Is Branded Entertainment totally revolutionizing the idea of brand-related creativity?

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As part of writing a new book with Xoogler turned academic Lazar Dzamic, I caught up with Elena Grinta about where she thinks things are at and heading. Her book on ‘Branded entertainment: La rivoluzione del settore marcom inizia da qui’ book was published by Franco Angeli Edizioni earlier this year, and she’s just got back from Branded Entertainment Festival at Cannes Lions.

This year’s jury president was Pereira ‘O Dell’s CCO & Co-Founder PJ Pereira. Interestingly, Elena points out that he describes the submissions as ‘works’ because he no longer thinks they can be called ‘ campaigns ‘. That’s a theme we’ll be exploring as part of the book because it is one that cuts across the industry, and so this ‘mindset’ change and what that means for skillsets goes well beyond the space where advertising and entertainment are colliding.

As Elena also explained, Juror’s had their work cut out because PJ had asked them to review the ‘works’ in full. This entailed a significant amount of pre-event reviewing to done, which worked out at about 20 hours a week for 2 months – particularly given that feature films are on average 1.5 hours, and podcast series could be 4 hours or longer.

It is interesting to note, that the branded Content & Entertainment ‘ category was only launched 5 years ago. Back then, it formed part of Cannes Festival of Advertising, whereas now it’s a key part of their sub-festival of Entertainment and as Elena points out it reflects how much the industry has changed over that period:

Today at the festival of branded entertainment they’re rewarding long and short films, commercials, art installations, experiential campaigns… somehow the classic TVC has become a sub-category of Branded Entertainment.

If you go beyond the labels being attributed to entries, Elena thinks that two trends can be identified beyond the expansion of formats, for which a taxonomy may become too long… or at least for this report:

Editorial Content:

Elena describes this the “binding of the ‘brand values’ system into the narrative frame,” and highlights the following examples:

Lo & behold, the Werner Herzog-directed documentary by Pereira O’Dell funded by Cyber Security company NetScout about the connected world

Keepers of the game a documentary by Dick’s Sporting Good tells the sacrifices of some Native American girls determined in making their lacrosse team survive.

Single belief by Pernod Ricard, with its simple message about how we need to slow down and take time to enjoy life

Beyond money by Banco Santander who won the Grand Prix

Promotional Content

One that Elena describes as still having a high component of storytelling, including:

The tale of Thomas Burberry stylist adventurer

Handle with care by Gilette that brings the attention of the public to the ‘grey generation’

Alice’s wedding by Volvo that avoided hard ‘product placement’

For Elena, those commercials with ingenious creative ideas that are unusual and ‘desecrating’ also need to be recognised, but thinks that they will slowly get placed in an ad hoc category that’s possibly called Advertainment:

Wolf series by HPStudios with Christian Slater ‘Mr Robot’

Ostrich 4 90 minute episodes by Samsung These are ones that she thinks are really just spots, albeit with a strong narrative component, and that’s obvious because of their need to include a final payoff. That, she thinks, is very different from a short or feature film, or even a documentary or a TV program, where there’s no need for this kind of obvious payoff.

From CSR to NGO’s: stay bold

There were also a couple of ‘pro social ‘ cases have caught her attention: Home, the short film by BBH’s production unit Black Sheep Studios that was made for UNCHR that had previously one a short film award at the BAFTAs. It won Gold in the cinema and theatrical (fiction) category, and tells a story about refugees in powerful and effective way, with a simple and ingenious narrative device: what if it were you; what would you try; how would you react, if it was your family fleeing from places where people were being massacred by bombs and bullets!

Evan for Sandyhook, another Gold winner but in the online category (fiction under 15 minutes). Shot from the protagonist point of view, before revealing the impact of society’s negligence and neglect at the end.

These examples lead Elena to conclude that branded entertainment continues to be a prolific territory for NGOs too, but thinks the non-profit projects should be judged in a separate category, e.g. along the lines of the Effectiveness one, where the ‘ for good ‘ category already exists. It’s an area the D&AD have been developing, firstly with their White Pencil awards and also the new Impact Awards in partnership with the Advertising Week Festival and Fast Company.

She thinks a new category would prevent the “instrumentalization” of the issues non-profits face, particularly by being compared with content for consumers brands that are ultimately trying to sell more products. There’s also a need she thinks, for a broader number of themes and genres to be employed, rather than the ubiquitous tugging on our emotional heart strings with yet another tearjerker. It’s therefore not too surprising to hear from her that there’s been calls by practitioners to revive comedy, and the use of levity as an instrument of entertainment. Elena recommends the following two examples as ones where she thinks it’s been done well:

Rad land, a TV-like show by Chipotle for children distributed on iTunes that aims to nurture awareness about nutrition and food supply chain

Lick-Hiker’s guide to inner strength, a half-hour docu-reality series broadcast on prime time for the Velia Oy Finnish diary brand, where Ian Wright of Lonely Planet fame humorously explores our morbid fascination for the more disgusting aspects of our lives (nightmare kitchens, embarrassing diseases etc) 

‘Cause related campaigns’ boom

The 2017 was for Cannes was one that Elena sees as being celebratory for cause related marketing and purposeful brands, and here’s some of the award winners she highlights:

