As our attention spans diminish and the battle for our time grows more volatile, advertisers have been working on promoting brands with ultra-short spots, pop-up ads that users can’t figure out how to close, or all manner of wannabe-viral gimmicks. Conventional wisdom has had us chasing ever-shrinking ad spaces, and we’ve been trying every dirty trick in the book to put brands in front of eyeballs before they can blink.
But maybe the answer to connecting with audiences isn’t pushy, or fast, or dumbed-down. Maybe the key is in quality... not in small quantities. Maybe long-form branded film content is the slow and steady that wins this race.
You do. Really. The stuff that is coming out is really pretty good, and consumers actually go out of their way to watch it. Maybe no one wants to watch Coca-Cola: The Movie. But people DID watch The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, and they will probably watch The LEGO Movie 2, because the franchise has been pretty good so far.
But there’s more than one way brands are doing long-form branded content.
Sometimes the products are hardly even featured in the ads. This collaboration between Prada and Wes Anderson, for example, is stylistically on-brand without mentioning Prada or featuring their products – it’s just the logoed sponsor on the back of a racecar driver’s jumpsuit.
And many of these brand films are actually series. One of the first of these is called The Hire for BMW and was released in the early 2000s. It featured big name directors such as Guy Ritchie and Ang Lee, and Clive Owen starred in all of them as “The Driver” along with a cast of other celebrities. More recently, this series for Ermenegildo Zegna was released featuring Javier Bardem.
Some are less about star power – our own documentary collaboration with Springfield Armory entitled Night of the SAINT, and Marriott’s wildly successful Two Bellmen series appealed to brand audiences by the quality of the content and production value.
The only common thread among branded long-form content from Prada to LEGO is the underlying concept: to make films that boost a brand without feeling like a commercial. The whole point is making something you want to watch.
Our people elaborate:
There's a nebulous space in which it greatly depends on whether the audience feels like it’s watching a commercial. There's also evidence, with The LEGO Movie as one example, that enough emotional appeal can elevate something that would otherwise feel like advertising. – Alexandra Bohannon
These films aren’t designed to directly sell a product, but rather to shift the mindset that exists around a brand. What Lives Inside highlights the innovation and imagination of the Intel brand. French Kiss highlights the exploration, relaxation and wonder that you experience with travel. You may not watch French Kiss and book your Parisian vacation with Marriott, but you may choose Marriott over Hilton the next time you book a hotel. – Carly Jimeson
At the very least, these stories offer a glimpse into who these companies are and what they represent. In the case of Marriott, they are promising action, excitement and laughter. For REI, meaningful journeys. Both are certainly conversation starters. Whether we choose to pick up and continue the conversation is up to us … but they are opening the door and extending the invitation. And I think we can all agree that it’s far better to be invited to join in rather than have a guest – the commercial – unexpectedly show up. – Sherri Duran
Not unless you have a clear strategy behind it. But think about how many times you tap your fingers waiting for the pop-up ads to disappear. That counts as a “view,” and did you really watch it?
According to this article from Contently:
Placing ads in an existing media space gives companies the ability to target and reach an audience in the context of a newspaper, magazine, or TV show consumers love. As ads have increasingly saturated those mediums, however, consumers have tuned out the noise.
AdWeek also weighs in:
Brands spend millions making people see their content, but that doesn’t mean consumers enjoy it. Brands’ focus should therefore not be the view count but rather how audiences receive the film and whether the content actually resonates with them.
So, what does this mean for the future of brand marketing?
The attention given to these films does not imply that the only way for brands to gain viewership and trust is by creating feature films with huge budgets, partnerships and celebrities. On the contrary: It doesn’t matter whether brand films are a 30-second snippet or a 20-minute documentary, audiences will engage with content as long as it adds genuine value to their viewing experience, even if that value comes in the form of Hollywood-style, cinematic entertainment.
As AM’s Tuck Oden says:
I think our interaction with many brands has moved from transactional to relational, almost like a friendship. Brands are learning that they need to be something people want to spend their time with – to become trusted, liked and worthwhile in their customers’ eyes.
If you think of it this way – brands almost as personalities, cultivating friendships with their audience – then brands making films makes perfect sense. This is a way they can showcase their personality. It’s the equivalent of a conversation with the audience: “Here’s who I am, what I’m about, my values. Are they yours too?”
The answer to that is whether you are ready to play a long game and build a strategy around a branded film. When you invest in a big project like this, your knee-jerk reaction might be an expectation that this is the project. Advertising done. ROI pending.
But AM’s Jesse Greenberg explains:
Let's think of branded content as the NFL season. The branded film is the Super Bowl moment, and each week of the season is the continued branded content conversation.
The most dedicated fans have been interacting with this team throughout the year, and the Super Bowl is a culmination of everything as well as a celebration.
There are other viewers who don’t follow as closely. This is the one time they tune in, and maybe this will get them excited to start following next year.
If you aren't thinking carefully about product integration, merchandise, data collection, content licensing and experiential for a brand film, then you have not fully capitalized on creating content.
This article about the Two Bellmen series explains that Marriott not only sold off packages related to the travel experiences featured in the videos, they used the viewers as a data set to drive other content production:
Marriott runs a lot of paid media on all of their different social channels to drive traffic to the films. The original Two Bellmen has 5.1 million YouTube views, while the sequel has 7.9 million. [Former VP Global Creative for Marriott] David Beebe said that the films have “completion rates of 80 percent and above,” which he feels validates the creative strategy driving the Two Bellmen franchise.
On the business side, Marriott is selling Two Bellmen packages to take advantage of the brand lift following the film’s release.
“We’re also capturing all of that user data, especially on YouTube,” explained Beebe. “With five to seven million views each, that’s actually a lot of data we get back that we can use to retarget those people with other forms of marketing.”
And as AM’s Henry Martin says:
The trick is to create entire universes of content, so you reduce the pressure on something like a branded film to do everything all at once, and also to provide a continued influence on your audience as opposed to one-and-done. – Henry Martin
According to this article’s bit about the Prada/Wes Anderson collaboration:
I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Prada.com, but last week I spent more than 7 minutes on the site. Although the Prada brand is most noticeable on the back of Jason Schwartzman’s jacket for a brief second, I now have an appreciation of what Prada stands for, and I shared the film with my friends and family.
- Do it for the audience, not the numbers. You aren’t here to break box offices, but to connect people to your brand.
- Appeal to emotions over product placement. You might not get more than positive brand association, but that is what the film is for, and the film is not all things. (see below)
- This is not your whole advertising campaign. You must treat it as a piece of a greater narrative and let other mediums/platforms do the rest.
- Play the long game. Understand that you might not see immediate, direct ROI, but by using and applying this content to a greater narrative, feature length videos can boost your appeal and ultimately garner loyalty among your audience.