According to a 2018 Ofcom report, the number of UK subscribers to streaming services has overtaken those for pay TV.

This year, even more evidence of viewing trends came to light, as Netflix announced that it has reached 139 million subscribers globally. While other figures (such as the 40 million accounts that supposedly watched its original shows, ‘You’ and ‘Sex Education’) have been met with some scepticism – there’s no doubt that streaming is growing rapidly.

Now, it seems the advertising industry has taken notice.

Instead of merely placing ads or content marketing on social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, brands are increasingly creating long-form video content (such as documentary series or films) for streaming services or cinema release.

In other words – these are branded stories that creatively combine advertising and film-making. The idea being to grab attention (and engagement) from viewers who are increasingly binge-watching on these platforms.

Three brand examples

So, which brands have been experimenting with long-form video or film? Here’s some of the most recent examples, and what we can learn from them.

Airbnb

Earlier this month, Airbnb debuted a documentary at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival (eventually going on to win the Audience Award), marking the brand’s first real foray into film production. The film, called ‘Gay Chorus Deep South’, follows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on a tour of the American Deep South, following on from the 2016 election and a wave of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws.

A heart-warming documentary; it is a reflection of Airbnb’s values of openness and inclusivity, which it has previously displayed in its marketing campaigns and online content. As well as backing the documentary, Airbnb is featured in the film, such as a scene where members of the choir have dinner with two Christian Airbnb hosts.

While the scene is undoubtedly constructed, it doesn’t jar, and successfully promotes Airbnb’s values. The subtle nature of this is key, with the quality and strength of the story outweighing any overtly corporate messaging.

Lexus

Lexus is another brand delving into documentary-making, this time with the aim of reaching the 75 million people currently subscribed to Amazon Prime (and with access to its Prime Video service).

Entitled ‘Takumi – A 60,000-hour story on the survival of human craft’, the film immerses viewers in the worlds of four Japanese master craftspeople, who spend an average of 60,000 hours during their lifetime working to achieve ‘Takumi’ status. The title and length of the documentary reflect the terribly slow and painstaking work done by the craftspeople, although the Amazon Prime Video version has been cut down to an hour-long.

Ultimately, the film is designed to question how we can preserve human craft alongside the emergence of artificial intelligence. This is particularly pertinent considering Lexus debuted an ad entirely scripted by AI in 2018.

By exploring the themes of technology and tradition, Lexus is able to cleverly promote two conflicting values (that happen to both be central to its brand identity).

It’s worth noting that Amazon pays video creators royalty based on the overall number of hours content is viewed. However, with Amazon also recently reducing its payout rates, it is doubtful that many brands consider the exercise too carefully in terms of direct ROI. Rather, it is much more likely to offer brand awareness or reach, assuming that the content is discovered by enough people.

P&G

Proving that Netflix and Amazon Prime aren’t the only two giants of the streaming world, P&G has chosen Hulu as the home for its latest long-form bet.

“Queen Collective” is a documentary series produced in partnership with Tribeca Studios and Queen Latifah, delving into the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry.

Interestingly, the move does not seem to be borne out of the desire for greater reach. Rather, it is part of P&G’s wider wish to move content to platforms that offer greater control and brand safety, such as moderating comments and ensuring balanced perspectives. In other words, it is to prevent brand advertising appearing (or even potentially appearing) alongside harmful or damaging content.

Again, the branding is minimal in this case, with P&G using the film (and others, including its National Geographic example) to promote the organisation’s wider dedication to social good.

With nine out of 10 consumers reportedly saying that they have a more positive image of a brand when it supports an important cause, socially-charged documentaries and films are proving to be a successful way brands can further this message (and enhance positive sentiment).

The benefits of long-form video

Popularity of streaming aside, there are other reasons why long-form content can be more effective than short ads. This is largely due to the correlation between emotion and engagement, with longer videos (that contain more of a narrative arc) typically hooking in viewers on an emotional and therefore deeper level.

A 2017 study by Twenty-Three found that – despite 80% of videos analysed being under five minutes long – short videos generated less than a third of overall video engagement. In contrast to this, the 8% of videos that were 15 minutes or longer drove 50% of overall video engagement.

Twenty Three stat

Another benefit of long-form video is that it also allows brands to take a more filmic perspective, and to veer away from typical advertising tropes.

In other words, the aim is not to fit in an advertising message, but to offer viewers something of real value; content that they’d be willing to watch regardless of whether or not it has been created by a brand.

How do consumers feel?

So, are viewers willing to invest their time in branded films? It’s an issue that is still up for debate with branded content as a whole, even when the attention span required is much shorter. Take influencer marketing, for example, or native advertising; the success of which arguably rests on transparency. As long as audiences are aware that content is sponsored or branded, the general consensus seems to be that they’re largely happy to consume it.

There may be a lot to be said for owning creative direction, particularly when you consider that some forms of TV advertising are not always well received. Viewers of TV soap Coronation Street have recently criticised the inclusion of product placement, including Costa Coffee and Co-Op store-fronts.

Ultimately, this shows that consumers do not want to see marketing messages which feel shoe-horned in, or that feel overtly salesy.

Again, this goes back to value. And when it comes to films or long videos, quality is another key point, as viewers will naturally be less inclined to carry on watching if something is poorly made or clearly a vehicle for marketing messages.

In contrast, if it is authentic, relevant, and valuable, then this type of content will be welcomed. A survey by Time Inc. (of 17,000 people across three demographics) found that 90% of respondents like the idea of branded stories as a way for brands to engage with them, and 89% believe that it is a great way for brands to break through the noise online.

Interestingly, some of the most recent examples of long-form video have included minimal branding. For instance, only including a short ‘brought to you’ message at the beginning (before a story that has no mention or the brand or product) and again at the end. This is similar to some brand podcasts, which choose not to integrate advertising in order to prevent the value of content from being diminished.

As the earlier examples show, films may contain few overt brand mentions, merely acting as a representation of the brand’s values or its place in society.

The context of streaming platforms also enhances this. In comparison to social media platforms like YouTube, streaming services offer brand safety and a premium environment away from UGC. Streaming platforms also allow brands to connect with like-minded viewers on niche topics, when they are in exactly the right mind-set to absorb lengthy content.

More on branded video

Econsultancy’s Video Best Practice Guide and training course.