Steve Barrett on PR: A night at the (brand) movies

The fifth Brand Film Awards celebration was a perfect way to while away an hour or two under lockdown and a tribute to the evolution of brand filmmaking.

Corona beer received some welcome positive recognition at the Brand Film Awards 2020 virtual gala celebration.
Corona beer received some welcome positive recognition at the Brand Film Awards 2020 virtual gala celebration.

Some people may think brand content is a relatively new arrival on the communications and marketing scene.

But, as a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, Michelin started producing its legendary travel guides in the late 1800s. That was as fine an example of branded content as you’re ever likely to see. It ultimately resulted in the Michelin name becoming the ultimate measure of a restaurant’s quality, with its star system being established in 1926 as a direct byproduct of said brand content.

Yesterday’s 2020 Brand Film Awards gala presentation represented the modern benchmark for excellence in brand content. It was presented virtually for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic that scuppered our normal habit of showing the best films live in a physical environment at the Paley Center for Media theater in New York Coty.

If you didn’t see it, you missed a treat. But the good news is you can still watch it on catchup here. And you can go and watch the full-length versions of the winning films here. And read all the case studies here.

PRWeek teamed up with our sister brand Campaign five years ago to launch what is still the only festival dedicated to brand films.

At that time there was some great work to consider, with blockbusters such as BMW’s The Escape blazing a trail – a follow-up to its groundbreaking The Hire series from 2001. But the medium was still in its awkward adolescent phase, often unsure how it differed from a bog standard 30-second commercial or a traditional ad.

To be honest, there are still some films that make you think: Was that really just an extended ad? But, in general, the format has evolved to a stage where the craft and storytelling on display in brand films can sit alongside Hollywood blockbusters and hold its own.

Indeed, a couple of years ago we were delighted to welcome Birdman Oscar-winning screenwriter Armando Bo to our festival gala screening. Bo directed Lifeline for Qualcomm and attracted actors such as Olivia Munn, Wang Leehom and Joan Chen into the genre.

And this year’s winning film, In The Time It Takes To Get There for Adobe, was directed by actor, screenwriter and producer Zach Braff, probably best known for playing J. D. in Scrubs.

In another nod back to previous centuries, the setup for this film transfers the concept of a social influencer back to the 1800s, following the life of Lucy - an olden times Khardashian - as she navigates her privilege and luxury in a life that is ultimately empty and meaningless.

It’s funny. Ironic. Clever. And entertaining. It engaged an audience of students studying creativity through a poster competition as they begin their journey into a future Adobe hopes will result in them spending a lot of time with their suite of multimedia software products, without pushing the messaging down their throats.

Braff came on board the project via his representation relationship with RSA Films, inspired by an activation by Pereira O’Dell, and the movie poster competition was promoted by Edelman. It’s a true example of the collaboration that defines modern marketing projects and storytelling.

The depth of quality on the brand film bench is such that one of my favorite films this year, Navajo Sun for Yeti Coolers by Rabbit Foot Studios, while shortlisted, didn’t rank among the winners. The competition is fierce and all the shortlisted films are worth watching.

La Cerveza Mas Fina is a Spanish-language film that revolves around the history of Corona beer and delves into Mexican culture and the roots of Corona Mexico. Produced by Jae Goodman’s Observatory shop and Nexus Studios, it’s good to see some positive vibes for a beer brand that has been the subject of some slings and arrows during this unfortunate coronavirus pandemic.

Goodman is a former chair of jury of the Brand Film Awards and passionate proponent of the medium, so much so that he has built his whole agency around the genre.

In an op-ed he wrote for us, he notes: “Films that once sat at the edge of a campaign, created to complement and amplify the interruptive elements of an integrated campaign, now sit at the center with additional elements serving to complement and amplify the film.”

That’s a message PR pros can certainly relate to as it has typically applied to the whole profession and the historical perception of it. And it was good to see other PR firms apart from Edelman achieving recognition in the 2020 Brand Film Awards, including Agency of the Year GCI Health, Ketchum Sports & Entertainment, Finn Partners and Prosek – in the latter case highlighting that brand films are no longer the sole jurisdiction of consumer brands and external marketing functions.

“This is not a small distinction,” concludes Goodman in reflecting on the journey of brand film. “And, honestly, it took way longer than some of us thought it might.”

From the launch of Michelin travel guides 130 years ago to modern reflections on the nature of social influence set in an 1800s context, it has indeed been a long journey for brand content.

But good things come to those who wait. And I heartily recommend you spend an hour of your lockdown time checking out the best movies from the 2020 Brand Film Awards.

In fact, why not invest a whole evening in it and check out all the films in full.

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