NEW YORK: Major advertisers including Clorox, Maybelline and AT&T are all turning to online branded content as they seek to find new ways of connecting with consumers.

An increasing number of marketers are looking to branded entertainment as a way to reach their target audience, with this market estimated to have climbed to a value of $25 billion (€16.7bn; £15.1bn) in the US alone last year.

Hidden Valley Ranch, the salad dressing brand made by Clorox, has now signed up as the sponsor of an online series, Garden Party, which will be hosted on the iVillage, a portal aimed specifically at women.

Produced by NBC Universal Digital Studio, and featuring the Beverly Hills 90210 actress Jennie Garth, the series has the aim of educating viewers about nutrition, with the first installment due to be broadcast in January 2010.

Ellen Liu, media director at the Clorox Company, argued this initiative should enable to company to "extend our reach" and generate "a higher level of engagement" than can be achieved through more traditional 30-second TV spots.

Previously, the Oakland-based firm has funded similar such projects running on properties ranging from the online hub for the Nascar racing series through to Disney's main website.

These efforts have promoted products including Armor All, the car care range, STP fuel additives, Brita water filters and the Fresh Step petcare range.

David Freeman, general manager at Matter, one of the ad agencies that worked on Garden Party with Clorox, said "the marketplace is shifting and brands have to think of themselves as media companies."

However, he also warned that "the entertainment part has to come first," otherwise web users will disregard shows for merely "pushing a product."

Cameron Death, vp, digital content at NBC Universal, argued branded content marks "the coming together of audiences looking for great content and advertisers looking to connect with those audiences."
NBC's digital arm has also recently worked with American Family Insurance on the comedy "webshow" In Gayle We Trust, which will ultimately span a total of ten episodes.

Telisa Yancy, the advertising, brand and media director at the insurance provider, said that, after the airing of the opening three parts, this activity "looks like a great success."

Moreover, taking such an approach has "allowed us to engage with our consumers in a broader way, on a deeper level," which was a major advantage as "in no way do I have the spending power of my competitors," she continued.
Maybelline, the cosmetics brand owned by L'Oréal, is also sponsoring The Broadroom, which was developed by Candace Bushnell, the creator of Sex & The City.

The brand has built a dedicated section of its own website where netizens can stream the show, and which also offers access to a range of "make-up secrets from the set."

Deborah Marquardt, vp of integrated communications at Maybelline, said The Broadroom reflected the fact that "women today, with all that they juggle at home and at work, lead such complex and colourful lives."

Other similar recent examples have included GeminiDivision, a science fiction series which featured goods made by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft, as well as Ctrl, where Nestea, made by Nestlé, had a key role in the plot.

ConAgra Foods has also re

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by Warc staff