Q&A with Process’ Tim Perell, the man behind Adidas and ESPN’s new branded film series

Tim Perell, founder and CEO of Process, answers questions about the company’s innovative brand storytelling strategy, as exemplified via the video content produced for Adidas and Audi.

Brand storytelling was a hot topic last year, and it’s been included within many lists related to marketing predictions for New Year once again. Despite the ongoing focus on this aspect of content marketing, one question remains: when the idea is to engage consumers with entertaining content, how much product is too much?

Adidas and publisher ESPN have the answer – at least, they’ve gone all-in on an approach that allows story and brand to go hand in hand. In December, the two companies launched Pioneers; a three-part series of short documentary films that highlight sports figures, including skateboarder Mark Gonzales, high jumper and former Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury, and NBA player Royal Ivey. A compilation of the films aired as a 30-minute special on ESPN and ESPN2. Also, in addition to appearing on ESPN.com, The Mark Gonzales Ride aired on SportsCenter.

For the first two films, The Mark Gonzales Ride and The Fosbury Flop, Adidas was hardly featured at all.

With the third film, Royal in Hollis, the sports brand took a different approach and incorporated the 1986 Run-D.M.C song, My Adidas. Even then, the story of Royal Ivey took center stage.

What prompted the decision to put story first? We spoke with Tim Perell, founder and CEO of Process – the NYC-based film and branded content production company behind the film series – to find out how the project got started and how it was executed, as well as expose some best practices for your own branded content campaigns.

ClickZ (CZ): How much was Adidas was involved in the concept and creative process that led to Pioneers?

Tim Perell (TP): The project originated in the sales department at ESPN between sales and Adidas. Adidas wanted to make a group of short films in the style of ESPN’s 30 for 30, a series of sports documentaries. The development people came up with a group of sports figures, there was some back and forth, and they worked with Adidas to arrive at a final list. The brief Adidas sent out was extraordinarily short. Process was tasked with coming up with ideas for films related to the subjects. The purpose wasn’t to highlight or sell Adidas – just to tell stories that sat next to the Adidas brand in some way, shape, or form.

We had a lot of latitude in defining the stories and how we approached them. Our mandate was really to make some compelling short films. In a way that was really liberating, but there were also no parameters, which can be a real challenge.

CZ: It’s common for brands take one of two storytelling routes: either they heavily integrate the product into the story, or they tell a story related to the space they hope to own, like sports or travel. Is one strategy more effective than the other?

TP: I don’t think there’s any one way to go. Brand integration could have occurred within any of these films, and it’s not necessary bad to integrate the product – as long as the focus is on the story and the filmmaking makes good, organic use of that product. Adidas actually encouraged us to have no Adidas products at all, but they naturally showed up as clothing worn by the subjects. The best thing about these films is that they live on their own.

CZ: In addition to Adidas, you’ve created branded films like Smart Performer for Audi, which visibly incorporates the product. How can brands employ this strategy while still making a consumer connection?

TP: The Audi film, which features actress Claire Danes and promotes Audi’s TDI clean diesel-powered vehicles, is a scripted narrative built around an idea that integrates the car as a fundamental engine of the story. Audi pulled us back from overly fetishizing the car, but we made sure the story was compelling and funny with the car at its core.

Long-form branded pieces don’t usually have the burden of selling things; brands use them to make something that speaks to their demographic with content they can enjoy and identify with. With Audi, the casting of Danes – who Audi felt its customers could connect with – was key. For Adidas, the subjects were chosen in a very specific way: all are past or present Adidas athletes.

Brands should look for subjects with a certain identity that they want to be affiliated with. Nobody wants to be pandered to. These films don’t look at you as somebody who’s there to buy something, but somebody who wants to be entertained.

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