Everyone is going Hollywood these days.
Netflix has gone from mailing DVDs to households to producing its own movie blockbusters with stars like Will Smith. Amazon, originally known for selling books online, is set to produce a $500 million Lord of the Rings TV series for its streaming service. Apple, the creator of the iPhone, has outspent everyone in an effort to become a huge player in the entertainment industry.
The most surprising Hollywood hopeful? Marriott International.
This isn’t some doomed fever dream by Marriott. It’s actually a well-thought-out entry into the world of branded entertainment. In 2014, the hotel chain company started the Marriott Content Studios which develops, produces, and distributes TV shows, documentaries, and short films that support the Marriott brand.
Marriott has produced two films so far: Two Bellmen, an action comedy about company loyalty and art thieves, and French Kiss, a film about love in a Marriott hotel in Paris. The experiment is working so far. The sales package tied to French Kiss drove $500,000 in revenue to one Marriott hotel in Paris.
Marriott has been on the forefront of a new emerging trend in marketing: branded filmmaking. Why has it taken brands so long to enter the entertainment industry? The main problem has been the fear of the unknown.
Are Brands Afraid of Film?
Of course, they are! As is the case when exploring any new territory, there is an inherent risk versus reward quandary that can paralyze even the bravest explorers. Brands like Marriott are taking big risks and being rewarded for their efforts with brand exposure and sales.
Other brands are far more reticent to dive into the world of film, and with good reason—there are legitimate concerns about whether the film brand strategy will be truly effective.
In general, marketers are afraid to try anything that puts them out on a limb. Many marketers will revert to tried and true, “go-to” methods that work because their industry says they do. And with branded entertainment, the marketing and film industries have received a mixed bag of results.
Brands have been popping up in our movies (to mixed response) for years in the form of product placement. Some particularly egregious examples include Transformers 4, which featured 55(!) separate brands in the movie. Minority Report made some brands an intrinsic part of the plot.
Consumers often detest bad product placement because it takes them out of the plot and makes them realize they’re watching a movie. The irony, however, is that just as branded entertainment has emerged, product placement has become en vogue again. KFC, for example, put a perfectly placed bucket of chicken in the popular Netflix show Stranger Things.
Consumer behavior has shifted and integrating products into TV shows and films have almost become a necessity. Remember, though, that product placements in film are exactly like umpires in baseball: You only notice them when they’re bad.
Competing Interests of Brands and Filmmakers
Trust is incredibly important between brands and filmmakers. A lack of trust from either side has often led to subpar results for all those involved. Brands, for instance, may demand there be too much of a focus on the products and compromise the artistic integrity of the film.
Brand marketers and filmmakers do have something in common, though: They both tell stories. Their goals may be different, but each group’s purpose is to convey a message. Brands want to tell a story about how their product will improve your life. Filmmakers want to tell a story in order to educate or entertain you.
Visual storytelling is part of the natural progression of the marketing industry. People respond to good storytelling. Unfortunately, not many brands know how to tell a good story—yet.
People do not want to be interrupted with advertisements anymore. The waning of the traditional network TV model and the explosion of growth from over-the-top competitors like Netflix and Hulu have all but cemented that idea. Eighty-four percent of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising anymore. The question for brands becomes, “How do I advertise my products to this new ‘DVR generation?’”
Brands must become both the creators and the publishers. Remember that nearly everyone has a video camera in their pocket and can make content at any time. Content has been democratized. Brands must follow the trends in consumer behavior and adapt to the changing advertising landscape.
If your brand is considering creating branded films, consider the themes most closely linked with previous branded entertainment success.
- Quality Content
One reason branded entertainment is so risky is because brands use half-measures. They fail to make good content. For every successful viral campaign, there are dozens of failed projects that don’t excite anyone. The content needs to be good, period.
The LEGO Movie is an ideal model for merging brands and quality content. The movie creators were given creative license to produce a good film while still making LEGO the star. The result? A 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a worldwide box office haul of over $400 million, and an increase in LEGO sales by 25 percent. People didn’t feel like they were watching a feature-length commercial. They were actually entertained.
- Hire the Right People, and Put the Audience First
Brands who have created successful branded films all have one big thing in common: They hire talent from the film industry to produce the film.
This underscores the need for trust between brands and film. The brands must trust the filmmakers and allow them to create without much “brand guidance.” Filmmakers, feeling that their work won’t be compromised by commercial interests, will feel empowered to produce something that can get a brand noticed or even win awards.
NetScout’s Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World was directed by legendary German director Werner Herzog. The film became a huge success mainly because NetScout told Herzog to make something that “puts the audience first.” NetScout earned 25 billion impressions for the film. (They usually receive two billion in an entire year.) Putting your brand’s audience first creates trust, and trust is crucial to any brand’s success.
- Choose One of Two Strategic Paths
The first path is for the brand to play a natural role in the story. Marriott chose to make their hotels the central character in their two short films. The connection is fairly obvious in these types of films, but it is not overbearing. They remain entertaining, and viewers are less likely to care whether the films are branded or not.
The second path is for the brand to play a minuscule role in the story. Take BMW’s Ambush from 2001, which stars Clive Owen. The short film focused on a James Bond-esque driver who drives his BMW during dangerous missions. This film was part of a larger campaign called “The Hire,” which caused BMW sales to spike by 17 percent in the following year. Even to this day, this short film is held up as the ultimate example of branded advertising.
The Moral of the Story for Brands
Brands shouldn’t be afraid of film. On the contrary, using branded films effectively can boost your brand’s authenticity and connection with the audience. It all depends on the quality of the content you are creating.
Should brands invade the entire world of filmmaking? Of course not! Consumers are watching more video than ever before. It’s safe to say that brand films can carve out a niche within the filmmaking world without compromising the creative integrity of the film industry.
Take the words of the creator of Marriott Content Studios, David Beebe, to heart, “Stop interrupting what people are interested in, and become what they’re interested in.”