Risk-taking: The theme of the best brand films, long and short

By Alison Kanski

Risk-taking was a theme of the second annual Brand Film Festival, as some companies went in a new direction, leveraging humor and venturing into the realm of long-form documentary to bring home prizes.

Creating a brand film can be a risky endeavor. The logistics are often daunting and time consuming and setting clearly defined strategic goals for the effort can be complex.

In this year’s lineup of Brand Film Festival winners, two films came from companies that did something completely new with their branded content, but saw huge returns when they jumped headfirst into the unknown.

Netscout’s first foray into film with its 98-minute documentary on the internet, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, landed at the Sundance Film Festival and picked up this year’s Best Long-Form award at the Brand Film Festival.

Donate Life’s potentially risky film The World’s Biggest Asshole, an edgy three-minute PSA for organ donation, went viral. The film spurred more than 67,000 new organ donor registrations and took home the Most Creative award at the festival.

“The guiding thought here is to pretend advertising was invented today,” explains Dave Arnold, executive creative director of Pereira & O’Dell New York. “It’s hopefully a reminder to get you out of the 30-second commercial, to shake you out of muscle memory when approaching a challenge.”

The risks of humor
In general, brand films tend to be aimed at millennials who want a more authentic experience with brands than a typical TV spot or product placement.

James DeJulio, cofounder, president, and chief creative officer of Tongal, a creative marketing company that connects brands with its network of writers, directors, and production companies, believes the next generation may be even more finicky than millennials when it comes to interaction with brands.

“I look at it through the eyes of my two young children who don’t watch TV, but are obsessed with YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon. They’re going to grow up quickly and be the coveted audience,” DeJulio says. “Before everybody wakes up to the idea they’re hamstrung by creating 30 seconds of brand message to cram up against 22 minutes of sitcom, they’re going to realize there’s an entire audience that now has purchasing power and is completely alienated.”

Brand films can be more effectively used to reach a narrower audience than the normal 30-second commercial or campaign.

With its film, Donate Life wanted to encourage millennial men to sign up to be organ donors. The nonprofit’s team and agency partner The Martin Agency knew getting to this audience would be more challenging. Donate Life president and CEO David Fleming believed the audience wouldn’t be moved by the usual heartstrings tugging PSA format.

“You’re not going to reach that sweet spot if we are doing a PSA with a young girl on a swing set in a field of daisies waiting for a transplant,” Fleming notes. “It’s not lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows that are going to get their attention.”

So the team went to where their audience already was, a strategy DeJulio encourages for brands looking to tap into new audiences.

“In the future you’ll see a lot more brands opening up their aperture to borrow relevance from something that already has an audience,” DeJulio explains.

In this case, Donate Life looked at what millennial men were watching and found Game of Thrones, Veep, and John Oliver as their inspiration, says Chris Mumford, EVP and MD of account management at The Martin Agency. In particular, Oliver’s method of conveying the news with laughs inspired the idea to go with humor for a serious subject.

“We went into it with the ambition to talk to millennial men the way they need to be talked to,” says Mumford. “We saw the content they were consuming, and felt we needed to do something different to shake these young men out of their complacency. There’s no better way to do that than humor, and that’s where the film was born.”

The darkly funny profile of how “The World’s Biggest Asshole” Coleman Sweeney saved lives by signing up as an organ donor reached millennial men and many others. It has more than 700,000 views on FunnyorDie.com and more than 2 million views on YouTube. As a result, Donate Life saw the percentage of males 20 to 34 signing up to be a donor on its website more than double, from 26% to 56%.

A feature-length experiment
Netscout’s first brand film started off as an idea for a video series, but turned into a 98-minute documentary with esteemed director Werner Herzog.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World became a “Super Bowl moment” for Netscout, says global CMO Jim McNiel, generating more than 25 billion impressions for the company that normally gets about 2 billion impressions in an entire year.

The initial target audience for Lo and Behold was niche: C-suite executives who could potentially use the company’s performance management products. The audience exploded beyond that when the documentary appeared at the Sundance Film Festival.

“We were always guided by the understanding Netscout had an awareness issue, and that C-suite level decision-makers were largely ignoring advertising,” explains Arnold, whose team worked with the brand on the film. “Knowing Netscout wasn’t going to be able to outspend competitors in that sea of sameness, we were going to take a different approach.”

