Mile-High Branding, or Content Crash & Burn?

This week Virgin Airlines launched a piece of branded content more daring than most. Created in collaboration with San Francisco agency Eleven and Virgin Produced (the Branson brand’s entertainment arm), ‘Departure Date’ is not only a rare example of feature-length branded content—it was also shot at cruising altitude.

The concept is a fun one. (Just imagine what the cameras might capture behind-the-scene on those racy Virgin flights…) But the result looks more like a straight to DVD film than what you would expect from an innovative brand like Virgin. The film was launched at the Los Angeles Film Festival (conveniently sponsored by … Virgin America) and the response has been mixed.

As Ella Riley-Adams wrote in the Agency Spy column at MediaBistro:

“The trailer, which you can find out more about here, makes Departure Date look like a cheap Lifetime special … But the concept of a movie shot at 35,000 feet in the air is original enough to compensate…”

But … is it?

Virgin should be applauded for pushing the envelope—more brands ought to experiment with long-form content—but by its own high standards this feels flat. After all, Virgin Airlines is the brand that brought us a stewardess reality programme, branded lipstick, and ice cubes in the shape of Richard Branson’s face.

It got us thinking: what sort of content would you like to make at 35,000 feet? Here are a few alternatives:

Murder on the Los Angeles Express

Set in the ’80s to capture the sexy nostalgia of Virgin’s recent ads, a redux of Agatha Christie’s classic on a Virgin long-haul flight. Richard Branson found smothered with a feather boa in the loo. Was it the seductive stewardess, the disgruntled captain … or Usain Bolt from the First Class Cabin? (Lord knows he has motive after those blonde moustache adverts.)

Virgin could even take it to the next level and shoot the mystery as a structured reality programme, starring actual passengers. If it takes off, a franchise of ‘dinner mystery’ destination flights might follow.

Love, Actually

If it has to be a cheesy romance, why not make it one of our own? Virgin flights proudly boast wifi and in-seat monitors, and plenty of honeymooning couples on their way to Vegas. Why not engage real life jet-setters and crowd-source some of the on-screen action? Or even film the rom-com live on a real flight, allowing passengers to interact digitally. Tie it all together and you’d have something really engaging.

Rakes on a Plane

One of the best ways to approach brand content is by revisiting your assets. Most brands have stories to tell, whether they realise it or not, and plenty of tools to use in doing so. The history of the Virgin Group is choc-a-bloc with great characters. Why not cross-promote Virgin Airlines with another brand? Ok, so Virgin Records might be owned by EMI these days, but just imagine: a first-class cabin packed with Iggy Pop, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Boy George … and plenty of those miniature bottles. With Daft Punk DJing. Just leave the cameras rolling—who wouldn’t watch?

Brand content offers an opportunity to blaze new trails unencumbered by the conservative rules of broadcast media. Yet ‘Departure Date’ represents what cynics are afraid entertainment will look like in a brand-sponsored world: vanilla entertainment full of subconscious marketing. Brands can do so much better.


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