Thought Leadership

Brands are increasingly comfortable producing phone-shot content, quickly reflecting back the aesthetic of social media to its users. But, does shooting on a phone in of itself signal truth to audiences any more? And, what role do production values play when everything starts to look the same? In this piece, Dan Keefe, Head of We Are Social Studios, explores just that.

Not too long ago, in the days of TV-dominated advertising, brands would produce professionally made 30 second films explaining why people should choose them over their competitors. They differed in style, function and effectiveness but they more or less all shared the feeling of a corporation speaking to its potential customers. Everyone knew where they stood.

With the passing of each new dominant social media platform, this dynamic has gradually dissolved. Brands now present as people; using chummy language, sending you memes and sending jibes to their competitors. The increasingly splintered content landscape gives them a direct line into culture and into consumers who in turn present themselves as brands. Authenticity has become currency in the battle for relevance.

And for the most part, it works. It’s the reason that influencers, creators and user generated content are particularly popular: they enable brands to deliver their message authentically, with the safety in distance that’s created by the involvement of a third party. It only takes a quick scroll before you come across an ad filtered through the lens of influence. The content itself can also reflect the visual language of users too; Apple know that audiences will engage more with images that were #ShotOnAniPhone than content they shoot themselves.

Image credit: Apple

As a consequence, phone-shot content authored by brands is becoming normalised across all channels, quickly and inexpensively reflecting the aesthetic of social media back to its users. This aesthetic itself has become a byword for authenticity and therefore engagement across agencies and marketing departments alike.

But does shooting on a phone in of itself signal truth to audiences any more? And what are the unintended side-effects homogenising the apparatus by which content is recorded? How do you avoid becoming wallpaper as a consequence of trying to fit in?

This is where production values still matter. Not in the sense of things looking ‘good’ or ‘bad’, low-fi or premium, but more nuanced considerations: lens choice, camera movement, lighting, performance, sound, editing and so on. Without taking time to discuss these, we lose the ability to pull the different levers that impact how audiences react. Creativity is stifled and feeds are flooded with content that all looks and feels the same.

A phone camera has a visual language of its own. They’re not low-fi any more – the quality is, at a glance, comparable with some ‘prosumer’ level cameras. It is designed around a distinct aspect ratio, it comes baked in with a colour balance and it has limited functionality with few controls. The main difference is that it subconsciously implies a sense of authorship; you feel the presence of a person behind the camera in a way that you don’t with dedicated camera equipment. If that serves the creative approach, then it’s the right choice. If it doesn’t then you’ve probably got much better options available to you, even with limited budgets in mind.

On projects where these kinds of production value considerations aren’t being addressed in the form of a director’s treatment or a producer’s scoping phase, agencies need to make sure that it’s still happening as part of an updated process within their teams, guided by production departments whose expertise lie in this area.

It is a legitimate concern to suggest that this approach might feel less socially native, causing people to skip past it like TV advertising. For a while I think that’s been somewhat true, if overly simplistic. But we’re now heading towards an aesthetic and budgetary race to the bottom. An inevitable backlash against this type of content and a rejection of brand personification amongst audiences is coming our way.

If brands want to interact with the public on social media, they don’t need to be our friends. They just need to be more entertaining than the next available option on the feed.

Image credit: TikTok

This isn’t at odds with platform recommendations. TikTok tells us to make TikToks, not ads, but there’s nothing to say that these can’t be visually arresting or unexpected in appearance. In the battle for attention, those who base their creative decisions around the intended impact on the audience, resisting prioritising the lowest possible production cost, will win.

The idea of branded entertainment has seen a few false starts over the years, but perhaps we’re finally entering a time when platform habits are making it possible for brands to engage in more varied and inexpensive ways, with lower risk and higher rewards. It’s not an easy thing to get right, and poor quality content will still sink without a trace, but it’s the job of agencies to help them get better at it.

The recent trend for FOOH (faux out of home) ideas worked because they were simple and entertaining, blending phone camera filming aesthetics with carefully crafted CGI. This approach then evolved into ideas such as the adidas Running ‘Adizero Pro Evo 1’ murmuration and floating shoe teaser films. But once it’s been done a few times, the entertainment value drops and it’s time to work out what’s next.

Things move fast these days and appetites change quickly. In the post-authenticity era, brands will need to start refocusing on old fashioned values of standing out rather than fitting in to avoid getting lost in the considerable noise.

This piece originally appeared on Creative Review here.