Lights. Camera. Brands! The best in cinematic storytelling at the Brand Film Festival

The first gala screening of the Brand Film Festival showcased the best in cinematic storytelling,as companies illustrated how they leverage a mix of creative work to produce effective content that captures consumers' minds in a crowded market.

When a Hollywood film does well, its payout comes in millions of dollars in ticket sales. However, when a brand film does well, its payout can be audience engagement, growing brand recognition and loyalty, and an improved company reputation.

In this year’s inaugural Brand Film Festival, hosted by PRWeek and Campaign US, in partnership with Weber Shandwick, agencies and corporations showed the breadth and depth of where truly innovative films — ranging from six seconds to 60 minutes and beyond — can go. The honorees ranged from Hollywood-esque film The Audition with big players such as Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio, to the industry-focused short film Say No to Spec.

Ten years ago, branded films weren’t a big part of the market. Commercials reigned supreme for years, but the video takeover on the Internet and social media has shifted the balance of power. Online video’s explosion, largely coinciding with Facebook putting more emphasis on its video capabilities in 2014, spurred the integration of Snapchat, Vine, Facebook videos, and YouTube series into the world of comms.

Say No To Spec

Zulu Alpha Kilo’s film is a funny commentary on the ad industry

For social videos, shareability is key. Engaging, entertaining, relevant, and authentic video content, whether it’s two minutes or 20 minutes, can be spread globally by online consumers. Brands often measure the success of these videos by the millions of online shares.

"In the golden age of television, you weren’t able to share that TV commercial, other than by word of mouth," says Geoffrey Campbell, senior director of content and production at WPP-owned media firm MediaCom. "But now with short films online, you have the ability to share them with anyone in the world."

The purpose of TV commercials was typically to sell or inform consumers about a new product. Branded short films, Web series, and social videos aim to do much more. Selling a product is often simply one of many results from making a good branded video.

Brands are now staffing up and investing more in making films. Audi, for example, has an in-house videographer and account director and producer to complement the creative agencies the company partners with. Audi’s CMO Loren Angelo says the auto company has seen the market move toward digital and began investing more in video.

"[Films] allow you more flexibility. There are fewer constraints than the 30- or 60-second commercial in these long-form entertainment pieces," Angelo adds. "But you still have to have both of these elements at play. Commercials serve a very strong role for an organization such as ours, but in combination with some of this entertainment and long-form content we’re able to tell better and deeper stories."

The companies behind four very different honorees at the Brand Film Festival spoke to PRWeek about creating a successful branded film. Brands and agencies can’t jump into branded films with the same mind-set as commercials. TV ads aren’t skippable, like most online videos, and those making these videos have to work harder to grab the viewer’s attention before that skip button appears. The first hurdle is to simply create something entertaining.

We develop content that entertains or informs consumers first, then builds a relationship with them


- David Beebe, Marriott

Entertaining can be a broad term. Fictional films such as Marriott International’s 20-minute long Parisian love story French Kiss follow the traditional Hollywood film model. Others, such as Revlon’s Love Test, feel more like a series of real-life interviews. Audi’s Reality? Check. leans closer to a traditional commercial, but uses experimental filming techniques. And Zulu Alpha Kilo’s Say No to Spec is a funny commentary on the advertising industry.

That’s entertainment!
David Beebe, VP of global creative and content marketing and head of Marriott’s in-house content studio, says entertainment is his first goal. Marriott’s two-year-old Content Studio produces brand content such as short films, Snapchat partnerships, documentaries, TV shows, books, and magazines.

"The studio focuses on developing content that entertains or informs consumers first, and then builds a relationship with them," Beebe says.

The engagement comes when the new followers comment, like, or share the video. The main goal is always to spread the film far and wide and get as many eyes on it as possible.

"If you can create that level of engagement where audiences are immersed in your brand and being entertained, that’s invaluable," Campbell adds. "They’re being exposed to your brand values and attributes in a way other mediums don’t necessarily allow for."

Reality? Check.

Audi’s piece aimed to tap into people’s memories of childhood

Online films naturally build up a social following for a brand. Most companies post videos to the big three: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, with others partnering with relevant websites or creating their own sites for the film.

"[The film] helped build up subscribers and a community around it. We were bringing people into the brand," Beebe says. "Then we can retarget them with other personalized marketing messages, further bring them into our world and, ultimately, drive loyalty with us. That’s really the key."