We’re the superhumans by Blink Productions for Channel 4 (The Grand Prix winner for prestigious and coveted film category)

Boost your voice by 180LA, Santa Monica for Boost Mobile (the Grand Prix for Integrated and promo & activation)

The blaze-Territory by Iconoclast, Culver City for the Franco-Algerian musician The Blaze (the Grand Prix for the film craft category)

As she discussed in her book, there’s another (potential down) side to brands linking themselves to important social issues, particularly when the association is weak and sometimes incomprehensible. Welcome to the rise of #purposewash, which is likely to be an increasing cause of #brandbacklash and something we will be exploring in the book I am co-writing with Lazar, which will include input from Elena. She highlights the following:

touch of care by Vicks

Ode to Lesvos by Jonnie Walker

‘Grow Up’ by Mercedes Benz

Reinvent giving by HPStudios

And adds that it is admirable that companies wants to bring sensitive issues to the public’s attention (e.g. gender-equality, the LGBT cause, the family, refugees etc), but rightly asks “with what authority?”

That’s not to say this approach can’t be done well, as Elena explains by making the comparison between Grand Prix winner Beyond money by Santander and Ode to Lesvosby Johnny Walker who won a bronze in online (non-fiction under 15 minutes):

“Banco Santander bravely faces a theme very close to its identity and more generally, to the industry in which it operates: the value of money. The effort, successful in terms of intrigue and craft – a true theatrical work, is supported by a purpose that has deep roots in the DNA of the brand. A questioning that includes the bank (the entire financial sector) in an open conversation, collective, in which the individual reflects on the limits of hyper consumerism, on the value of things in relation to the value of experiences, accompanied by a brand that belongs to a category that has always, but in particular after the crisis of 2011, been associated with disfigures such as speculation, profit at all costs, immorality.”

Elena reinforces her point by highlighting the following quote from Festival Juror, Jason Xenopoulos, CEO & chief creative officer VML South Africa:

“What led us to ‘Beyond Money’ is that it was a great piece of film that integrated the brand in a truly seamless and meaningful way, but it didn’t just move the positioning of the brand forward. It actually moved the whole category of financial services forward by taking a brave step in getting people to really start questioning whether or not money was more important than experiences. We felt It was an incredibly well-dramatized not just brand idea, but philosophical idea”

That’s not some that she thinks is so true of when you look at Ode to Lesvos by Johnny Walker

“Interviews with Greek fishermen bring the political debate about the refugees emergency back to our humanity and the compassion that binds us as human beings – regardless of origin, social status, ideological orientation. It is an interesting reflection and ethically commendable initiative, but the theme has already been covered previously and arguably to a high standard – remember Fuocoammare, the docufilm directed by Gianfranco Rosi, which was awarded in Venice and Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival. Moreover, and perhaps a more serious critique than the lack of originality, and that’s the link with the brand, i.e. under what pretext does Johnny Walker fit into this debate? “

This is something that Elena thinks is a shame because there were other examples like the Beyond the frame series of documentaries made by Samsung with Vice that were worthy of being rewarded:

Yet it did not receive any recognition, despite it being one where she thinks there was a more obvious fit:

“Samsung succeeding in perfectly associating its role as innovative brand with one of the most relevant themes of our century: Images’ and how ‘pornography’ have made humans unresponsive in front of great historical disasters. How to let us understand the profound significance of reality?”

The Pereira Effect

Last, Elena believes that PJ Pereira’s presidency helped the festival raise awareness about this ‘revolutiinary’ new way for brands to communicate as she had predicted. Interestingly, two projects with the highest number of awards were two films of more than 15 minutes, which goes to show that some stories need more than 30 seconds to be told. This only goes to confirm a point made by Rory Sutherland in one of my previous interviews, i.e. there are some problems that can be solved only by long-form communication:

 “There are things that you can sell in 20 minutes that you could never sell in 30 seconds.”

That’s another reason why Elena thinks its great that a clear signal has been sent to the creative community, particularly those are interested in excelling in the BC&E by moving beyond the confines of the short format (2/3 minutes): while at the same time sending out an invitation to advertisers to step into the shoes of ‘producers of stories’, such as the Hollywood studios and the TV networks. I asked if she had any other words for the wise, and she concluded our interview with the following quote from P.J. Pereira:

“The work that got picked as the Grand Prix is the most perfect example of a how a brand could make a statement about itself but also earn the precious time consumers are going to invest in it”

The earning of the precious time consumers are going to invest in, is an important consideration and one we discuss our book due out early next year. You can read more about this is a previous interview I conducted with PJ where he not only provides a very simple and useful definition of branded content, but also the secret to his award winning success. But in the meantime, huge thanks to Elena for her report and review, and I look forward to speaking to her in more depth about the themes she’s covered in her new book.

Justin Kirby, is an author, strategist and curator of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) series of publications and events.

About the author

Justin Kirby is a consultant, educator and thought leader with a 20+ year career in industry as a digital strategist, producer and entrepreneur. He chairs and speaks at conferences around the globe, judge industry awards, and advise brands and agencies.