Brand film was greatest investment BMW ever made

The fifth iteration of the Brand Film Awards will take the temperature of a craft that has matured exponentially in the half decade since they were launched.

BMW's The Escape branded content was created in the same way as a mainstream Hollywood feature film.

The art of brand filmmaking has certainly evolved considerably since PRWeek and our sister brand Campaign launched the Brand Film Festival in 2016.

Now renamed as the Brand Film Awards, our fifth celebration of the art is still the only festival solely dedicated to films produced by or on behalf of brands, a field that is evolving fast but for which the definitive playbook has certainly not yet been written.

When we launched the first festival there was still intense debate about what a brand film actually is, and how if differs from a traditional advertisement. There are those who still don’t see any distinction between the two, though I believe there is fundamental clear water.

In those days there was a tendency for brands to shoehorn themselves into the films, whether through a clumsily placed logo or the insertion of a piece of gratuitous self-promotion plonked unceremoniously into a piece of previously perfectly performing story narrative.

That made the ad/brand film distinction harder to define and has not yet completely disappeared. But the understanding of the nuances involved in the production of effective brand films has certainly evolved – and I like to think the Brand Film Festival has played a small part in stimulating best practice and improvement of the craft.

It is an initiative that brings together all the marketing disciplines and very much mirrors the major trend toward integration across the entirety of marketing services. Brand storytelling is the starting point for most marketing narratives and brand films fit perfectly into that environment.

One trend that has definitely emerged since the launch of the festival is that the topics of purpose and cause are particularly well suited and prevalent to the genre, and many of the selected films at our gala screenings have these themes at their core.

Indeed, sitting through the screening and watching the films back to back can become slightly harrowing as filmmakers toy with viewers’ emotions and tackle incredibly difficult topics such as immigration, sexual abuse, disability, the decline of traditional industrial communities, race relations, and so on.

This year we are delighted to have secured Patagonia’s VP of global marketing, Cory Bayers, as our chair of jury. There can be few enterprises that have purpose authentically at their core to the extent that Patagonia does, and we are looking forward to welcoming Bayers’ insights into the brand film judging process in 2020.

But it’s also worth noting that some of the most impactful – and enjoyable – activations in the past four years have revolved around purely entertainment themes.

We welcomed Birdman Oscar-winning screenwriter Armando Bo to the festival in 2017, when his Lifeline film for Qualcomm was honored at our gala screening that year.

Lifeline was a 30-minute thriller starring Olivia Munn, Wang Leehom and Joan Chen that used a smartphone containing Qualcomm’s Snapdragon mobile processing components as a plot device to reveal the mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance. The product presence is non-intrusive and completely woven into the plot.

As Bo told PRWeek at the time: "If I were a brand, why not do something that is compelling, something that is meaningful, that represents the brand, but also is engaging? Of course it is the future, because people are watching less TV every day. I would love to see more brands investing in doing meaningful stories."

Another big brand synonymous with brand filmmaking is BMW, which took the plunge way back in the pre-broadband times of 2001 with a series of eight films called The Hire, starring Clive Owen as The Driver and stimulating 100 million views – an incredible achievement in the days of dial-up where viewers would have to wait overnight for a film like this to download.

BMW revived the franchise in 2016 with The Escape, also starring Owen, this time alongside Dakota Fanning and Jon Bernthal, in a hugely successful sequel that thankfully could be viewed instantaneously via modern internet access speeds.

The production was treated very much like a normal feature film project and, while there were famous actors involved, the car was always the star, without ever resorting to the deployment of intrusive and self-promotional tactics.

Another theme that has been a constant throughout our brand film festivals is the topic of measurement and effectiveness. What these films actually achieve in terms of return on investment is a constant retort.

But for BMW North America’s VP of marketing Trudy Hardy, the value of the films has never been in doubt. As she told a workshop prior to the 2017 gala screening: "Everyone now looks back on this as the greatest investment the company ever made. It has exponentially paid off, not only in our brand equity and our brand value, but also sales. We created fans for life."

That’s the best endorsement of brand filmmaking I can think of to make the case for investing marketing dollars into the genre and I look forward to celebrating a fantastic new batch of films in the 2020 Brand Film Awards.

You have until 22 January to submit your best work, with an extended deadline of 29 January for those who need it. The Brand Film Awards workshop and gala screening will take place in New York City on May 7.

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