But consumers are smart. Brand video experts say it’s best to be upfront with them.

"When you see something that’s clearly been produced and has actors, that’s a big difference because consumers can smell the BS," says Tamara Alesi, managing partner and director of digital strategy at MediaCom, who worked on Revlon’s video Love Test.

The right audience sometimes comes without promotion. In the case of Canadian ad agency Zulu Alpha Kilo’s Say No to Spec, the video was posted online and picked up by people in the industry all over the world. Zak Mroueh, chief creative officer and founder of Zulu Alpha Kilo, says it was about the agency standing for something they believe in.

There’s a lot of clutter in the marketplace. You need to create something that is more authentic


- Tamara Alesi, MediaCom

"People have asked if they can screen it at events with clients, someone wants to screen it at a presentation about ‘how to be a better client,’" he adds. "We had hundreds of emails from all over the world, from clients and other agencies, saying they were inspired to adopt the same value."

Making the millennial connection
Millennials are often the biggest audience for branded online video, as they tend to watch the most digital content. But MediaCom’s Campbell explains that film can be aimed at any demographic with the right distribution and type of video.

The Audi short film was targeted at men aged 18 to 49 and was promoted online to that demographic, but if he were targeting children and parents, for example, he would suggest an animated video.

"You can make bespoke films targeted at a specific audience. You can make broad content targeted at a broad audience," says Campbell. "If you do it right, there’s no reason this format couldn’t apply to any and all audiences."

Videos have an immersive factor that often isn’t present in other media. That means the brand is able to make a more personal, intimate, and emotional connection with its audience.

In Audi and MediaCom’s Reality? Check. short film, which Campbell worked on, a child playing with a Matchbox car was spliced alongside a real-life Audi performing the same road stunts.

"We were trying to tap into an emotion; we wanted to create something inspiring," adds Campbell. "As a viewer, maybe you can identify with your own inner child and, if you played with Matchbox cars, ask yourself, what would you do with that car?"

Other films bring in humor, love stories, personal experiences, struggle, or triumph to strike a chord with viewers. Revlon’s Love Test was aimed at empowering women and encouraging self-love. The Q&A-format film featured real couples talking about their love lives and encouraged women to take time for themselves every day.

Alesi says the initial goal was to impact women’s lives in a positive way, but Revlon also benefited from a 2% increase in its share price and two number one product launches after the video.

"There’s a lot of clutter in the marketplace," she adds. "If you want to have a human connection with the consumer and you want them to share it, you need to create something more relatable and authentic."

Subtlety key for branded content
Subtlety is the key in brand films. Content creators often refer to the line between "beating someone over the head" with the brand and integrating it naturally as walking a tightrope.

With Marriott’s French Kiss, the hotel is only part of the story. It’s clearly seen in the film, but the focus is on the character’s adventures in Paris and the love story. Beebe says the goal was to inspire people to travel, with the hope that viewers would remember Marriott when booking a hotel.

"We’re not trying to fool anybody," says Beebe. "It says ‘Marriott Hotels presents’ at the beginning, and it’s on the Marriott Hotels channel. Consumers really appreciate when a brand doesn’t try to sell them something and tries to provide value first."

Brand videos are not likely to go anywhere soon. Time spent watching online videos has almost doubled since 2010, according to a Nielsen report, and smartphone usage has nearly eclipsed TV time.

If anything, brands are starting to experiment with new formats, including live video with Facebook or Periscope, and even virtual reality, as that market ramps up.

"Today, consumers really control when, where, and how they interact with brands. It’s no longer that we control the message and they have to watch it. They can skip over things, click off banners, and delete emails if it’s not relevant," says Beebe. "Our strategy is to stop interrupting and become what consumers are interested in. Storytelling is a great way to do that."

Consumers are no longer at the mercy of TV networks for content. Brands need to stop interrupting the consumer and become the story themselves


- P. J. Pereira, jury chair and chief creative officer and cofounder, Pereira & O’Dell

Best Film By Brand

Title: The Longest Night
Client: Philips
Agency: The New York Times, T Brand Studio, Carat, and Spindle
Date aired: December 2015
Country: Global

The Longest Night tells the real-life story of Icelandic fisherman Páll Pálsson’s struggle with chronic fatigue and apnea as part of a broader effort to highlight Philips’ focus on aiding people to live better lives.

