THE WRONG WAY: Taking an already modestly successful show and trying to capitalize on it by jamming in product sponsorship deals on the back end.
Example: Showtime's "The L Word" has just announced that they will be selling brand integration for a price tag of $300,000 a pop. According to AdAge's article "On Ad-Less 'L Word' Brand Become Part of the Plot" it says that series creator Ilene Chaiken is keeping that pricing flexible to allow the maximum number of potential partners.
This, in my opinion, is the wrong way to go about branded entertainment. First of all, it hamstrings the creativity of the show by forcing story lines to go in directions that are friendly to the brand messages of the sponsors. Secondly, this approach is very hard to do without coming off as a long commercial and turning off your audience because you've sold them out for the almighty dollar.
Now, don't get me wrong. I understand as well as anyone that entertainment is a business and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money in TV. These folks are not out there to produce all this content out of the good of their hearts and the love of art - they need to make money. However, I do believe with all we know about how important advertising and brands are to the business of entertainment that there are now better ways to approach this.
Currently, producers mostly try to create great shows and then cash in on them on the back end by selling their accumulated viewer base to advertisers and then potentially ruining the show once the creative direction is splintered to answer to the many suited bosses.
THE RIGHT WAY: Understand the reality of how entertainment and brands must play together and build shows that are set up to accommodate this interaction from the start. In essence, build shows that are brand ready from the get go - like buying a satellite ready radio for your car - all you have to do is plug it in and go.
Years ago, I worked with Jonathan Prince who was the Executive Producer of a show called "American Dreams." Jonathan was one of the first to recognize the potential opportunities of integrating brands into scripted shows. The promotion we worked on integrated Campbell's Tomato Soup into the nostalgic show set in the 1960's and everything fit perfectly. After that show, Jonathan began a relationship with a production company called Madison Road Entertainment with the specific purpose of pursuing projects that were brand-ready from the start.
This is clearly much easier to do on the reality shows than in scripted shows - but I still believe that the ability to craft a scripted show that is brand-ready from the get-go is the holy grail of product integration. The goal is to create a show that would seem incomplete to the audience if it DIDN'T include specific brands.
When this happens, it won't feel like a big commercial to the audience. And, it will be infinitely easier to make all parties happy since the creative direction of the show has already been predetermined to be brand friendly - no fights between the writers and the sales people as they all will be already aligned.
I can't say I've seen this happen yet - but when it does, I think the branding community will sit up and take notice.