Chinese Viewers Flocking to Brands’ Online Mini-Movies

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In PepsiCo’s short film, Bring Happiness Home, a ragtag bunch of Chinese travelers trying to get home for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) comes together thanks to Pepsi and Lay’s. The film has logged more than 100 million views in its first week of release online, and is among many recently produced pieces that suggest 2013 could be an explosive year for branded content in China.

But it’s not just potato chips and fizzy drinks that have found success in short film branded content in China recently. Cartier, Louis Vuitton and even the nation of Australia put together hits. And China’s branded content business is just getting started.

The nation is a key market for product and marketing innovation for the company. Contributing to the success of Pepsi’s Bring Happiness Home are established stars like Zhou Xun (周迅), Louis Koo (古天乐), Show Luo (罗志祥), Zhang Guo Li (张国立) and Angela Chang (张韶涵). In fact, star talent is often the common denominator in China’s blooming branded content scene. [more] 

Lenovo and Puma recruited cult star and renowned “diaosi” Mike Sui to develop and star in web-based short content in 2012. Signer Ariel Lin was enlisted as host for the “China’s Healthiest Mouth” reality show created to promote Colgate’s 360 brand of toothpaste. Meanwhile, pop duo Rainie Yang and Show Luo starred in the series “Heartbeat Love” (再一次心跳), which follows a young couple’s romance in Australia and was sponsored by the Australian Tourism Commission. It has logged tens of millions of views, and was even a top ten trending topic on Weibo for a week in April. 

Using established stars is not always necessary. Beijing-based real estate developer Soho created a moderate hit with its brave story of Abo, the first monkey in space, who returned to warn the nation about the consequences of its lack of creative thinking. The series produced over 500,000 views, including hundreds of pages of comments on Soho’s half-hour panel discussion.

To promote the opening of its Shanghai flagship location, Louis Vuitton engaged the services of America’s hipster-chronicler The Selby. The photographer produced a series of one-minute vignettes focused on riding the rails from Paris to Shanghai on the Louis Vuitton locomotive.

But when it came to luxury branded content, it is hard to outdo Cartier. After “L’Odyssée de Cartier“–a trailer-length film featuring a globetrotting Cartier cougar that promoted the brand’s heritage, garnered over 16.5 million views–the brand focused on China’s market with the seven-minute film “Destinée.”

Featuring superstar actress Michelle Chen (陈妍希), the short romantic tale tells the story of a young woman and her handsome suitor, brought back together thanks to… a Cartier ring. The film has garnered nearly 2 million views and benefitted even more from a Cartier-sponsored online chat between fans and Chen.

Though it may seem rather over the top to western audiences, Cartier’s story sledgehammered away on all China luxury messaging points: Paris and the Eiffel Tower; French, garden-party elegance; and a tall, “laowai,” doe-eyed beau who’s bothered to learn Mandarin to propose. In 2011, over 900,000 Chinese travelers went to France where they spent more than any other tourist group. By 2020, that number is expected to be closer to 5 million.

“It’s going to explode,” said Ric DiIanni, president of Shanghai-based House Films, which specializes in branded content and custom creative for brands like Ford. CCTV viewership is tanking as Chinese audiences move online, DiIanni said. In China, he said, online branded content is “the only thing that makes sense in advertising.” 

DiIanni said Chinese audiences want stories and “want to engage with content and social media.” But he cautioned that “brands need to be flexible and open to new ideas” in content. Too often in his experience, he said, brands do not see the opportunity in some roles offered in content. 

But Sirena Liu, founder and president of Filmworks China, an agency that also specializes in assembling content for brands, doesn’t think the branded content in its most recent form will necessarily last forever. “The trend of mini-movies will continue to be popular for a while, but probably not for too long,” Liu told brandchannel.

Liu reasons that the high costs of production and promotion make branded content one of the riskier propositions. “The brands will soon realize that it makes more sense to do placement in a high-profile film,” she said. “Less cost, more exposure.”

Liu’s Filmworks specializes in product placements in Hollywood products, landing spots for Yili Milk in the U.S. TV hit Big Bang Theory and 360buy.com in the game “The Sims.” 

Whatever the future for branded content in China, the practice is here to stay globally and is gaining in legitimacy. Now a decade removed from the BMW film series that produced short films like “The Hire,” 2012 saw the first-ever Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix for branded content. The winner: Chipotle’s “Cultivate Campaign.”

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