Pálsson, who has been a man of the sea for 36 years, explains in the documentary-style video that sleep apnea makes it difficult to concentrate at his already-difficult job. "The deck is slippery, so you need to watch your feet. One wrong move and you could be over the edge," Pálsson says in the film, which is in Icelandic with English subtitles. The film was featured on The New York Times’ Living Health Hub and Paid Post, as well as the T Brand Studio Vimeo account.

To go along with the video, Philips created information about apnea and the brand’s suite of solutions that help patients manage issues like this. The video, released as part of a series, received a Vimeo staff pick and has garnered more than 100,000 views.

Most Creative

Title: The Audition
Client: Melco Crown Entertainment
Agency: FleishmanHillard, SPRG, Group M, DDB, and RacPac Entertainment
Date aired: October 27, 2015
Country: Macau and Hong Kong, China

The Audition is a short film featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, as they travel to Asia to vie for a part in a new Martin Scorsese movie. However, they do not know they are competing with each other for the role.

The story starts in Philippines capital Manila, develops in Macau, and takes a final twist in Tokyo, putting two new resorts — the Studio City casino in Macau and City of Dreams Manila — at the center of the story.

The aim behind the film was to promote last year’s launch of the resorts, owned by Melco Crown Entertainment.

Studio City welcomed almost 1 million visitors in its first month alone, while City of Dreams Manila saw 8.5 million guests in 2015. Hotel occupancy across both resorts has consistently been over 90% since opening, with Studio City reaching 99% occupancy in December and projected to hit 95% in 2016.

Best Long-Form

Title: Intel and The Grammys Present "The Lady Gaga Experience"
Client: Intel
Agency: OMD, Prettybird, Greenlight, and Zeno Group
Date Aired: February 15, 2016
Country: U.S.

Fearless performer Lady Gaga stepped up to the plate to deliver a unique, heartfelt, genre-bending, tech-driven, and ultimately, very Gaga performance in honor of the late David Bowie at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards in February 2016. This documentary takes viewers behind the scenes of that performance.

The documentary celebrates artistry with breathtaking imagery, in an explosion of color and stark black and white that throws into sharp relief the passion and love Gaga and Intel imbue to their work. Viewers sit back and watch these two worlds eclipse, showing the future of technology and art.

Intel maintained the lead in overall share of voice among sponsor brands during the Grammys with 58,350 mentions on Twitter. Intel and Lady Gaga conversations received 22,967 mentions — six times higher than before the show.

Best Film By an Agency

Title: Malak and the Boat
Client: UNICEF
Agency: 180LA and House of Colors
Date aired: February 2, 2016
Country: Middle East/North African region, U.K., and U.S.

Malak and the Boat juxtaposes stunning animation with the true story of 7-year-old Malak’s harrowing journey across the Mediterranean. The film features a young girl in a boat with several people, one of whom is her mother.

The sea appears to come alive, becoming a terrifying monster, as Malak narrates her fear that she and her mother would drown in the cold, rough waters. Although Malak stands to have a bright future as sunlight finally breaks through, she is suddenly alone in the boat. Then, the real Malak appears at the end of the video, safe and smiling.

The video is part of UNICEF’s new animated series Unfairy Tales, which chronicles real children’s journeys from Syria and highlights how 8 million children’s lives are in ruins because of the Syrian conflict.

 The series touches on tragedies that are beyond what any human should experience, much less a child. The film promoted February’s Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London, which was attended by more than 70 countries.

Best Short-Form

Title: Breathless Choir
Client: Philips
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather London, Carat London, Tool of North America, and One Voice
Date aired: November 18, 2015
Country: U.S. and U.K.

Breathless Choir takes viewers on the emotional journey of 18 people with breathing difficulties who overcome their fears and afflictions to perform The Police song "Every Breath You Take" on stage at the Apollo Theater in New York City.

Led by celebrity choirmaster Gareth Malone, the singers range from sufferers of cystic fibrosis, COPD, and asthma to September 11 first responders. Supported by Philips’ SimplyGo Mini oxygen concentrator, the singers’ breakthrough illustrates how Philips’ healthcare technology improves people’s lives. In addition, four films that dug deeper into the choir’s story were also created.

The documentary-style film was launched on major news sites including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Forbes. More than 15 million people engaged with the films online. The campaign generated a 14% rise in revenue in Q4 — a record high for Philips’ portable oxygen solutions.

Case studies written by Diana Bradley

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