Film can break through the noise of advertising for both C-suite and a general audience, McNiel learned. The film helps boost name recognition for Netscout, a brand typically only known to those in the business and cybersecurity worlds.

“The film reaches the corners of society and business that display advertising and commercial ads don’t,” McNiel explains. “So many C-level executives are inundated with content, but they’re also smart people who are very curious and constantly learning. It’s incredibly nice to have a reporter talk about the company and its role in the context of film that makes us available to a much larger audience.”

With the documentary, Netscout analyzed the space where everyone operates: the internet. The company positioned itself as a thought leader in the realms of connected living, showing it understands the risks and benefits of a world dependent on the internet.

McNiel says he wanted the film to make people think about how fragile the system can be, especially in light of recent attacks that brought down websites for Amazon, Twitter, and Netflix. He also wants people to consider how the interconnected world is expanding and what’s coming next.

Once the film gets people thinking about the internet and how pervasive and fragile it can be, Netscout has the tools to build systems that protect against potential risks and look toward the future.

“We present ourselves as the guardians of connected world and the film explores it,” McNiel notes.

Perhaps the most important ingredient when creating a brand film is trust, whether it’s between the client and agency, the marketing team and CEO, or the brand and its audience.

Donate Life and The Martin Agency worked closely together for more than two years to create The World’s Biggest Asshole. Fleming recalls the idea for the film’s titular character coming about simply because his team and The Martin Agency’s team were telling stories.

“Great relationships are where great work comes from, and if there’s anything that helped drive the Coleman idea, it’s the chemistry between all of us,” explains Mumford. “The collaboration between [Fleming] and our team was just like that, sitting around telling stories, laughing, and all feeling a little like assholes.”

Trust crucial at every step
Trust is not only necessary between agency and client teams, but CEOs and boards also need to be able to trust their internal marketing teams with out-of-the-box ideas such as Coleman Sweeney or going all in on a full-length documentary. Both McNiel and Fleming pitched big ideas to their company’s leaders, and without that internal trust, these films would never have seen the silver screen.

“The number one thing is this concept of leadership without fear,” Fleming says. “What decision would you make if you weren’t afraid of the consequences?”

Brands also need to win the trust of their audiences with films. A brand film should not simply be an overlong commercial, but truly give something to the audience. In the instance of Sweeney, a few moments of laughter, and for Lo and Behold, a detailed picture of the state of the world the audience lives in.

“One of the most difficult things to do when developing brand content is to remember it should be about the message and the audience and less about the brand,” McNiel says. “Filling the film with product plugs and cameos is a surefire way to get dismissed by the exact people you want to reach. You give your audience something of value, education, or a perspective, and in return they give you their interest, attention, trust, and ultimately business.”

With all these ingredients, a brand can take on a film and convey its message in a new medium beyond the tired 30-second TV spot. As DeJulio succinctly says, “If a brand is only thinking about doing commercials, it is not going to be around very long.”

Best Film By A Brand
Title: National Parks Adventure
Client: Brand USA
Production company: MacGillivray Freeman Films
Date aired: February 12, 2016
Country: Global

Guided by the familiar voice of Robert Redford, National Parks Adventure invites us back into the wild.

It’s only fitting that Redford, whose easy charm made him an icon, should be the one that leads us with great daring toward the geysers of Yellowstone and the valleys of Yosemite. Is there anything more fundamentally American than Hollywood and Old Faithful?

That’s what this film celebrates. Its story is elemental. It’s about the raw land we cherish and the heritage the National Parks preserve for posterity.

The human subjects are mountaineer Conrad Anker, photographer Max Lowe, and artist Rachel Pohl, who serve as a vehicle that allows us to explore these spaces as we follow their journey.

The film was commissioned by Brand USA, a marketing organization that promotes the U.S. as a travel destination as part of the Great Outdoors campaign to mark the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Best Short-Form
Title: Rogue One Mask
Client: Globe Telecom
Agency: Globe Telecom (PR), Pabrika (production), Publicis JimenezBasic (advertising), and AdSpark (media)
Date aired: December 2016
Country: Philippines

Globe Telecom, the Philippines’ leading provider of digital experiences, joined forces with Disney to strengthen its place in the local entertainment scene.

