Are brands the new creative leaders?

Once the preserve of artists and musicians, brands now lead the way in the creation of quality content that is believable, engaging and addictive. But as consumers, have we stopped noticing we’re being sold to or don’t we care as long as it looks good?

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Artwork for Burberry’s Christmas 2016 advert. Credit: @Burberry

Let’s face it, with their significant financial clout, wealth of contacts and general cultural allure, brands have the tools at their disposal to create content that is not only beautiful, engaging and visually arresting, but gains mass popularity.   

It is also a very savvy move. In a world of ad blockers and shareable social, where people would rather consume a piece of content than sit through an advert, brands that want to stay relevant are flexing their creative muscles to become the new wave of content producers.

Take Burberry. Last year the luxury fashion heavyweight enlisted the talents of Oscar winning British director Asif Kapadia to work on a Christmas advert with the scope, ambition and top-notch production values of a Hollywood blockbuster.

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Lavish, cinematic and complete with a haunting soundtrack, The Tale of Thomas Burberry dispensed with the festive cliches, channelling the mood of a First World War epic and drawing on the brand’s rich heritage in what was Burberry’s 160th anniversary year.

Depicting the origins of the brand’s evolutionary trench fabric, the three minute film invited viewers into the world of founder Thomas Burberry, from the establishment of his business and meeting his first love to the outbreak of World War I and Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. The casting of leading British and Irish actors Domhnall Gleeson, Dominic West, Sienna Miller and Lily James only added to the sense of Hollywood glamour.

Fans of the advert, which has been viewed nearly 15 million times since November, took to Twitter begging Burberry to transform it into a feature film, with Lily James herself saying there was enough extra footage given the brand’s “investment in the characters”. Even Britt Warner, the American singer on the soundtrack song Diminuendo, tweeted Burberry thanking the retailer for transforming her music into “beautiful moving art”.

The mix of arresting visuals, slick editing and characters clothed in Burberry’s finest autumn 2016 collection makes it easy to forget that this is not the trailer for an upcoming blockbuster, but a piece of branded content intended to sell scarves and bags to those with deep enough pockets.

This is not a piece of art for art’s sake. The characters are designed to entice us and add to the aspirational glow of the Burberry brand. But does that matter as long as we enjoy it? And would we even question the credibility of a feature length Tale of Thomas Burberry if it hit our cinema screens?

Buying into an aesthetic

Of course Burberry is not the first brand – nor will it be the last – savvy enough to join forces with a high profile director on a content project.

When H&M enlisted the help of Hollywood stalwart Wes Anderson to direct its Christmas 2016 advert, the result was a quirky, whimsical and characteristically Anderson-esque take on the festive season. Starring the director’s long time collaborator and Oscar winning actor Adrien Brody, the advert invited viewers on board the H&M Line Winter Express, speeding through the snowy mountains as the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day.

The Darjeeling Limited meets The Grand Budapest, with a dash of Murder on the Orient Express for good measure, the advert has clocked up nearly 10 million views in three months. If views are indeed a metric of engagement, then content clearly works.

Maximising with a mini-series

This is a fact Nike knows only too well. A seasoned pro when it comes to endorsements, sponsorship and brand building, the sportswear giant has made several forays into the branded content space, not least with YouTube original mini-series Margot vs Lily.

The eight-part series follows adopted sisters Margot, an unemployed social media manager, and Lily, a fitness vlogger boasting an enviable following. Scornful of Lily’s online empire Margot is challenged to get fit and make videos that will gain more hits than her sister, while Lily has to swap fitness for making friends.

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Promotional stills for Margot vs Lily. Credit: Nike

Achingly millennial, the sisters jog their way through New York in the latest Nike kit from their neon Flyknits to abstract marble print leggings. The series plays on the idea of influencer culture, with both sisters finding new ways to grow their social following. Margot even teams up with her online gaming pro ex-boyfriend in her bid to reach thousands. The series also features a cameo from real life Nike brand ambassador, 400m Olympic champion Allyson Felix.

Totalling an hour of content across eight episodes, the first instalment alone received 19 million views. A Brandwatch sentiment analysis of tweets about the series from January to March 2016 rated 95% positive, with a large number asking Nike to make a second season with longer episodes.

Only the ambitious need apply

And just when you thought branded content success was reserved for fashion players, here comes GE. Progressive US industrial giant General Electric (GE) topped the iTunes charts in 2015 with The Message, a weekly podcast following a scientist struggling to decode a message from outer space. GE is hoping to repeat this success in 2017 with LifeAfter, an AI adventure podcast described as a mix of Her and Ex-Machina. Lofty ambitions indeed. 

Whether the aim is to build brand equity, craft a social following or drive purchase, branded content hits all the KPIs. But should we be worried? Is the success of this form of content really just symptomatic of the way brands are blurring the lines between art and selling?

Is it in fact the case that we have grown so accustomed to brands having the ambition to create innovative content that we fail to notice their commercial intentions anymore, or even care, as long as the content offers the escapism we crave?

At a time when traditional content studios appear risk averse, and cinemas are full of sequels, remakes and reboots, brands are taking on a bigger role in shaping cultural tastes and norms. It is an interesting trend for any brand owner to consider – and one that should cause independent artists to question how they stay relevant.

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