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Selling through short film

For furniture designers, the small screen is the new showroom, which, as Ellen Himelfarb reports, allows brands to tell their stories and appeal to consumers' emotions

Companies such as Whirlpool are producing content such as Sama’s Lunchbox not with the goal of selling products, but to foster engagement with the brand through views, likes and shares.

Some stories, you just can't look away from. At least that's what the appliance manufacturer Whirlpool was banking on when it posted the 2 1/2-minute documentary Sama's Lunchbox to its Facebook page last fall.

The film follows Sama, a nine-year-old Syrian girl who settled with her parents in Cobourg, Ont., three years ago, as she and her mother prepare dishes from family recipes to take into her classroom. By the second minute, her schoolmates, having tasted and loved the Syrian snacks, are presenting Sama with the gift of a customized lunchbox. Cue the tears.

The brand's gleaming stainless-steel appliances sneak into the background and the Whirlpool marque appears in the final frame. But whether the audience (currently 51,000 views on Facebook and 2.2 million on YouTube) noticed Sama's Lunchbox was branded content didn't appear to affect their interest.

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Because that audience on Facebook was targeted by demographics (moms in their 30s and 40s) and psychographics (in this case, people who value diversity, equality and inclusivity), the film fared well against competing content.

"The key was getting to the right people and tugging at their heartstrings," senior brand manager Michelle Domet says. "We wanted to cut through that sea of sameness, but in a way that's meaningful for Canadians. Other nations care about heritage. For Canadians, it's all about values."

With entertainment, media and advertising agencies all rebranding as "content providers," lines are irrevocably blurring. Marvel and Audi have been in bed together going on 10 years – superheroes have been driving their cars since Iron Man's R8 in 2008. The arty video channel Nowness is basically a vehicle for its parent company, designer-goods maker LVMH. Brands such as Marriott, Chanel and Lego inhabit all three worlds at once. What they share is a talent for creating branded content that people choose to watch, and choose to watch to the end.

In some cases, the goal isn't necessarily to sell products, but to foster engagement with the brand through views, likes and shares. Or, in some cases, to create awareness in new circles.

Now, home brands are catching on.

"A commercial is something that's put in front of you and interrupts you," says Mike Sutton, president of Toronto agency Zulu Alpha Kilo and its video division, Zulubot, which produced the Whirlpool spot. "A piece of content has greater value. It's something people seek out and find out about through friends."

From a publicity perspective, the coupling of home brands and film makes sense. Home furnishings, appliances and accessories are some of our most personal, emotional purchases, offering comfort, evoking nostalgia, fought over by grieving relatives – themes filmmakers capture all the time. It stands to reason they could help fuel a compelling narrative that's not obviously connected to a brand.

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Last summer, IKEA exploited the fuzzy, gratifying feelings audiences get from ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, in a 25-minute video. In it, a woman who isn't fully shown runs her hands over a fitted sheet, a duvet cover and a lamp and asks viewers to listen to the sounds they make – all the while guiding students through decorating their first university dorm room.

Years before, IKEA launched a successful campaign pairing cute kittens and furniture. One film, a five-minute documentary by Andrew Lang called Pussy People, featured no IKEA furniture at all, just eccentric cat people speaking about their passion for their pets.

A good filmmaker can take a compelling story and weave in a brand in a way that, some argue, feels authentic.

In Sama's Lunchbox, Domet says, "you can feel the emotion from the truth of what [the family is] going through. That authenticity shone through and that was the key."

And seamless integration of products within a scene helps an advertisement cross into the territory of film.

Meanwhile, events such as the Milano Design Film Festival and others like it in New York and Singapore provide a platform not just for stories about innovators across the design industry, but also for higher-end brands to place their products in a more naturalistic milieu.

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Last fall in Milan, glassware designer Lasvit debuted a half-hour biopic called Breakpoint, the story of founder Leon Jakimic, a former tennis champ born into a family of Bohemian glass makers. When the Czech glass industry collapsed in 2008, Jakimic built his new company into a national powerhouse and a major rival of Murano.

"We had started photographing our bespoke glass installations, but we couldn't communicate their emotion," Jakimic says of his company's pivot to video. "Film was a natural choice. This movie is a study in emotion."

Also on the program in Milan was the short film Shedding Light, directed by Gianluca Vassallo and produced by lighting designer Foscarini. It takes an art-house approach to a day in the life of a Sardinian seaside village, where the lights create an atmospheric mood for the fragmented storyline.

In a cinema setting, the struggle to lure paying viewers into seats is no small thing, even in a place such as Milan, where "people consume design like food," according to festival organizer Silvia Robertazzi. And yet, Robertazzi has seen her festival schedule double in size in just a few years, along with audience numbers. Shedding Light and Breakpoint both premiered to packed theatres.

Over on social media, data continue to prove the effectiveness of video over still images and the written word. With brands struggling to keep impatient fingers from clicking out of sponsored content, quality and narrative will continue to improve. Eventually, we'll see cinematic content defying our expectations and edging out of the margins.

"At the end of the day, I don't think consumers care whether good content comes from an artist, the media or a brand. They judge it on whether it's any good," says James Morris, global chief executive of Stink, a creative agency and studio that produces branded video content for Nike, Toyota, Mercedes and others. Morris recently hired indie auteur Nicolas Winding Refn to direct David Beckham in a film for H&M, and Matthew McConaughey in a film for Lincoln cars.

The most successful ad agencies today, Morris says, recruit creative staff at the intersection of advertising and entertainment. "The holy grail is to be in people's culture," he says, "to create some association with film or music that people aspire to and seek out, and to grab attention more quickly than, historically, we've ever done."

In Sama's Lunchbox, Zulu Alpha Kilo found a story to tell that reflected what was already on people's minds and social-media feeds.

"It's all in the storytelling," Sutton says. "The goal is not to have a great commercial. It's to compete with premium content are watching in their feed. It could be a Drake video or a political piece. That's the attention we're competing with."

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