A call to arms for branded film: How do brands entertain?

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Despite some trailblazing exceptions, branded film content has failed to become a mainstream marketing tool. James Morris, global chief executive of Stink, explains why.

Kevin Spacey, in his MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August 2013, advocated the simple notion that people do not care where content comes from—only whether it is any good or not. What better endorsement than from one of the world’s leading acting, directing and screenwriting talents that brands have full licence to create or commission content and film as much as Netflix or the BBC. 

So why have brands not pursued branded entertainment with more gusto? Well, we all know from the classic examples, such as the famous BMW short film series, The Hire, starring Clive Owen, that  brands can create cinematic films and work with high-end talent. 

BMW - "Ambush" (The Hire S01E01)

As makers of the first interactive film to win a Grand Prix at Cannes, our own project, Philips’ "Carousel," was also heralded as a new beginning for craft and production value in online branded entertainment. 

Philips Carousel Ad

Or take the more recent Lego movies. Here, we have a company owing its entire existence to what are, in essence, plastic bricks. The Lego Movie accelerated the effect of an array of entertainment initiatives from Lego to transform it into a popular-culture brand from which consumers have come to expect entertainment. Lego now either comes top or is in the top three of all recognized global brand-measurement studies. It seems entertainment has proved again that it can deliver results, both in terms of hard sales and "softer" brand metrics. 

Given the success of these examples, we might expect marketers to be issuing a call to arms for brand films and entertainment to be part of all marketing plans. Yet brands are still not embracing the opportunities the entertainment world can offer at a scale we might expect. We need to look at why the entertainment industry is not embracing brands. 

There are some entrenched beliefs among both parties about their counterparts. Generally speaking, marketers take the view that the only things the entertainment industry genuinely embraces are the marketing budgets. In general, marketers consider branded entertainment "second tier."

Conversely, the entertainment industry expects intrusive marketers to try to place their brand front and center of any film or TV show, with no sensitivity or understanding of the art, craft and the editorial integrity of the work. This is not the best basis for a long and successful partnership, which, like all true partnerships, has to be founded on mutual trust. 

A universal characteristic of people in entertainment is that they are "taste-makers." They are in the business of creating entertainment audiences seek out and want to follow. I love the example of Walter Presents, a streaming service specializing in foreign-language content that Channel 4 offers, which led to the success of Deutschland 83 in the UK. Italan Walter Iuzzolino, a former TV producer, based in London, watches drama series from across the globe and chooses the best based on three simple criteria. Is it popular in its home country? Is it award-winning or critically acclaimed work? Does it have the finest writing, directing and acting talent involved that each country has to offer? Essentially, a model designed to curate films and series worth our time as viewers.

Could brands benefit from embracing Iuzzolino’s model for entertainment? Is it possible for marketers to adopt a similar approach when judging brand marketing? Will people like it? Is it good work? Are we working with the best and right people? How many brand marketers or agencies actually wake up in the morning worrying whether they will be able to truly entertain their audience? Or fretting what the audience figures and critical response will be like?

For people in the entertainment industry, this comes more naturally; in this world, though, creating the best film or art is less important than aspiring to the best business outcome. So the mindset of a brand and the marketing community is somewhat less purist or idealistic.  

"A favorite option is to take a hybrid approach in which longform formats can be edited into ad formats"

The answer as to how we change this and bring the parties successfully together is not simple. In short, the ecosystems of both areas are different and do not easily align interests. 

So how do we change this?  

Brands need to commit time and money. They need to hire the people who know this area and can establish a positive working relationship with the best production, directing and writing talent and, ultimately, fund the development of the work, scripted or non-scripted. 

The entertainment world needs to embrace brands and marketing money. The production companies, studios and media houses should invest in people who understand the needs and operations of brands. The upcoming inaugural Brand Film Festival, which  former Grey London chief Nils Leonard and Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director, screenwriter and producer, will co-chair, is a good example of how we can further unlock the potential of longform, brand-funded entertainment.

Ultimately, both sides are businesses, meaning that their long-term success depends on being profitable. This is no different, whether one is selling toothpaste or the other a TV series. 

There are some strong examples of brand entertainment that show the true potential for partnerships between brands and publishers if both sides fully embrace the partnership and the principles listed above. The explosive growth of digital media company Vice has a lot to do with branded entertainment. The "Makers Project" was one of its first brand partnerships. 

The project brought Vice and tech company Intel together to create cutting-edge cultural content that worked well for all involved. It gave Vice a commercial model that could help it take its content to the masses. It produced state-of-the-art content that nobody would filter out because it was "branded."

Another example is the highly acclaimed global video platform Nowness, launched by LVMH in 2010 with Jefferson Hack as founder and chief creative officer. Nowness gives luxury a digital presence across various formats and is ultimately a business in its own right. 

Brands can also simply cut out the need for a partner by orchestrating the whole process themselves. They can choose to be both creators and publishers of entertainment. David Beebe, vice-president of global creative at hotel chain Marriott International, said "we are a media company now" in an interview with Contently about its push into entertainment. The short film series The Two Bellmen is the most prominent example so far of the array of content it is releasing. In a Variety article, Tony Chow, Asia Pacific director of creative and content marketing at Marriott, gives some insight into why it is so committed to the entertainment approach. According to Chow, a hotel package tied into its launch of the short film French Kiss generated $500,000, in revenue. 

Luxury brands also seem willing to adopt this model because they are a more natural player in the cultural establishment. Burberry used a short film, The Tale of Thomas Burberry, last year to celebrate its 160th anniversary. Italian luxury fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna recently launched its "Defining moments" campaign, featuring Robert De Niro and McCaul Lombardi in a fashion documentary. 

The Tale of Thomas Burberry - Burberry Festive Film 2016

Brands can also integrate an entertainment approach into their advertising. In a world in which it seems that fewer people actually care about advertising—just look at the phenomenon of  the "skip ad" button on YouTube—this may be the only way to get attention. 

A favorite option involves taking a hybrid approach in which longer-form formats can be edited into ad formats, or in which creative platforms can be brought to life through advertising and entertainment. 

Chanel championed its 2014 "The one that I want" campaign for Chanel No 5 in a beautiful Moulin Rouge homage directed by Baz Luhrmann and staring Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen. The campaign’s centerpiece was a short film that was then edited into more traditional 30-second ad formats. Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky successfully applied the same approach in the short films The Gentleman’s Wager I and II, starring Jude Law and Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini. Using the same creative platform for advertising and entertainment, it was screened across cinemas in the UK. 

Jude Law starred in The Gentleman’s Wager for Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Airbnb took another approach last summer, when it  asked cinema audiences to wear adapted 3D glasses for a split-screen experience as part of its first global campaign, "Live there." The technology, which allowed moviegoers to see two alternative travel experiences simultaneously, was one of a series of initiatives to expand on the platform by encouraging people to "live like a local," which also included the opening of a pop-up "Live There" house in Soho, London. 

Exploring this whole area seems to give us the answer to the question: "How do brands entertain?" Brands are delivering entertainment in many different ways, but the majority are not embracing the entertainment industry mindset of being dedicated to creating the best work by collaborating with the best talent that their audience will want to seek out and experience. 

Perhaps by understanding the entertainment industry better, more could join the list of active brand entertainers, but for this to happen the world of entertainment needs to understand the world of brands better, too. If marketers can understand and adopt the philosophy behind the best entertainment, that could be the recipe for success. An audience might not care whether it is being entertained by a brand, but it certainly cares whether or not the content is any good.