact on measures like ‘brand relevance,’ rather than relying on traditional ROI analysis alone. We’ve seen a positive response thus far and will continue to track results via third-party research.”
Officials for Joe’s Crab Shack and Comedy Central were unable to comment by press time.