For seven seasons, ABC’s “Modern Family” has been using quick, sarcastic writing to teach its approximately 12 million viewers lessons about family, perseverance and acceptance. I will confess up front that, even with its relative cheese-factor, I’m a big fan of the show. In particular the quirky, self-described “cool dad” character, Phil Dunphy.
As a fan of the show and someone in the PR industry, it piqued my interest to read that the National Association of Realtors would release an integrated marketing campaign with Phil Dunphy as their spokesperson. The campaign included traditional ads before and after an episode featuring integrated content from the trade association. As described in the Wall Street Journal, the NAR wanted viewers to know “Phil Dunphy isn’t just a real-estate agent, he’s a proud Realtor.” The execution of this partnership turned out to be a sterling PR move – practitioners should take note.
Like any other sitcom, Modern Family is not new to integrated marketing efforts, but this would be the first time the program had conducted an integrated campaign for a trade association. I was intrigued to see how they would use this likeable character, whose occupation had already been well established and was authentically written into the show. It seemed to tick all of the boxes of the non-intrusive marketing unicorn that millenials and generation Y can withstand and marketers are scrambling to enact.
So how did it all work out? In true Modern Family style, the NAR’s message was delivered with self-deprecating humor. Phil begins the episode upset he had made a wrong choice in the direction of his career. He rattles off the list of skills and the code of ethics one must have to be a Realtor, but bemoans that even though it’s something he’s proud of, it doesn’t seem to provide much value to anyone else. Later in the episode, it’s his unique knowledge of the industry that helps save the day. All while wearing his NAR branded lapel pin.
The two advertising spots played upon a long-standing joke from the show called “Phil’s-osophy,” a book of self-written advice that is more humorous than it is helpful. For the beginning of this campaign, Phil provided advice on the importance of silence in deal-making and having cat-like reflexes when navigating the real estate industry.
I will admit that if I hadn’t been specifically looking for it, I’m not sure I would have even noticed the integrated content as a departure from the show. The ad spots had the benefit of being written and directed by the show’s co-creators, so they felt like a natural extension of the program. From start to finish it was an excellent example of the kind of creative, integrated storytelling that many anticipate is the future of the industry. And the most brilliant part about it is it was purposefully subtle; a gentle reminder to the upscale viewership of the show that having a Realtor is valuable when trying to buy a home.
So what do we, as PR professionals, marketers, advertisers and companies, have to learn from this test case?
The undying importance of storytelling: Consumers and audiences have little patience for interruptions to the content they are viewing. A creative team should strive to find ways to incorporate their brand’s messages into a story that compels audiences to take the desired action. The less invasive, the less likely your message is to be skipped over during commercial breaks.
The right relationship matters: The success of this campaign was due in large part to the authentic relationship that the character had to the NAR, its mission and its goals. When you approach a possible partner with an idea that naturally fits with and advances the purpose of both parties, you are more likely to create a final product that meets the needs of everyone involved.
Authenticity is key: Brand integrations are a great way to get your content and messaging in front of a loyal audience who is already receptive to what they’re viewing. However, if done incorrectly, your audience will be able to pick out moments that don’t seem true to the storyline of the content they know and love. If your integration feels more like a commercial jammed into the middle of a show, your audience will be the first to notice. Take a page from Phil’s book – “Success is 1% inspiration, 98% perspiration, and 2% attention to detail.”