Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman

When branded content goes to Hollywood

In Trends by Peter Gearin

This is what happens when the world’s biggest brands want to go B-I-G.

The most conspicuous branding exercise in Australian corporate history lasted two hours, 46 minutes. It was a mega-dollar product shot directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and that plucky country “down under”. Strewth! Stone the crows! That epic of brand storytelling was called Australia.

Released in 2008, the most expensive film ever made in this country had a budget of $200 million. It was said at the time that Tourism Australia’s entire marketing and advertising budget that year was devoted to the film.

Was it a success? Well, it grossed about US$210 million at the box office and had people across the world talking about this country for a few weeks. And Tourism Australia claimed an up-tick in tourist numbers, especially for those wanting to visit the wild and mysterious Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Yes, the film’s somewhat cheesy dialogue and simplistic plot had locals squirming in their cinema seats, and aspects of the film’s promotion prodded our cultural cringe. But Luhrmann’s expansive direction in ultra-widescreen and surround sound exposed more of Australia to the world (for almost three hours) than any ad campaign could ever have.

Movie-style content approaches continue to be the rage for global companies with enormous marketing budgets. Many, it seems, have moved away from product placement strategies or making traditional ads using a famous actor’s face or voice. They want to be in the game.

Brands want the same thing as those production houses making movies for cinema release or via on-demand streaming services. They want to entertain big audiences by telling great stories. And those stories simply wouldn’t happen without significant brand investment … or so it would seem.

“We must become a part of the original programming that audiences want to watch.” Rupert Maconick

The Lego Movie, released in 2014, is perhaps the most successful piece of branded content in history. The US$60 million Warner Bros film, featuring the voices of Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks, broke box office records and won a truckload of plaudits from the global marketing community. It’s easy to forget that Lego is, fundamentally, a Danish commercial enterprise that sells plastic blocks.

“This film is one massive product demonstration, but it is a brilliant product demo complete with with great storytelling, humour, fun and, above all else, it is bursting with entertainment,” said Branded Arts Review editor Danielle Long. “The Lego Movie has raised the bar for branded entertainment, taking it to a ridiculously high level.”

The Lego movies (including the one with Batman) and video game-based flicks such as Assassin’s Creed, the Lara Croft films and The Angry Birds Movie have taken the idea of branded content to a new level.

The facts, ma’am. Just the facts

The traditional content play for companies has been documentary-style features made for social sharing. Some of the best examples have no actors but have such high-end production values that it’s difficult to distinguish them from editorial broadcast executions.

Starbucks produced an inspiring and original 10-part content series called Upstanders that illustrated examples of positive change in American communities. Another US brand investing in documentary-style storytelling is Dove. It has announced that its collaborative content studio, Real Beauty Productions, is working with Grey’s Anatomy writer and producer Shonda Rhimes to produce a series to “bring consumer stories to life as films”.

GE has pushed the genre further with its series of short Unimpossible Missions. The films mix documentary and dramatic narrative techniques to show GE’s engineers proving their mettle, such as giving a snowball a chance of surviving hell (or at least a plunge into molten metal) or fighting fire with fire (while watching in virtual 360-degree goggles).

But global companies are taking things up a number of notches by giving their brands the full-blown Hollywood treatment, making them heroes of their own stories. One of the earliest examples was BMW’s short-film series The Hire, starring Clive Owen, which debuted on the internet in 2001. It was such a cult success that BMW Films brought Owen back for a sequel in 2016 called The Driver – a 13-minute action flick directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and co-starring Dakota Fanning, Vera Farmiga, a bunch of baddies and a silver 5 Series.

Another classy example is Johnnie Walker’s two short films, Gentleman’s Wager and Gentleman’s Wager II, starring Jude Law and Giancarlo Giannini. The quirky films feature two rich men of different vintages who share a sense of style and enjoy matching wits in stunning European settings (with cameos from two former world champion drivers).

One of the more ambitious executions is Dell and Intel’s branded series called What Lives Inside. Directed by Oscar winner Robert Stromberg and starring J.K. Simmons and Colin Hanks, it’s a self-discovery story based on a classic fairytale format. It’s the fourth instalment of Intel’s “Inside Films” series, which began in 2011 with Inside, starring Emmy Rossum. Later productions were The Beauty Inside (2012) starring Topher Grace and The Power Inside (2013) starring Harvey Keitel.

Why did Intel go into the moviemaking business? P.J. Pereira, who is chief executive of the agency behind the branded films, Pereira & O’Dell, says it’s all about finding new ways to bring a tagline to life – Intel’s “It’s what’s inside that counts”. “We had to find a role to make the product not the subject of the story we are telling, but a character,” Pereira told Fast Company. “Because characters are what the audience will remember and love months after the campaign is gone.”

Rupert Maconick, the founder of LA-based commercial production company Saville Productions, wrote an Adweek article explaining the appeal of big-budget branded content. “Blockbuster films and streaming platforms like Netflix are captivating global audiences with entertaining programming,” he said. “It’s time for us in the advertising industry to recognise we can no longer find success by interrupting consumers with brand-driven messages. We must become a part of the original film, TV and online programming that audiences want to watch.”

Saville collaborated with Pereira & O’Dell to produce a provocative feature-length film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was later made available for general release. The film talks about the human implications of the tech revolution, and was directed by veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog. Significantly, the film was made by US software firm Netscout, which says it may do future “connected world” features.

For whom the bell tolls

A celebrated example of movie-style storytelling in content marketing is Marriott International’s series, Two Bellmen, which features choreographed dancing, intrigue, humour, drama and parkour action. Most of the series is shot on location at Marriott hotels; its third instalment was filmed in Seoul and ran beyond 35 minutes. The films, produced by Substance Over Hype, star Hollywood stuntmen William Spencer and Caine Sinclair.

David Beebe, who started Marriott Content Studio in 2014, said executions such as Two Bellmen work because brands need to stop “interrupting what consumers are interested in, and become what they are interested in”.

“No one can argue with the numbers and consumer behaviour that shows the days of interruptive marketing are over,” Beebe told US publication Marketing Dive. “In order to engage with consumers today, brand content must first provide value – either by informing, entertaining or solving problems.”

Marriott’s studio develops, produces and distributes all sorts of content – documentaries, short films or even TV shows. (Remember, this is a global hotel chain.) It creates brand ideas in-house and has them executed by outside experts; the best in the business.

Beebe, who left the studio in March 2017 to build his own entertainment and marketing company, says the plan was to make Marriott – the brand – a character within these stories and not a distraction. “For example, in the case of our Two Bellmen short film franchise, we developed the core idea, where the story was driven by music and movement, in addition to the script. It’s high-touch creative where the brand is natural to the story and the viewer experiences the features and benefits each hotel visually as part of the story vs interrupting a story with an integration.”

For any Australian brands looking to create their own movie-inspired epics, Beebe outlined three must-dos:

  • Never take pitches from outside talent or producers – stories must be authentic for the brand.
  • Develop concepts in-house and retain ownership of the intellectual property. This gives the content a long shelf life, and it could be licensed to other distributors later.
  • Think like an old-time movie mogul and establish tight relationships with the creative talent – actors, writers, directors, producers and social media influencers. Better still, sign them to exclusivity deals.

So, who’s ready to push Baz Luhrmann aside and become the Cecil B deMille of Australia’s branded content community?

Links & references

The funny thing about using humour in content marketing in Brand Tales

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