In an early episode of the new online video series MsLabelled, the spunky protagonist, Ella, explains why the Internet is so influential: "Young people with money to spend, they don't want corporations telling them what to buy," she says. "They want real people giving them authentic suggestions." As it happens, Ella herself is partly created by an advertiser, in hopes that her authentic voice will influence young consumers.
The series is funded by Schick Inc., Shaw Media and shift2, a co-venture of Toronto-based production company Shaftesbury and marketing agency Youth Culture that was created last year to work on "branded content" projects for advertisers. The idea is to give brands a way to reach elusive younger consumers who are watching less TV. (And when they do watch, they are ignoring commercials by checking in on social media or playing games on their phones.)
The series will air on YouTube in 20 episodes, roughly four minutes each, that will roll out over the next eight weeks. But even though Schick contributed to funding the show, its brand will not appear onscreen, at least not at first: There is no "brought to you by" message attached to the show.
Instead, the hope is to draw viewers in with content that is not heavily branded.
The show follows a young woman who has landed a job as an assistant at a fashion magazine and is also trying to gain a following as a fashion blogger. Jeanne Beker is executive producer and also appears in the show.
The Quattro for Women razors that Schick is hoping to promote will appear onscreen occasionally. Once the series has had some time to gain viewers, online video extras will feature lead character Ella in her own video blog, sharing beauty and style tips. Those videos, which are still being developed, could feature Ella shaving while getting ready for a night out. The extras may also include a "haul" video – a popular format in which bloggers share their purchases after a day of shopping – with the razors included in the haul.
"If you go to any brand's YouTube channel, it tends to be a dumping ground for video content … in a lot of cases, they're taking their ads and putting them on YouTube," said Kaaren Whitney-Vernon, chief executive officer of shift2. "It doesn't work."
YouTube's influence is growing among young consumers. In a November poll of more than 500 teenage Internet users in the U.S., done by Defy Media, 63 per cent said they would try a product recommended by someone they follow on YouTube; less than half said the same about recommendations from TV or movie stars. More teens also reported following YouTube personalities on other social networks than those who follow conventional celebrities.
Putting the story first – and incorporating a brand later – is an approach that has had some success. Last year, shift2 produced a 36-part online series titled Carmilla, about a young female vampire.
Kimberly-Clark Corp. funded the project, and its U by Kotex brand presented a series of video extras, including the memorably titled "Do Vampires Get Their Periods?" Some of the later episodes also featured product placement. (Considering the blue-liquid squeamishness of most menstrual product ads, the explicit references to blood in a vampire story represents quite a different approach for a feminine hygiene brand.)
The series drew more than 13.4 million views over all, or more than 300,000 views for most episodes. In a survey of 10,400 viewers in January, 93 per cent knew who the sponsor was, and 31 per cent said they purchased U by Kotex products because of the show.
Those results helped convince Schick to fund MsLabelled, its first attempt at a YouTube presence for Quattro for Women, which is currently the fourth-place razor brand in Canada.
"These [younger] consumers are online, for the most part. They're very active on YouTube and on social networks. It just makes sense to be there," said Jennifer Carnevale, brand manager for Quattro for Women. "It's not something we're very active in. We have a Facebook page, but we'd like to take the next step."
The show will also make the move to television on Shaw Media-owned specialty channel Slice, repackaged into a half-hour format. Other advertisers will be able to buy ads during the TV broadcast and alongside the series on Slice.ca, and if the show proves popular, other brands could be involved in funding more episodes.
"We as traditional broadcasters are open and willing to look at forms of content that meet our advertisers' needs," said Christine Shipton, senior vice-president of content for Shaw Media.
"I don't believe linear television is going away, and I don't believe that the 30-second spot is going away. But I do know that any way we can get and hold an audience is a benefit for our advertisers. If we can have them be a part of that, it's a bigger benefit."