To celebrate its 15th anniversary, BMW Films made a quiet return last Sunday with the release of The Escape. It's the ninth installment in the series of short films and like the first eight, it stars Clive Owen as the mysterious driver who always gets the call when someone even more mysterious needs to move precious cargo through a gauntlet of trouble.
This time the cargo is Lily (Dakota Fanning), the last remaining clone of a private development company being set upon by the FBI. The job of delivering Lily was never going to be easy but it goes especially bad when the driver goes rogue and takes on a hundred henchmen in Humvees led by Holt (Jon Bernthal) perched on the foot-rail of a helicopter and raining down a thousand rounds from his AK 15 onto Owen's space gray 2017 540 as he maneuvers in, out and around traffic.
Spoiler Alert: Bad day to be a helicopter pilot. Just sayin'.
The Escape is a fine entry for the series and I hope there are more episodes to come but my point is this...
In 2001 and 2002, BMW, its ad agency Fallon and Anonymous Content, a production company created for this project by mega director David Fincher, did something no one else had ever considered out loud. They took marketing dollars that would have been spent on media for TV ads and used it to create high-quality short films to be delivered on the internet.
Forget the screen was only 3" X 4" and the film would only play for a few second before it would need to buffer (kids, go ask your parents what buffering is).
This was a seminal moment in marketing and, with a polite nod to Red Bull, I still consider it the gold standard for branded content and/or brand entertainment because the product is so integral to the story. Every aspect of what they did and how they did it reflected the BMW brand and that should be a lesson every other brand learns.
Beyond the boldness to even consider this new path, they used A-list directors like John Frankenheimer, John Woo, Tony Scott and Guy Ritchie, and trusted each to create feature film caliber short films to make up the original series entitled The Hire featuring top-tier talent like Don Cheadle, Gary Oldman, Madonna and others.
The only mandatory was to feature Clive Owen as the driver for hire and give him a different BMW in each film because, as a pro's, pro, he would only put his trust in the "The Ultimate Driving Machine."
Fincher, the creative catalyst behind the series, knew way back then that people saw through the phony nature of advertising. Rather than shoot another 30-second TV commercial on a wet and winding mountain road to show a BMW's handling, he challenged Fallon to lead its client in a new direction to tell a richer, more entertaining story that would attract and engage the right audience while demonstrating the full capabilities of BMW.
You have to also credit BMW for having guts to let each director fill their cars with bullet holes, crunch fenders, rip off trim and hang a couple of lives in the balance as our hero drifted precisely around every corner and watched pursuers careen through guardrails and countless other obstacles before finding the wrong end of a fiery ball of flame.
Critics will tell you that BMW missed the mark because they didn't incorporate the series into a stronger marketing effort and I agree to a point. I remember sitting in the waiting area at my BMW dealership after the 4th film had been released only to be left watching a rerun of The Munsters but no marketer really knew what the internet was about back in 2001. We had just survived the dot.com bust and brands and their agencies were still reeling.
BMW sales increased 12% the next year and they estimate the films have been viewed more than 100 million times. Not bad when you consider YouTube didn't exist when they were launched.
Today, many brands claim to embrace the power of content, video-driven or not, but not enough challenge themselves to deliver GREAT content that will actually attract, engage and motivate an audience to act. Instead they check boxes, re-purposing existing assets with little imagination, delivering self-serving, heavy-handed sales messages instead of engaging stories and shrug their shoulders when it drives no results.
For content to be great, it must be three things and deliver a fourth. It must be relevant, interesting and useful to the audience. It can stir emotions, feed passions or deliver important information that people need to make more informed decisions. Great content enriches and rewards people for their time and leaves them eagerly anticipating the next installment.
You must also deliver the next logical step toward the brand, never leaving a dead end. It's another piece of content that offers more detail or expands the subject to include other areas of interest.
When you visit bmwfilms.com to watch The Escape, you'll notice the landing page is connected to the brand website. You've just seen what the car can do and now you can explore the 5 Series in more detail and click through to build your own car.
I'm not suggesting you spend more money on marketing. I'm recommending you spend your existing budget differently. Commit yourself to enriching the experience and helping people find the right products and services, for them. Take the extra step of surrounding this information in an entertaining package because your audience will forward it to their friends who share similar interests. That's powerful but it doesn't happen unless you make it happen. Fund the effort by spending less on ads that are blocked or ignored completely and more developing intelligent content that puts your brand's personality on display.
Share your insight freely!
I hear many business owners balk at the thought of giving away information - their "intellectual property." They want prospects to pay for that but please understand you are not not giving it away. You are investing in the relationship. You are demonstrating a willingness to put the audience first and helping them gain comfort as they move toward making an intelligent purchase. So who do you think they will reward?
If you understand your audience well enough; know their wants and needs, their fears and aspirations, you can make content that resonates. You know where they spend their time online, where they go to get information, search for product info or just relax and be entertained. All this information is readily available so yell if you need help.
Other brands like Red Bull, Marriott and Nike understand the new landscape and create exceptional content for their audiences. BMW is just reminding us they saw the future first and it still shines bright.