Trail blazers: The art of branded entertainment

Australia has the potential for creating effective branded content but first brands need to step away from the comforts of traditional media and creatives need to realise it’s not ‘selling out’. Alice Terlikowski writes.

There was once a time when creatives worked on films, TV shows and the occasional 30-second TV ad. These days the advertising and film worlds are swifty colliding to make way for a new opportunity for creativity – branded entertainment.

Branded content/entertainment is best described as an extension of a brand’s marketing activity. Turning the clock back, radio soap operas were so called because the content was produced specifically to be sold around soap brands, targeting the mother of the house.

More recently, but still a decade ago in 2001-02, BMW’s then high concept form of advertising was via the online short film series called The Hire. Employing Hollywood directors Tony Scott, Guy Ritchie and John Woo to name a few, the short yet expensive films featured no slogan and no logo – except on the actual car – suggesting the product spoke for itself. The high-speed car chases and heroic protagonist driving the vehicle and placed an emphasis on action to engage the audience.

It was a bold move but one that paid off for company and talent alike. In fact, the series proved so popular, it received 100 million views in the first four years, BMW packaged the series as a free DVD and distributed it through selected BMW dealers, and was responsible for British actor Clive Owen’s break into the US market through his role as The Driver.

While The Hire still stands strong as an example of this marketing genre, Baz Luhrmann’s US$42 million short film for Chanel No.5 starring Nicole Kidman was somewhat considered branded entertainment at the time but the branding is blatant. Chanel later produced another big budget ad campaign directed by Martin Scorsese, Bleu De Chanel but the bottle still featured at the end, outside of the narrative.

Some would argue that not featuring the product in some way, shape or form, is a waste of energy, however, Simon Ritch executive producer and company director of Sydney’s Content Theory – a creative agency that develops original, interactive branded content – offers a new approach. “Branded content, if done well, is a lot more subtle in its approach than an ad. In essence it gets down to the fundamentals of advertising in that it makes you feel something. It’s something that has a beginning, middle and an end and you feel fulfilled by being connected to this brand through this entertainment.”

Ritch says that while some Australian brands understand it as an effective marketing tool, others need to be courageous and to break free from tradition.

“There are opportunities for clients to jump on board this form of advertising and shift their perception of their brand in a positive way – if they have the initiative and the guts to do it,” Ritch says.

Money to burn, or cutting edge creative?
One such example was produced by Australia’s Publicis Mojo and Exit Films for a European audience. The short film Ride for Coca-Cola’s Burn energy drink demonstrated a brand willing to take a risk and the execution captures stunning images and stunt action.

The online ad follows a group of skateboarders who skate and perform tricks throughout Mexico City while their backs are lit up with flames – the theme of the brand is included but the product doesn’t actually feature. The piece was awarded a Film Craft and a Film Lion at this year’s Cannes Lions.

Unlike a TV spot, branded entertainment “doesn’t push the product down your throat but it’s more that it leaves you feeling good about the product,” says Ritch.

A good example of the subtle touch is The Harringtons, a four-part online comedy series produced in a mockumentary style based around an Australian family’s acceptance of a financial planner into the home. Despite it being uploaded on the company’s YouTube account (and embedded into the company site), there’s no branding in the content until the end – but there are clues; an intro uses black and yellow graphics; the financial planner character wears a black suit and yellow tie. A Commonwealth Bank logo doesn’t feature until the closing scene.

The production finds a balance – viewers accept a logo if they’ve been entertained for three to five minutes and would be happy to watch the next episode.

Sam Smith is managing director of RedLever, a branded entertainment and production house specialising in sourcing, developing and negotiating funding and distribution arrangements for content.

He reiterates that sentiment. “With branded content there’s a value exchange for the brand and the consumer,” Smith says. “I’m brand X and I’m giving you this content and therefore entertaining you. I therefore then have a right to be able to have a product message in front of you.”

Sometimes however, the product is almost unavoidable, sometimes even desirable for inclusion by the creative. The Sydney Opera House, along with its ad agency The Monkeys, has launched a short film aimed at celebrating the Australian architectural icon.

Speaking to Encore’s sister publication, Mumbrella when the agency was appointed last year, Sydney Opera House’s marketing and communications director Victoria Doidge said, “It’s my belief that brands won’t talk about advertising in five years time, they will only talk about content. We would be crazy not to leverage the content that we have access to.”

Creatives in the driver’s seat
If the brands come to play, then the opportunities for producers and directors are vast, but there also needs to be confidence and enthusiasm from the creatives.

Smith told Encore, “There are so many brands that want to play in this space and so here’s the opportunity. It’s trying to shift the perception of these producers and directors that their first piece of content doesn’t have to be a feature film, It actually could be three or four short pieces that are going to be short web series. The brand can help you fund it and get your idea up.”

“Producers, directors etc are spending most of their lives trying to get funding or distribution for their idea and so many great ideas just never see the light of day because of that very issue.”

Ritch says branded content’s undefined time limits enable filmmakers to grow their skills in storytelling, character development and the “art of holding an audience’s attention for an extended period of time.”
It also gives creatives the upper-hand when coming to developing the idea.

“The advertiser is very used to the dictatorship in their creative agency, telling creatives what they want. In this situation the storyteller has to have the upper hand because at the end of the day you don’t want to compromise on why you want to make some magnetic content and why you’re going to get people to spend some time with it and share it,” Smith says.

But while being in the driver’s seat of a funded idea might sound irresistible to many, a lot of creatives are apprehensive about the notion of ‘selling out’.

Smith adds: “There has to be very, very strict guidelines at the beginning of this process when you’re bringing everyone around the table. You have to say, ‘Brand, your role is X. While you’re an executive producer of the idea, you have to let the director and the storyteller sit at the head of the table.’ And that’s a really difficult thing, especially with big brands that spend lots of money and have always had the creative control.”

Australia can learn a lot from other markets where branded entertainment has become a normal part of the marketing furniture, says Smith.

“There are some great ideas from other markets and we need to learn from them but both barriers need to fall down a bit. The barrier of the storyteller letting an advertiser in and become part of their crew and also for brands to truly sit behind in the back seat and not get at the head of the table. That’s a big shift.”

“I have complete faith in Australia’s ability to be a world leader in this form of media,” says Ritch. “There is absolutely no reason it cannot happen because we have everything and more, including a better frame of mind and spirit as a people.

“I really do think we’re on the right track.”


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