Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production

Branded Content: Is it Time for Brands to Rediscover their Storytelling Swagger?

Production Company
Vancouver, Canada
Sabertooth creative director Dustin Cook and Boldly producer Kristoff Duxbury tell LBB's Adam Bennett why no other marketing tool can match the power of storytelling

It’s easy to like storytellers. Perhaps there’s something primal in that, connected to our species’ early years enjoying respite as we gathered around the hearth recounting the events of the day. Or perhaps it’s more modern, as our spiralling appetite for entertainment accounts for the explosion in content including streaming services and narrative-driven videogames. No matter when or where, there will forever be a part of human nature that sees us yearn to be gripped, captivated, and enthralled by great storytellers.

And perhaps that’s also why so many brands want to be storytellers. Amidst a media landscape more fractured and fragmented than ever before, content which entertains audiences is becoming more valuable than ads which interrupt and agitate them.

Of course, this is nothing new. ‘Branded content’ has been an enormous part of our industry ever since Proctor and Gamble commissioned what would go on to be known as ‘soap operas’ for radio in the 1930s. But the rewards for getting a branded content strategy right - including an authentic connection to an engaged audience, organic views and shares, and an identity synonymous with quality - are all goals at or near the top of any brand’s wish list.

So, how can a brand tap into the potential of branded content and become a beloved storyteller? And can branded content be applied to any marketing strategy, or do only certain brands qualify? To find out, we spoke to two filmmakers with an intimate understanding of what makes branded content work: Sabertooth’s creative director Dustin Cook, alongside Boldly partner and producer Kristoff Duxbury.


That’s Entertainment

“Right from the start, it was about learning that shared language between the community - even down to the non-verbal communication”.

 As Dustin reflects on his work with the iconic bike brand Specialized, he notes the importance of listening to their pre-existing audience before figuring out how to make it grow bigger. “There was one particular forum online which was especially knowledgeable and ruthless”, he recalls. “We made it our mission to identify their most common feedback or talking points, and really go after them in our work. That had the dual impact of both making people feel heard, and creating content which truly resonated with that community”.

The initial result was 2018’s ‘The All-New Stumpjumper’, a four-minute film made for online which was in equal parts knowing and hilarious.

Above: ‘The All-New Stumpjumper’ showed how a little self-depreciation can go a long way in humanising a brand and forging a strong connection with an audience.


Whilst Specialized’s willingness to poke fun at itself paid dividends with a light-hearted charm on screen, the decision to be self-deprecating was a brave one at the time. “We were fortunate enough to be working with a brilliant creative team brand-side, and our work for them wouldn’t have nearly hit the same heights were it not for their open-mindedness”, explains Dustin. “And the best part about that ad being so warmly received was how it gave us a baseline of trust with the brand on which to build”.

In the time following that initial film, Dustin (alongside his creative partner Ian Schiller, the other half of Sabertooth) set about working on a number of well-received films for Specialized which arguably culminated in ‘The Perfect Lap’. A perfectly-pitched ode to the golden age of mountain biking (spoiler: it’s today), The Perfect Lap has racked up almost two million views on YouTube alone alongside a plethora of award wins and nominations. The film went up against heavyweight brands like Apple and Volvo at the Vimeo Film Awards having picked up a highly-coveted #StaffPick, and more recently was nominated at the 2022 Webby Awards for Best Scripted Branded Entertainment.

“Just as with any good campaign, it started with a key insight”, recalls Dustin. “In this instance it was the way in which many people glorified mountain biking's past. I think harking back to a sometimes-imagined better time is a fairly universal human tendency, and that made it easier for us to take on in the film. We wanted to remind mountain bikers that the sport has never been better than it is right at this moment in time. During the depressing, heavy, and horribly repetitive ‘we'll get through this’ messaging of brands in covid times, we had to bring some levity and fun to the table”.

And despite the free-flowing and comedic nature of the film, it came together because of Sabertooth’s thoughtful and intentional use of narrative and archetypes. “Storytelling-wise we tap archetypes”, continues Dustin, “and much of our script was based around subtext. Ian [Schiller, the other half of Sabertooth]  feels this is as powerful a tool in the storytelling as the dialogue word. What isn’t explicitly said can be implicitly powerful, for example placing the golden age inside the pandemic timeline. We felt we were saying something by making this storytelling choice”. 

Above: ‘The Perfect Lap’ was met with universal acclaim upon its release, and picked up BRONZE in the Best Sports Branded Content category at the Clios and GOLD in the Best Branded Content category at Kinsale Sharks amongst other award wins.

Another advantage the film had, believes Dustin, was its timing. “We saw this film come out at a time in the initial wave of the pandemic where so much advertising looked and sounded the same and had this banal message of ‘we’re in this together’ which attempted to speak to everyone as though we are the same person. It was like everyone wanted to emulate that Gal Gadot video for some reason”, he says. “The Perfect Lap was the opposite of that - it knew who its audience was and was authentic in wanting to be something entertaining and positive for them”.

All of which speaks to the unique power of branded content. But, in the instance of Specialized this was a brand with an engaged and passionate audience, plus a product which lent itself naturally to interesting content. Whilst a branded content strategy hit the perfect note for them, are there some brands who simply aren’t well-placed to get the most out of branded content? In the experience of Kristoff Duxbury, that needn’t be the case.


We’re All Storytellers Now

“This kind of content requires passion, on the parts of both the filmmakers and a brand’s audience”, says Kristoff. “But, especially with products, there’s passion everywhere which can be tapped into - even if it's in a way which doesn’t seem obvious. My rule is that, if it exists, there’s passion for it somewhere out there”.

For Kristoff, the only limit on branded content’s potential is imagination. “Even with products we might consider banal, there are storytelling possibilities. Take a washing machine, for instance - very few people are passionate about them but plenty more have a nostalgic connection to the smell of laundry, or childhood memories of our parents in front of the machine. With the right insight and creative input, engaging stories can always be told”.

Striking a similar note to Dustin, Kristoff also highlights the importance of trust. “Dustin’s point about getting that deep understanding of a brand right at the beginning can’t be overstated”, he says. “You need to work with creative partners who get you, and understand your brand to the point where they know all the in-jokes and it’s instinctual. I often find that, from our perspective at Boldly, some of our most well-received creative work is what we do direct-to-client. Working with in-house marketing teams we are able to craft specific stories that speak directly to their audience, which in turn has been met with our best engagement of the content. Storytelling has the power to do that, but we have to generate the right creative conditions in which storytelling can thrive”.

Ultimately, the art of advertising is the art of not talking down to people. It’s the key to building up an audience which actively seeks out your content rather than finds themselves interrupted by it, ready to skip it. And, critically, this art is often the secret to getting bang for your marketing buck - as Dustin eloquently explains.

“In the case of Specialized, we went up against some of the world’s biggest companies - and biggest budgets - and beat them to awards with a fraction of their resources”, he says. “It was a David vs Goliath situation, and storytelling was our slingshot”.

In an ever-more competitive content landscape, brands are looking out for ways to cut through and make a lasting impression. In such an environment, it’s easy to imagine more and more of them turning to the storytelling slingshot.

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