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Branded Films

In this feature, commissioned by Monotype’s Brand Perfect initiative, film buff Daniel Bennworth-Gray traces the evolution of the branded film. Discover the reason why stars like Clive Owen, Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese want to work for brands such as Nokia, Canon, Prada and BMW. Get inspired by these award winning branded film content examples, and then enter your own into the D&AD Professional Awards. 

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In the beginning there was Clive Owen.

During 2001–2002, erstwhile chancer Owen was the star of The Hire (see below). This series of short films followed various morally dubious errands undertaken by an ask-no-questions driver-for-hire (yes, they were a big influence on The Transporter films). These weren’t made on shoestring budgets or destined for mid-afternoon screenings at obscure film festivals; they were big. They had stunts, they had explosions. A roll call of some of the names involved gives an idea of the scale of this project: Ang Lee, John Woo, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Madonna, James Brown, Gary Oldman.

Initially these aired online, but early noughties dial-up speeds weren’t particularly video-friendly, so they also found their way onto DVD. Most significantly, they were all produced by, and prominently featured, BMW.

This was something new. These films weren’t explicitly selling the brand, they simply told stories that heavily revolved around it. They successfully walked the lines between art and commerce, entertainment and advert. Product placement and sponsorship had been around for a long while, but this is where the 21st century concept of branded content really began.

BMW Films - The Hire - Ambush

Cut to present day. Clive may have parked up, but the legacy of his driving is everywhere. Branded content – be it films or literature or comics or music – is still a big deal. And there are as many ways of tackling it as there are brands.

Even though the concept was new and daring, The Hire’s angle was simple: it was essentially a product demonstration. Here’s our shiny new car, it said, watch it go. The product was front and centre the whole time. The best branded content these days is a little more complex, a little less insistent and more likely to be enjoyed primarily as content. Something that works as entertainment first is more likely to be replayed and passed on, the viewer less reluctant to work as the brand’s advocate if the content – not necessarily the brand – is worth sharing.

So in many instances, the link between the content and the brand can be rather abstruse. But that matters little as long as there is some intimation that they are involved, that they are responsible for pouring this vision into your eyes. 

It’s about showing, not telling; Talking about the brand and its values (or rather, the consumer’s values) without actually talking about them – we have taste, we value art, we have a sense of humour, we like the things you like. Sometimes this means showcasing the work of new talent (Forget what we’re selling for a moment, we’re patrons of the arts!), which is a win-win-win situation for brand, film-makers and audiences alike. And at the other end of the budget, there’s prestige to be had in piggybacking on the existing brand of a particular director, particularly if they have a distinctive style that the brand can co-opt.

Dolce & Gabbana The One: "Street of Dreams" a Martin Scorsese Picture

The current wave of branded content has brought us short films from the likes of Terry Gilliam (Garofolo Pasta Company), Martin Scorsese (Dolce&Gabbana – see above video) and Roman Polanski  (Prada). Some may cross the line into being merely long adverts, but they deliver high-end short-form online content to discerning consumers.

Wes Anderson’s Castello Cavalcanti (below) is a perfect example of this. It’s typical of the director: all tracking shots, delicately composed frames and Jason Schwartzman doing his Jason Schwartzman thing. Despite a mention in the opening credits and one canny use of costume design, it doesn’t feel like a Prada advert (in fact it’s more subtle in it’s placement of product than, say, the ever-present Louis Vuitton luggae in The Darjeeling Limited). It sits neatly alongside any of his other films, and is discussed and shared and loved as such. And wherever the film goes, Prada get to claim responsibility for its existence and cover themselves in Anderson cool. Content is cultural currency.

There have been few attempts at feature-length branded content, but it’s on the rise. We may not like it, but we’re used to advertising encroaching on every aspect of our lives. Rather than cunningly snuck-in product placements or in-your-face adverts, there is a refreshing honesty to a brand simply saying “we made this film”. When Shane Meadows shot the Eurostar-funded Somers Town in 2008, it wasn’t met with snarls of derision or accusations of selling out. Perhaps because (one jaunty trip to Paris aside) it wasn’t really about Eurostar at all; it was about: here is the community surrounding our terminal; we are part of that community.

PRADA presents "CASTELLO CAVALCANTI" by Wes Anderson

The branding can also take place on the other side of the camera. Companies such as Nokia and Canon put great effort into showing off the capabilities of their products by simply letting talented film-makers use them. The brand isn’t in the content at all, it’s shooting it. Invariably, these films will come in pairs: the behind-the-scenes companion piece is the real advert. The medium is the message.

And this gets to the one common truth about all these award winning branded films: it’s not about the story in the content, it’s about the story of the content. Who made it, how they made it, why they made it.

This is still just the beginning – brand film-making is rapidly becoming the norm. Watching video online in 2001 was hard work, but not today. It can be played and found and shared through a multitude of channels and devices, and the technology around it increasingly undermines the traditional advertising structure. Putting a billboard next to content is no good, it gets skipped, overlooked, muted.

The best solution for brands: be the content.

Want to see more films from brands? Take a look at the YouTube playlist Brand Perfect created to accompany this feature.

If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Professional Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.

For more creative inspiration and the opportunity to get up close and personal with the world’s best design and advertising, join us at D&AD Festival.

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