For each The Escape or Come Together, from BMW and H&M, respectively, there are dozens of branded films that go unnoticed and waste their potential, say in-house executives, film directors, and agency producers. The reason: marketers are applying the wrong thought processes and practices to the evolving media.
It’s easy to understand why so many brands want to get into the film-making business. A 2016 study by Nielsen revealed that high-quality branded content is far more effective in terms of brand recall and lift than advertising. Brands can also use online platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime to distribute their content, in addition to their owned channels.
Film festivals are even putting their seal of approval on branded content. Last year, the Tribeca Film Festival gave out its first branded content award. PRWeek and Campaign will celebrate the year’s most artistic, creative, and effective branded content at their second annual Brand Film Festival next week.
A new brand film premieres virtually each week. Timed for the 2017 NFL Draft, Hyundai is profiling the inspirational and heart-tugging stories of top prospects in four mini-documentaries. The films are part of a campaign called Rolling with the Rookies, which includes an activation at the event in Philadelphia called the NFL Draft Experience with an interactive exhibit highlighting footage and memorabilia from the future NFL players.
Michael Stewart, senior group manager of corporate and marketing PR, who joined Hyundai in April after 10 years at Ketchum, says the videos connect with the automaker’s Better Drives Us brand theme. Its goal with the initiative is to deliver better experiences, including in its communications, to consumers.
"This is the first big series of branded content that Hyundai has done with the NFL. We’re going to be watching closely to see how it goes and what we can do because we think there are so many opportunities," Stewart explains.
Hyundai’s experiential agency, Advantage, produced the videos, while Ketchum provided PR support, "but I think branded content can come from any one of those disciplines," he notes.
However, the automaker that leads the pack in branded films is BMW, which released high-octane film shorts called The Hire 15 years ago. Last year, the luxury brand reunited the same creative team and brought back actor Clive Owen for The Escape, which has been viewed more than 5.7 million times on YouTube since October 2016.
Manuel Sattig, head of brand strategy and communications at BMW of North America, says the automaker follows a golden rule of brand-film production.
"Don’t put your usual brand umbrella over a project like this. When you start briefing directors, script writers, and even actors very specifically about your brand values and how you want everything to be perceived, you’re really moving away from branded content," he says. "You’ll just end up with a longer TV spot that you designed by yourself."
That’s why BMW’s creative brief for The Escape, promoting the revamped 5 Series Sedan, had very few restrictions, says Sattig.
"All we said is that we wanted to have a homage to the first BMW films on their 15th anniversary," he explains.
Like a movie or TV studio handing the creative reins to a showrunner, BMW was ready for its vehicles to play almost any role in the film.
"As we know from the success of TV shows such as Game of Thrones, audiences have come to expect no one is safe and everyone can die. And so our cars got shot at, smashed up, and destroyed from the outside," says Sattig. "As a brand, you have to get away from the usual rules in terms of what your product has to look like, how it can be treated, and how it can be displaced, if you really want to create authentic branded content."
Paul Trillo is an award-winning director at Big Block Media who has written and directed brand films on Vimeo, such as Living Moments for Microsoft The Irrational Fear of Nothing for Olympus.
The latter, singled out by PRWeek as one of 13 must-see brand films of 2016, follows a balding, middle-aged man around the streets of Manhattan as he tries to keep his neuroses in check with an unrelenting, sometimes hilarious internal dialogue. Trillo had the idea for the story for a long time when Vimeo and Olympus came to him with a brief that seemed like a good fit: tell a story using a shot that follows the subject from behind.
"I had intended to make the film on my own, but then I got the brand funding to make it," says Trillo. "I’ve created more short films because I’ve had these branded opportunities. Some of the most interesting work in my portfolio is from branded pieces."
However, he points out that not every brand-filmmaker relationship is a good one; Trillo recalls working on films where the client hasn’t given its trust to the filmmaking team and undermines the creative process as a result.
"Some people say they want to do branded content but then play it safe; that is when you get a watered-down product that doesn’t end up with the impact the client had hoped for," he says. "To some degree, brand films that go viral aren’t safe; there has to be something kind of new, unexpected, and even bizarre about it."
To brand or not to brand
"Brands have to identify one of two paths" when it comes to integrating themselves into a film, and they need to stick to that strategy, says Mike McGarry, SVP and director of emerging content at Fitzgerald & Co.
In the first, the brand has a natural role in the story, such as in the short film his agency did for Checkers & Rally’s called Buy Back the Block, in which rap mogul Rick Ross returns to his hometown, fulfills his dream of buying the local Checkers, and gives back to his community.
"The litmus test is this: can you tell the story without the brand? If the answer is yes, then the brand shouldn’t have a central role in the story. But if you do have that kind of story, don’t shy away from telling it," advises McGarry. "And outline the brand’s role very clearly on the front end, because where it goes bad a lot of time is when the brand’s role gets shifted midstream. That is how to me a lot of films tend to go sour."
Other times, the brand has a very minor role.
P.J. Pereira, chief creative officer and cofounder of Periera & O’Dell, says a brand has to decide the role it can play in the film based on the weight and affection it carries with consumers.
"A brand like Lego is already fun and a star by itself, and so it put its name on a movie and people go and watch it," he says, referring to 2014’s The Lego Movie blockbuster and its sequel released this year. "NetScout, on the other hand, is a brand people don’t know or understand, and so you want people to seek the content for other reasons and then learn more about the brand."
A global cybersecurity and service-assurance provider, NetScout is behind the documentary from legendary German director Werner Herzog called Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World. The film looks at the future of technology and its relationship to humans.
NetScout is mentioned in Lo & Behold, which has a 93% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com, a scant 10 times during its 98-minute running time.
"And so NetScout broke certain rules of marketing by being way less prominent and putting the audience first, because if they didn’t, they would never had had the chance to talk to them," says Pereira. "For a brand film to be successful, the audience needs to feel that this is a legitimate and honest attempt to entertain or inform. Because if you overplay your hand as a brand, you kill the content and people start to say, ‘This is just an ad.’"
NetScout’s approach has paid off. Lo & Behold premiered at Sundance last year, making it the first branded film to be accepted into the film festival. Magnolia Pictures bought it after an intense bidding war.
"In the end, they paid more to NetScout than it cost them to produce the film," says Pereira.
As brands get more ambitious with films, projects such as Lo & Behold show they should also aim high with their distribution options.
Steve Slivka, chief creative officer at Edelman, says content from brands is "no longer the thing in between the stuff audiences want to watch, but hopefully the stuff they want to watch. That is the goal."
"And so brands should be thinking like a content publisher and entertainer; it is not beyond the realm of possibility that you should be looking at partnerships with Hulu and others, because they will be interested if the content is high-quality," he says. "It is really dependent on the power of the content you’re creating."