As consumers become more powerful masters of their screen domains, marketers will increasingly need to produce campaigns that are every bit as engaging and entertaining as the content they appear around. These days, brands are facing off against not only their traditional competitors, but they also are vying for consumer attention with celebrity news, political tweets, and Facebook posts from crazy relatives. Branded films are one avenue for circumventing ad blockers and DVR skipping, and should see significant growth in the coming years.
This is top-of-mind because I just finished judging entries for the upcoming Brand Film Festival, a showcase of branded content ranging from YouTube videos to full-length documentaries. Hunkering down by the fire with my laptop and headphones watching videos was the perfect way to spend a cold and windy weekend. It was also an inspiring dive into the art and craft of creating video assets that engage the heart and mind while elevating a brand. The entries covered a wide spectrum in length, type of organization supported, and tonality, and elicited everything from belly laughs to goosebumps to tears.
As a judge, I, of course, didn’t have the luxury of sitting back and simply enjoying the material, but instead had to thoughtfully evaluate it across several criteria. And while all the entries had merit, some clearly rose to the top. The process of going deep on this range of branded content crystallized for me some of the principles that defined those films that distinguished themselves in terms of strategy, distinctiveness, and overall effectiveness.
I won’t name names in this piece (the awards ceremony is scheduled for May 4 in New York; the views here are my own), but here are the learnings I took away from the best entries.
• Integrate artfully: Shining a light on the brand, of course, is the whole point, and filmmakers took a range of approaches for how to do that. Some brands were simply present, perhaps playing a functional role incidental to the story. Some played the role of major actor in the story, advocating a point of view or pursuing a mission. Some lurked in the background with only a modest sense of sponsorship. But the most intriguing and effective films found an artful, nuanced way to bring the brand into the story that went beyond the familiar and expected brand posture. These brands were woven into the narrative fabric in a manner that was natural and fully present, but at the same time somewhat unexpected and sometimes even a little startling.
• Be fresh: Reality television has provided a number of storytelling formats for brands to adopt, and several were visible in the brand film entries. While offering a convenient vehicle for slotting in a brand, a familiar structure that appears on television every night creates a sense of slightly dull sense of predictability. The best examples either provided a twist to the expected or created an entirely new construct that heightened intrigue and engagement, showcasing the brand as imaginative and innovative.
• Stay grounded in reality: As marketers who live, breathe, and bleed our brands every day, it’s easy to develop a slightly enlarged sense of our brand’s place in the world. This world view can result in an overly heroic role for the brand in changing the world around it—leaving the viewer a touch skeptical and thereby undermining the genuine value brought by the brand. The most resonant films presented an appropriately scaled vision of their brands—from humble support player to transformational catalyst—that leave the viewer moved and convinced.
• Be true to your DNA: There are many motivations for producing branded film (or for that matter, any marketing asset): to drive awareness among new consumers; to showcase an unknown facet of the brand; to generate stronger emotional resonance. Inherent in all of these motivations is a desire to shed new light on the brand—which creates the risk of unnatural brand acts. These are actions and postures that really can’t be genuinely traced to the DNA of the brand, but that are rather taken for the more tactical purpose of a “big moment” in the story. A less-than-100%-authentic stance in one marketing campaign will not resonate as hoped and raises the question of whether that drumbeat will continue steadily for the brand. The more effective films showcased inherent truths and enduring values of the brand, albeit in a new and interesting way. In a world where consumers are seeking authenticity and genuineness more than ever, staying rigorously true to brand DNA is critical to engaging powerfully.
Pulling way back, and considering the new reality that everything competes with everything, the above learnings apply to every piece of marketing content we produce. To powerfully engage consumers and move their attitudes and behavior, we will always need to bring fresh approaches for showcasing our brands, have a clear-eyed sense of our brand reality, and stay authentically true to who we are and who we strive to be. That’s the never-ending, ever-changing story of the brand champion.