BrainstormOther than funding, the biggest challenge for content creators is striking that delicate balance between narrative and brand. It’s a fine line between integral and intrusive when it comes to developing a branded entertainment piece that simultaneously delivers the compelling stories audiences crave, and the measurable ROI brands demand. And everyone seems to be walking the tightrope in the sometimes futile balancing act between product messaging and story integrity.

But, in the case of Altoids’ new mobile and web series, Brainstorm, in partnership with Fox Mobile Studios and Omelet, the brand integration is anything but delicate. In fact, it’s so heavy handed that it may actually border on genius.

Set in the fictitious ad agency, Yogurt, who, in the premiere episode, we find battling a round of layoffs after a huge creative misstep with one of their recent commercials that, you’ll see is more than a little suggestive, when played in fast forward — a subtle, tongue-in-cheek commentary on DVRs and the state of broadcast TV spots that prompts Don Yolk, Yogurt President, to implore, “Doesn’t anyone watch commercials at regular speed anymore?”

With the agency in a frenzy, their entire future is hinged on getting the Altoids account, weaving a storyline that is solely focused on the brand. But it doesn’t feel like a commercial for Altoids, even though there are obvious product shots and brand messages peppered throughout the series as the creative team attempts to brainstorm a winning pitch under the direction of advertising hot shot, Rick Shanz.

Marty Waxer - BrainstormFrothed with exaggerated sterotypes of agency characters from the ambitious, bordering on neurotic, Account Director to the bumbling, totally out of touch agency head to quirky Art Directors, Fox seems to have stumbled upon the secret formula for spotlighting a brand in a way that ensures viewers are intently focused on it without detracting from the entertainment value. I’d dare say the heavy branding — and expert use of hyperbole around Altoid’s strong taste — even adds to it, packing a doubly effective punch with an engaging storyline and brand attention.

This is the first branded entertainment endeavor from Fox Mobile Studios, and launched on Monday as a web exclusive with Dailymotion for one week. The full release is on October 7th, and the show will be available on MySpace, Break, Vimeo, YouTube and the other usual suspects in an attempt to reach a broad audience. October 7th also marks the mobile kick off, where the series will be distributed through AT&T, Sprint and Nokia, for all Nokia handsets worldwide, and in their Ovi store.

Brainstorm is already off to a promising start, surpassing 100,000 views of the trailer alone, with more than double that for all eight episodes so far, which in an unorthodox approach, Fox decided to unveil in its entirety. “After a long debate, we decided to release all eight episodes at once.” said Michael Wallen, Vice President/Creative Director for Fox Mobile Studios. “The reason behind that is our metric for success is impressions. because we’re not building towards the release of a TV show or other event and it’s hard to keep an audience online.”

In addition, Fox has produced six viral promo clips focusing on the rules of brainstorming as branded vignettes that keep Altoids top of mind, and promote the series and the brand in one perfectly blended snippet. These videos also give the campaign longevity outside the series itself, and are assets that Altoid can use in their own marketing efforts to keep the momentum going.

Brainstorm 250Throughout each episode, you see the creative team hard at work on concepts that range from irreverant to absurd, and when the art directors pitch the fart-breathed buttmouth character where people throw mints at his head, Rock Shanz quickly swoops in with a key Altoids brand message that is seamlessly part of the dialogue. “Altoids is a premium mint. Do you really want the fate of this agency riding on a fart? It’s sad.” And that’s not the first time you’ll hear that phrase turned as Fox gets Altoids’ premium positioning across beautifully, even out of the mouth of a hobo. Yes, a hobo.

Other ideas tossed around are, “fiery explosion of freshness… minty fireworks… the most confident man you know uses Altoids… and ride the lightning” where you are keenly fixated on various messages that don’t feel one bit like ads, but do manage to effectively communicate underlying brand attributes. Wallen said he wanted to spotlight a truly organic concept to support the brand integration movement. “While we’ve seen a lot of shows about advertising such as Mad Men and Trust Me, none of them portrayed real modern brands that were still relevant.” he continued. “So we felt it was a business and marketing opportunity for a brand.”

Fox AltoidsThere was no specific brand in mind when Fox first concepted the idea. They produced a teaser with some folks from comedy troops like the Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings, and just started shopping it around. They approached Wrigley’s (Altoids parent company) first because they have a portfolio of brands and Fox originally thought they’d sell each episode to a different brand. “But what we found out was we could bring a brand in for the whole story arc and tell a more compelling story.” states Wallen.

And compelling it is. I watched all eight episodes back-to-back and didn’t feel as though I was being sold once. And with the combination of two cups of coffee, a cast of wacky characters, and even wackier mint concepts flying around, I did find myself craving an Altoid. I’d also wager that viewers will be more likely to reach for a tin of Altoids next time they make a mint purchase. And I have to commend Altoids for letting the creative shine, allowing somewhat offensive (yet absolutely hilarious) content to be associated with their brand… like the bleeped-out F-bombs being dropped all around the agency and Rock fornicating in the parking lot. There’s clearly nothing diluted as is typically the case with advertiser-directed network TV content, highlighting yet another benefit of web entertainment, and proving that when a brand can laugh at itself, the whole world laughs with you. And that’s one curiously strong brand position.

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