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Can Socially Minded TV And Films Build Brands Too?

The concept of corporate social responsibility has been around for a couple of decades now, morphing into an increasing willingness by CEOs to take public stands on controversial issues that fit with their companies and customers.

Now, that trend is going a step further. Increasing numbers of top executives say they would financially back TV shows and films that build awareness of their company’s values, according to a new Harris Poll study. The study was commissioned by Participant Media and its content studio subsidiary SoulPancake, along with Brand Storytelling, which organizes the Elevate conference where SoulPancake General Manager Shabnam Mogharabi presented the Harris Poll’s findings.

It’s a surprising demand-side approach to building support and an audience for a company’s general way of doing business, but the study said more marketers are embracing the bold approach.

In fact, nearly three-fourths of the executives surveyed said it was riskier for their company to stay silent on core issues than speak out. More than five in six C-suite corporate leaders said they believed that films and other entertainment would reinforce their brand, meaningfully engage with customers, build employee morale, and break through the “noise” of traditional media.

“A ton of brands say they need to do more mission-driven programming,” Mogharabi said. “There’s been a recent push to combine traditional TV and film with little to no brand awareness to create conversation around an area (the brands) care about or are aligned with them. We decided to commission this survey as a way to understand this landscape.”

Head shot of CEO of Soul Pancake online site, Shabnam Mogharabi
Soul Pancake General Manager and co-founder Shabnam Mogharabi (IMAGE COURTESY OF SOUL PANCAKE)

About three-fourths of the C-suite leaders said they are “comfortable investing time, money and effort into impact entertainment,” and 86 percent said they plan to “increase or retain” entertainment spending over the next three years, according to the study.

“No one needs to be sold to anymore,” Mogharabi said. “The commoditization of this world, that is driving this in some ways. What we stand for is a way for companies to differentiate.”

Participant’s CEO David Linde said the study highlights the need for not just investing in cause-related programming, but also supporting it with traditional advertising, social campaigns, influencer outreach, and public relations efforts.

“Social impact is a team sport, quite honestly,” Linde said. “It doesn’t exist only with Participant; it exists with the filmmakers, with the artists and the impact organizations that we work with, because ultimately, what we’re trying to achieve is a cultural shift to accelerate the work that the impact organizations are doing at any given time.”

The study suggests, however, though the people who work under them are less certain about such an approach. And few say they know what to do next in harnessing Hollywood to push social positions that can reinforce their own brand’s values.

In part, the lower-level employees doubt how much support they’ll actually get from the top if they invest in impact programming without clear links to traditional measures of return on investment.

The study also spotlights understandable concern among executives that they don’t get perceived as doing what’s variously called “purpose washing,” “green-washing,” “woke-washing” or “cause-washing.”

All those terms – which can be lethal to a reputation online – refer to the potential perception that a company is just paying lip service to causes that don’t have an authentic connection to its brand. The study said a “purpose gap” can arise between a company’s commitments and how any related entertainment venture might be connected.

“Do marketers truly want to positively impact the issue they are focusing on, or are their measures of success still steeped in traditional expectations from advertising, such as brand awareness, and driving sales and revenue?” the study says. “The survey revealed that marketers were still focused on traditional measurements for a new category that will require deeper and profoundly different commitments by corporations.”

The Harris study of more than 500 marketers found the industry is quickly shifting from traditional approaches that focus on brand messaging. Instead, the marketers say they’re talking more about their companies’ social mission and “purpose work,” in part to appeal to hard-to-reach younger audiences with strong cause commitments and little interest in old-school advertising.

The study focuses on what it calls “impact entertainment,” TV shows and films that talk about social causes that align with a company’s values. It’s a next big step in the rise of corporate social responsibility, or CSR, over the past 15 years or so.

In recent years, the CEOs of companies such as Apple and Patagonia have publicly staked out positions on social causes such as climate change and marriage equality to help define their company values.

The study quotes General Mills’ creative director Bill Roden, who last year asked for Hollywood’s help in devising entertainment ideas that incorporate the company’s 41 brand characters, including the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Lucky the Leprechaun.

“Creating a really great feature film, with an important message of empowerment and positivity that aligns with the trends and zeitgeist out there, is a genuine way for us to bring people into the brand in a new way on platforms where there is no advertising,” Roden said.

Mogharabi said companies need to be careful: “Unfortunately, if those efforts do not resonate as thoughtful, committed, and long-term, then the work can backfire. It takes real effort and time to find the right version and vision of ‘purpose’ for a brand.”

Separately, many executives said they just don’t know where to begin in commissioning or creating impact entertainment. The study called it a “skills gap.”

“Sixty-four percent said finding quality creative partners was a challenge,” the study said. “Fifty-four percent said there was limited understanding of what impact and traditional entertainment really are at their companies, and 53 percent said they lacked the knowledge on how to start an impact entertainment initiative at their companies.”

It’s spilled over into other areas. Employees at Google protested about use of the company’s technologies by the Pentagon. Employees at giant PR agencies Edelman and Ogilvy both revolted over representing a contractor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that was running internment camps for immigrants. Edelman backed out, but Ogilvy took the deal.