What would Gothic writer Joseph Sheridan (aka J. Sheridan Le Fanu) think about how his 1871 vampire novella Carmilla would be turned into a YouTube series to promote tampons? He would certainly feel better if he knew that the series was wildly popular—43 million views and Cannes Lions-nominated wildly popular.
That’s how large an audience the 72-part scripted short-form YouTube drama series funded by Kimberly-Clark’s feminine care brand U by Kotex has gotten as it heads into its new season. It’s also the only brand-funded web series (dubbed “Queer Buffy” by some fans) to be nominated by the Streamy Awards.
Oh, and U by Kotex—which believes in creating engaging content to connect with their core audience wherever she is—paid all of zero dollars to promote the show, which is produced in Canada.
And it’s not just fans—a global cohort who call themselves The Creampuffs or The Tampon Fandom—watching the show, which boasts a 91% female viewership, three-quarters of which is in the age 18-34 demo. A full third of those who said they watched the series reported that they bought the U by Kotex brand because they watched Carmilla.
The series, by the way, wouldn’t be out of place on primetime TV: “Laura Hollis is a small town girl who’s finally leaving home to go to university. When her missing roommate is replaced without explanation Laura vows to find out what is happening on campus while she deals with her new roomie—a vampire.”
We spoke with show creators Kaaren Whitney-Vernon (CEO of Shift2) and Jay Bennett (SVP of Creative and Innovation for Smokebomb Entertainment) for their thoughts on branded entertainment, audience building and how they turned a little-known Gothic novella into a hit global web series—that happens to be sponsored.
brandchannel: In its third season, Kotex’s vampire-tampon series Carmilla has outlasted Martin Scorsese’s ’70s rock-n-roll HBO series Vinyl. What does that say?
Jay Bennett: I think it is a strong example of two mantras we try to carry into all our work: “existing audiences” and “power of niche.” We didn’t make Carmilla and then go looking for an audience to watch and love it. We researched social media and found different existing social groups already talking about Carmilla. We made a show for an already existing audience base.
We also think very niche. Digital can do this – and needs to do this. TV is for mass audiences and needs to try and serve many different tastes. Digital can serve very specific tastes. Thinking this way keeps us very focused on the look/tone/feel/taste/touch of it.
bc: A promotional series streaming for free on YouTube for a tampon brand focused on modern teenagers in their bedrooms but with a plot from a Gothic vampire novella from the 19th century. Over 40 million views later, did you ever expect this level of success?
Bennett: We are continually blown away by the fandom it has found and the impact it has had on them. Carmilla is the culmination of years of making digital series and social campaigns at Smokebomb. With each project we further honed our understanding of the ingredients required to create meaningful content and drive “fandom.” I like to say that Carmilla was 70% planned and 30% luck—as is every show that “breaks.”
Kaaren Whitney-Vernon: Funny, when Shift2 was pitching this idea of a vampire series to U by Kotex, we searched the internet to see if there were any conversations around periods and vampires. Well, there were over 1 million results on Google! People were in heavy debate about whether this is possible! I love the idea that a brand, who already had an Internet success with their cheeky “Reality Check,” could come out with a definitive statement: “Yes – Vampires get their periods. They should know — They’ve had over 400 year’s worth!”
bc: You cite a 2015 survey (10,500 respondents) in which “31% said they bought U by Kotex because of Carmilla.” That is shockingly high engagement and successful purchasing action after a piece of branded content. Even other successful branded projects don’t boast that kind of success. What is it about Carmilla that other brands could learn?
Bennett: Carmilla is not about a product. It is not a commercial. It is simply a show that captures the same attributes of a brand. That might sound small, but it is actually HUGE. The female Millennial demographic is the most sophisticated media group in history. They smell a commercial in 2 seconds and are inundated with ads in every form of media every day. They are blind to ads and the moment they feel they are being sold to, they are out. Carmilla aims to just be a great show that they can enjoy.
We didn’t even tell people there was a brand behind it until Ep17 in Season 1. At that point, anyone viewing was a fan and so to find out a brand “made you a show” you’re much more likely to embrace them for the gift then tune out because of a hard sell. Make a commercial and you’re just another commercial. Make great content and the audience will become your brand ambassadors.
Whitney-Vernon: The client is often called brave by other brands. Brave? Saving a person from a burning building is brave. Connecting your brand to a good story is smart business, but scares most brands who are used to an advertising model that demands product features and logos to be the main focus of any consumer content.
The focus needs to switch from pushing a product to engaging an audience. Give me something of value first and once I am hooked, I am far more willing to buy your product. Otherwise, people will block your ad, skip through it or swipe left. And romance sells!
bc: How much is Carmilla a throwback to the TV paradigm of the past where a single brand was behind a while show, like Studebaker and Mr. Ed or Nabisco and Rin Tin Tin?
Bennett: Brands are always behind content—GE owned NBC—and I would like to think that Carmilla is less a throwback to the old model and more a path to the new model.
bc: Even MASH had to end. What is the exit plan for Carmilla?
Bennett: Carmilla is more than a show. Carmilla is a brand. In the coming months, we plan to make some more announcements that will show how the brand will grow and evolve for the years ahead.