​Branded Content, the Cannes Lions Festival, and the Search for Human Connection

As a juror for the Branded Content and Entertainment category at this year’s Cannes Lion Festival, I was struck by just how much brand-created entertainment is evolving as a category and an industry in its own right. The international market is still trying to understand the diverse ways that branded content is put into practice—and just how far brands can push the boundaries of branded entertainment­—but the question of what makes branded content excellent is becoming clearer with each passing year. The criteria that guided our jury at this year’s Cannes consisted mainly of brand narrative, originality, craft, integration, and brand alignment, and we were keen on highlighting powerful brand narratives that connected brands to consumers through story.

The result brought up a recurring discussion in the global marketplace: How do you distinguish Branded Content and Entertainment from the longform video ad that goes viral? Is there a difference? Ultimately, it came down to narrative—specifically, we were looking for the kind of original and authentic narrative that connects and engages people. We sought contagious experiences that generated substantial conversation. (For example, Volvo’s great campaign, “Live Test Series,” didn’t win in our category because, though immensely entertaining, it wasn’t a brand narrative. Though it did win elsewhere.)

A few years ago, content that met this brand-narrative criteria was a relative rarity, but the festival saw quite a few winning cases this year of great brand storytelling: “The Scarecrow” and “Farmed and Dangerous” (Chipotle); “Kombi Last Wishes” (Volkswagen); “Sapeurs: A Short Documentary” (Guinness); “The Born Friends Family Portrait” (Skype); and “Project Drive-In” (Honda). These are examples of brands that managed to amplify their purpose and meaning in the world, add value to people’s lives, provoke conversation, and create a powerful encounter with consumers in a culturally relevant and resonating way. They were great stories that helped humanize brands.

Why didn’t any of these works win a Grand Prix, the ultimate prize in a category at Cannes?

The jury decided not to award a Grand Prix because we have the duty to highlight what is truly extraordinary, and we’re still waiting for brand stories that move the category (and the industry) to that next level. Such a piece of may even redefine the very meaning of Branded Content and Entertainment.

With the branded content industry on the rise, this “watershed” moment can happen. But we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. A lot to learn and discover. And it’s the great challenge for all brands and agencies because the audience has spoken, and they choose meaningful stories. And they get to make that choice because of the reality of the great switch from the push to the pull content model—from intrusion to invitation—where the digital revolution has allowed people to skip whatever they don’t want to watch, and press play on whatever they want to consume.

Overcoming that challenge may ultimately come down to branded content having storytelling in its heart. This year’s judging included a great amount of branded content that demonstrated clear effort but fell short because the brand wasn’t authentic and relevant to the story, the content wasn’t original enough, or the result was just a really long video ad masquerading as story. But the drive of brands to develop brand narratives is visible, highly dignified, and absolutely wonderful. So is the fact that many of them are investing more and more in creating their own content.

The new “touch point” for brand strategy is not about media, multi-platforms, or product-oriented stories. It is about creating compelling, human stories that connect people with brands. We can never forget that at the end of the day it’s all about that one thing: human connection.

Patrícia Weiss is a brand strategy consultant for the intersection of marketing, entertainment, advertising, and culture at ASAS da Imaginação (, and founder & chairman of BCMA South America (Branded Content Marketing Association).

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