CNN showcases a different way to create and collaborate during Covid

Change brings about fresh ideas and new ways of working. Brands need to embrace the challenge to deliver the content that consumers want warns Martin Laing, director of production & global executive producer, Create Brand Studio, CNN International Commercial

Just some of the innovative CNN campaigns over the past few months that showcase everything from remotely directing shoots via video conferencing to inspiring people to ‘Travel Tomorrow’ when safe to do so
Just some of the innovative CNN campaigns over the past few months that showcase everything from remotely directing shoots via video conferencing to inspiring people to ‘Travel Tomorrow’ when safe to do so

Let’s start things off with a sense of reality and self-awareness. You don’t need consumer research to tell you that “production of branded content” won’t be high on the list of most people’s major concerns right now.

But while branded content isn’t keeping the average person up at night, it should matter to you by virtue of the fact you’re reading Campaign. If that doesn’t cut it then just consider analysis by Kantar Millward Brown, which proves that 60% of brands that ‘go dark’ see a negative impact on brand relationship metrics, losing affinity, image, and loyalty.

Of course, in the past six months brand strategies, messaging, and the role of branded content have changed dramatically. That’s certainly something we’ve experienced at CNN with our clients around the world. We’ve always had a consultative approach at Create but this year it has become even more important, as brands strive to ensure the relevance and tone of their campaigns. Inclusivity, representation, and thoughtful language must be tastefully and sensitively included in all branded content if it is to be effective.

In early March, we were quick to form a central taskforce of experts in brand strategy, media planning, audiences and data, and creative from across CNN International Commercial. This taskforce worked closely with our sales teams, sector experts and clients to offer counsel about maintaining relationships with their customers based on individual needs as well as sector and geographical nuances.

At the start of lockdown, many campaigns opted for a “Zoom” style execution, and while that worked for some brands, we were also keen to explore a different creative approach, one where we could maintain our production standards and continue making more visually impressive and engaging content. As the outbreak spread across the globe, we had extensive conversations to map out worst-case scenarios and find innovative ways to continue with our global production slate where possible. The process was long and complicated, especially without the ability to sit together in a room and hash it out, but in the end, we conquered long lead times and got very creative about producing on location.

Health and safety was our number one concern, so we introduced a rigorous risk assessment process, and worked closely with CNN security, HR, legal and insurance to ensure everything was done with safety in mind. This due diligence laid the groundwork for the local crews we were working with and ensured everything was shot in a safe and responsible way.

While the situation meant we had to pause or change the plans for just about all of our shoots, it was invaluable having the support of the CNN security team who are used to evaluating high risk situations to ensure our editorial colleagues can swiftly and safely get reporters into frontline news situations. Having such a tried and tested resource enabled us to adapt quickly, deploy teams where possible, and work with external teams. An ironclad risk assessment process allowed us to confidently keep creating branded content to the same high standard as pre-lockdown.

One of the biggest problems to overcome was the inability to fly. With our own directors unable to attend shoots conducted by local crews, we again adapted our workflow and began virtually directing films through a live feed. Providing instant feedback from the other side of the world is a surreal experience but helped us maintain our usual quality output.

Teamwork and creativity push boundaries
Pre Covid-19 the trend of brand purpose was already prevalent, particularly when engaging with an affluent and high-end audience. The current situation has accelerated this trend. According to Global Web Index, 79% of consumers approve of brands running campaigns that show how they are responding to coronavirus and/or are helping their customers at this time.

Creatively, this has meant reviewing any existing campaigns planned pre-pandemic to ensure messaging continues to be relevant. We’ve also spent a lot of time on research and strategy to consider how consumers see brands now and evaluating how brands should be communicating to strike the right tone.

Early on, one of our long-standing partners, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) recognised the enormous challenge facing the travel and tourism sector as a result of Covid-19 and went public with its “By staying home today, we can travel tomorrow” message. We worked with the UNWTO to produce a campaign that aimed to inspire people to dream of destinations to visit and Travel Tomorrow, once deemed safe to do so. The result was a 60-second film that took viewers around the world, reminding them of the wonders beyond their neighbourhoods and igniting the desire to plan future trips. Not only did this campaign demonstrate our commitment to supporting the travel and tourism industry, but it helped to reinforce WHO guidance, which at the time was to stay home.

The ‘Art of Leadership’ with BMW is another campaign we launched during the past few months. Our new production method allowed us to film in Shanghai, Paris, and Tokyo when safe to do so, and during the initial delays, we decided to bring forward the publication of our digital assets, such as articles and social content, in order to keep the campaign on track. The latest part of the campaign features the renowned photographer Ellen von Unwerth and her unique style of leadership and creative direction. Many people will be evaluating the role of leadership on a daily basis at the moment, so the campaign came at an interesting time culturally, since it speaks to the traits needed across the world as governments, businesses, and communities all battle a common enemy.

I’ve worked on hundreds of branded content campaigns in my almost 15-year tenure at the global brand studio, and the current situation has meant I’ve had to work like never before. And I mean that in a positive way, as I’ve seen the team come together and reject the constraints of figurative and geographical boundaries. In one of our recent campaigns, we needed the contributions of colleagues from six different countries. In June, Create team members from London, Singapore and Hong Kong worked together remotely for a particularly interesting shoot in Korea via video conferencing. The (now standard) pandemic health and safety measures were supplemented with extra paperwork and precautions to ensure the safety of our crew and the team of Seoul-based firefighters, who were filmed among burning buildings and pyrotechnics.

As you can see, while we were collaborative and novel thinkers before, the impact of Covid-19 has taken this to another level. And the nimble approach doesn’t stop here. At the time of writing, we have 20+ projects currently in the works and we know that the way we create content will continually evolve.

To find out more about CNN Create, the work we're doing and how we can craft custom content for your brand, see here.