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Branded Films: What They Are & Why You Should Have One

Fade up from black, all that is seen in focus is the wet, black fur of the scruff of a dog’s neck. There is a visceral sense of cold morning air, damp cattails on an icy duck pond, and a small paddle boat. With a quick introduction of fast cuts to slow-motion shots of a dog and man hunting North American waterfowl we meet Sam. Sam is a black Labrador retriever living his best life and in doing so, making his human family just as happy. A family whose pastimes generally occur in nature and the great outdoors with enjoyment thereof only surpassed by their love of Sam. The next 9 minutes and 12 seconds reveal interviews, home movies, slow motion footage, and still pictures that help tell the story of Sam, an obsessed duck-retrieving dog whose love for pleasing his master rises above all else. It’s a powerful short documentary film. In its latter third, the film is summarized in one line, “We measure our lives through our dogs.” I can tell you that I watched this no less than four or five times, and strangely, each time I had something in my eye, or the air was dry at the end of each viewing causing me to tear up and quietly mumble in short breaths to myself, “Gets me every time.”

What is a Branded Film?

Sam is not a film about Yeti coolers or any of their other wildly popular products, but a genuine portrait of a dog and his life with his family. The film was, however, produced and paid for by Yeti. The company specifically sought out renowned filmmakers and storytellers, experts in capturing documentary footage of adventurers, hunters, surfers, hikers, anglers, etc. to find and present humans living with the values and traits that best exemplify the values and traits of the Yeti company. It almost seems crude to reduce this sort of film to two simple words, but this is a branded film.

With our societal movement away from three to four broadcast network choices with very expensive airtime, to far more democratic and plentiful alternative viewing choices, brands, advertisers and agencies are afforded the opportunity to speak directly to their consumers in ways that traditional models of advertising could never hope to do.

Yes, TV commercials are still out there, and with the right research and data to support their production, they can still be a very powerful means of communicating a brand’s voice, services, or products. If a brand, however, wants to present their own identifiable values in a more entertaining and nuanced way, they can and should consider other tools in the bag. A great agency or marketing partner will be able to direct these tools and seek out these opportunities to grab an audience for their brand.

Aren’t Traditional Commercials Branded Films?

This is not to say that a 30-second TV spot can’t be a branded film. It very much can be, but there are some things to consider: in 30 seconds you have a very tight window to convey a complex story. Also, traditional TV commercials in the standard :30 and :60 second format are designed to end with some sort of call to action like, “Get yours now!” or “Get to your car dealer today!” The goal of branded films isn’t to inform the audience how to buy the brand. They are simply presenting the audience with a compelling story, allowing them to experience something relatable. In the case of Sam, our audience finds a familiar love affair with a dog in a duck hunting family. If a Yeti product is in the film, it’s coincidental (or seems that way to the viewer). The film opens with a title, “Yeti presents…” Outside of that, there is no “plug” for the brand or it’s products.

It’s worth noting that a branded film does not have to be in documentary form. Certainly, a scripted narrative can be constructed to provide the same sort of relatable values from brand to customer. Deliberate consideration will need to go into the creation of the story, but it can be just as compelling as a documentary. However, care must be taken to avoid a lack of authenticity.

How to Produce Your Branded Film

Now that we’ve tried to provide some clarity into what a branded film is, we might also want to consider how a branded film can be produced. This might be where this author gets a bit biased, but generally, your best bet is to seek out a filmmaker with experience in narrative storytelling, documentary or scripted. The good news is the world is full of them! Sure, some are better than others; some have much more experience than others; but there is an entire industry full of good storytellers capable of being assigned stories they can wrap their creative brains around to capture in motion picture and sound. A trip to YouTube or Vimeo with a good cup of coffee and some proper keyword searches would probably yield a slew of filmmakers capable of doing just this.

One might also seek out other brands who have embraced and implemented branded films to find out whom they engaged to tell their stories. The key attributes to seek out are experience and the ability to cinematically identify a story. Lastly, you or someone on your team might be a filmmaker but don’t know it yet! Just be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.  Audiences can sniff out a poorly produced film and lack of experience quickly. If your story is compelling enough, they are more apt to forgive poor camera work or lack-luster editing skills, but don’t count on it. You still want your best foot forward. This isn’t an expense you want to result in merely five views. Sam has over one million.

Where to Start

To start down a path towards producing your own branded film, do a good deal of homework to really understand who your audience is. Next, try to discover what community your audience gravitates towards. Yeti knows their audience extremely well. You can bet that anyone who has a mountain bike or a fly rod will probably have, at one time or another, pulled a frosty beverage from a Yeti cooler (or wish they had).

If you’re the owner of your own pizzeria or the creative director of a 5,000-person petrochemical plant, a branded film could work for you. It can pique interest in your brand and bring you closer to your customers. I’ve produced and directed a half-dozen branded films and hundreds of commercials and corporate marketing videos. Branded films have been received best to date. The best advice I can offer is to study your market and find a filmmaker whose stories you enjoy. They’d love to hear from you.

Win or Lose – Produced by Westsider Media from Gregory A. Beck – Director/DP on Vimeo.

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