5 things to consider before you take the plunge into branded entertainment

IPG Mediabrands


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June 7, 2024 | 7 min read

Long format branded film or brand-funded entertainment are increasingly attractive additions to the marketing mix. The quality of work in this space is extraordinary. Brendan Gaul, global chief content officer, IPG Mediabrands, sets out some of the most important considerations for generating creative and commercial success in these complex, captivating media formats.

The remarkable success of the Barbie movie alerted the world to a fact that marketers have known for years: the standard of long-form branded film or brand-funded entertainment has come a long way.

It’s also an increasingly popular addition to the modern marketing mix. Just look at the work on show at the likes of the Cannes Lions Festival, Tribeca X, or Sundance and you’ll see many brands reframing their relationships with audiences. With a significant proportion of consumers seeking ad-free entertainment experiences, brands are moving marketing into the entertainment space. This isn’t just an awareness play, it’s about forming a deeper bond with consumers, enhancing brand equity with values messaging and purpose.

When you see how high the bar has been set – for example John Deere’s ‘Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land’, Johnson & Johnson’s ‘5B’, Dove Men+Care’s 'Dads: ‘Our Modern Fatherhood Documentary’ or Sephora’s ‘The Beauty of Blackness' – it’s clear this is an entirely different ball game to standard video content. Branded film can deliver full-funnel commercial benefits, but it’s a complex, expensive option, so it’s vital to get the process right. 

Here are five key considerations to put you on the right path should a branded film proposal be the first item on the agenda tomorrow.

What’s your motivation?

Before embarking on a major project like a branded film, be completely clear what you intend it to achieve. If you have a story you want to tell, have a clear ‘why’ in mind. Set out what it will deliver, what your success metrics will be, and where it will fit in your strategic plan. Or, if you have a KPI you want to hit, then investigate if long-form branded films can move that particular needle.

These outcomes and success metrics must be considered throughout the project, and central to discussions with content creators. They deliver the clarity required to frame the development process, ensuring that all decisions and everyone in the creative collaboration are driving towards common goals.

Defining desired outcomes also helps build trust between you and the creators. It helps to build a partnership in which they’re empowered to make their best work in order to reach your desired audiences.

Understand the role branded entertainment plays

Longer-form branded film content is an excellent vehicle for shaping brand perception, enhancing brand equity and forging a deeper connection with consumers. So if you are looking to create some brand love, this format could be an ideal addition to your marketing strategy.

With media and marketing industries increasingly focused on personalization and performance media, branded entertainment adds more anthemic, purpose-driven work back into the mix. It helps remind customers (and colleagues) what a brand stands for, influencing sentiment and attitudes towards the business.

A good example of this is the film ‘Dear Santa’ that enabled USPS to become the number one holiday shipper among viewers. Media data analysis demonstrated how much people like watching Christmas movies with their families. So USPS commissioned their own. ‘Dear Santa’ gave USPS the springboard to leapfrog rivals who had access to larger advertising budgets.

A piece of powerful storytelling may not drive direct bottom-of-funnel conversions. But it will grab audiences and get them to lean in and pay attention. And while you have their attention you can make subsequent interactions with them more directly impactful to bottom line conversions.

Content to commerce

Branded film can form part of an engagement ecosystem – using powerful, purpose-driven brand equity pieces to activate bottom-of-funnel conversion assets. Optimizing this ‘content to commerce’ process is crucial to maximizing ROI. So it should be a core component of any branded film proposal.

Consider where entertainment fits into an overall commercial strategy. Then build out a coherent plan, determining how you utilize assets or subjects from the long-form content in units that are more shoppable.

Harnessed correctly, the branded content can be the beating heart of your media plan, connecting and powering multi-channel conversion assets. Wherever an audience watches the content, they can be re-targeted with shoppable advertising. The content may, for example, cover specific subjects that are suitable for an influencer marketing strategy. Leveraging influencers’ extensive social media following, you can create advertising assets that can be used to engage people who have watched the branded content.

Branded film content can also be used less directly – though no less impactfully – to create a moment, a conversation, a property or a culture in which to deliver conversion messaging. 

Take the award-winning documentary ‘5B’. The film focuses on the pioneering work of nurses on the first ever dedicated AIDS ward in 1980s San Francisco and which, the end credits reveal, was “proudly commissioned by Johnson & Johnson”. But neither the company nor its products feature in the film. Instead J&J supported ‘5B’ throughout its promotional activities, giving the brand greater prominence.

A well-structured content to commerce plan is a great way to drive marketing efficiency, enabling you to activate branded content, influencer marketing, DCO (dynamic creative optimization) and personalization all at the same time. Ultimately, any branded film proposal can always be considered as part of the broader strategy to generate return on investment, rather than as a standalone project.

Manage the value exchange

For a brand-funded film project to deliver commercially, it’s vital to keep the value exchange with your audience front of mind throughout the process. If you don’t serve or satisfy their expectations, you’re unlikely to inspire any purchase intent.

There are two useful guiding principles to help manage this value exchange. Firstly, and fundamentally, the content has to entertain or inform the audience. If the piece is engaging enough to generate interest, if consumers feel entertained by your brand, it opens the door for connected downstream conversion messaging. So the content has got to be high quality – well considered, well scripted, well cast, well produced and well delivered. If the audience buys into your content, they may buy into your product. If they don’t, they won’t.

The second key point is to be open and consistent with the audience about the content’s purpose. If they’re watching a piece of storytelling for entertainment only to be confronted by a jarring pivot to overt sales messaging you will undermine their expectations and erode the value exchange. They may feel misdirected and a lot less inclined to buy your products. Audiences are smart, so be up front with them and trust the quality of your content to influence their behaviors and drive brand salience.

Be bold

As a final thought, if you have decided that a piece of long-form content is the right play for your commercial strategy, then really embrace it. Be bold. This is an opportunity to unabashedly plant the flag for what your brand stands for. No-one wins a Cannes Lion for being safe. That’s not how you break through or grab attention. So be brave.

Get great advice, spend the money where you need to, connect all your assets and seize the chance to create something creatively and commercially extraordinary.


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