With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story coming to the Philippines, Globe Telecom wanted to leverage the movie franchise’s fandom to connect with consumers.

#CreateCourage follows a Star Wars super fan who wears a Stormtrooper helmet over her oxygen mask. She is isolated from her peers, except for another Star Wars fanatic, her older brother, who walks with her to school. Their fascination with a galaxy far, far away draws them together.

The video ends with the girl entering the classroom to see all her classmates wearing Stormtrooper helmets.

Imbued with equal parts of nostalgia and wonder, the film generated 44 million views and a million shares on social media.

Best Film By an Agency
Title: The Escape
Client: BMW of North America
Agency: Rubenstein (PR), Geisel Productions (advertising), Anonymous Content (production), and Universal McCann (media)
Date aired: October 23, 2016
Country: U.S.

In 2001, BMW launched The Hire, a series of short films that portrayed the missions of the Driver, a getaway artist for hire played by Clive Owen. The series was so popular it allegedly inspired The Transporter franchise.

The follow up, The Escape, again positions the BMW as fast, tough, edgy, and the getaway driver’s brand of choice.

Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame introduces his own unique sci-fi flair.

“I might be a little rusty right now,” Owen says, holding a gun to a mercenary’s head. “But I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m very good at it.”

The film lives on YouTube and a dedicated website, bmwfilms.com.

The Escape commemorated the 15th anniversary, 1 million online views, and the re-
release of remastered versions of the originals.

Trailers were run on top-rated programs including NBC Sunday Night Football and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Most Creative
Title: The World’s Biggest Asshole
Client: Donate Life
Agency: The Martin Agency (advertising) and Furlined (production)
Date Aired: August 5, 2016
Country: U.S.

This film seems ripped more from the cloth of an Eastbound and Down episode than a nonprofit saving lives.

It tells of the life and times of Coleman Sweeney, an asshole, who seems like the wrong ambassador for organ donors. Who wants to be represented by a guy perpetually reeking of cigarettes and beer?

But this message didn’t go for the heartstrings, it went for the funny bone. With a low-brow sense of humor and a sardonic voice that speaks in perpetual deadpan, the film targets its younger audience perfectly. Its message? “Even an asshole can save a life.”

The film received more than 50 million views in two weeks, and it attracted a record number of daily registrations for organ donors.

Best Long-Form
Title: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Client: Netscout
Agency: Pereira & O’Dell (PR and advertising), Saville Productions (production), and Magnolia Pictures (media)
Date aired: August 19, 2016
Country: U.S.

In Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, famed director Werner Herzog turns his intensely curious eye to the internet, plumbing the intricacies of a digital landscape instead of the contours of a cave.

Cybersecurity firm Netscout commissioned the film. Despite being promotional in nature, Herzog spins an even-handed chronicle that avoids fear-mongering and fawning adoration.

Herzog interviews victims of trolling and the geniuses that birthed the internet, as well as technology leaders including Elon Musk and Sebastian Thrun. The result is a film that’s wary of its marvels, cognizant of its consequences, and narrated with the filmmaker’s unmistakable tone of wry bemusement.

After the film’s release on Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, and other platforms, and a 93% on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, Netscout generated more than 25 billion impressions, up from about 2 billion a year.

Jurors’ Choice
Title: Lifeline
Client: Qualcomm
Agency: DiGennaro Communications (PR), Anonymous Content (production), and Ogilvy (advertising and media)
Date aired: May 11, 2016
Country: U.S. and China

People feel their phones are their most necessary and valuable possession. This film sought to demonstrate the differentiating features of a Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered device in a compelling way.

Written and directed by Academy Award winner Armando Bo (Birdman), Lifeline, a 30-minute product demo disguised as a psychological thriller, was launched on YouTube, Facebook, and Hulu in the U.S. and on iQiyi in China.

Kai, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, discovers the love of his life has vanished without a trace until he receives a package containing her phone. He uses it to get to the bottom of their relationship and her disappearance.

Upon finishing the film, people were invited to watch a documentary featuring talent from the film and product experts, who explained the role technology played in driving the story forward.

The talent and their massive social followings drove traffic using trailers, posts, and GIFs. PR efforts garnered news coverage including mentions in 29 U.S. outlets and more than 180 mentions across major Chinese outlets including Zol, Youku, and Sohu.