Unbranding: The Ultimate in Branding Understatement

A still from Never Done an example of unbranding from Publicis Sapient.
A still from Never Done, one of three films produced by Publicis Sapient to promote digital transformation.

When Mia Carbonell, global head of external communications and senior vice president at Publicis Sapient, agreed to speak at this year’s Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement, she was very specific about her availability and the time slot. When she began her presentation, we found out why.

Mia had come directly from the formal announcement (and the subsequent interview with Variety) of a first in the industry: the launch of a new campaign of a series of completely unbranded films created by Publicis Sapient. Yes, that’s unbranded, as in completely lacking any reference to the brand that paid for them. What was worthy of a feature in Variety was that Publicis Sapient isn’t a marketing firm — it specializes in digital transformation, think DeLoitt or Accenture, not WPP. (You can read the Variety interview here.)

The fact that a large consulting firm had just gone into the film-making business was unusual enough. But the idea that the company that paid for the films had no presence on them was truly intriguing. Mia explained that the objective of the campaign wasn’t to promote the company, but rather to increase understanding of the business that Publicis Sapient is in: digital transformation.

Who’s afraid of digital transformation?

The concept of digital transformation has been around for years. In fact, here at Paine Publishing we began analyzing media coverage of tech clients in that business five years ago. But, I will confess that after reading hundreds of clips and explainers I still wasn’t quite sure what the concept really meant. It all became crystal clear thanks to one 15-minute film that Mia showed at the Summit. (More about that film in a minute.)

The audience for the campaign wasn’t IT managers, but rather people in businesses that might be impacted by digital transformation. To them, “digital transformation” can sound clunky, scary, and expensive.

Publicis Sapient surmised that if more people understood the benefits of digital transformation then they might actually start urging their companies to try it. The challenge was to transform something scary into something relatable and valuable. So Publicis produced films designed to educate people on the topic in a way that breaks through the clutter and gets the message across. And without ever saying the name of their brand.

Lights… camera… digital transformation

Enter Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Ben Proudfoot. Publicis Sapient, working with Impact Partners Films, hired him to create three 15-minute films that tell stories of how digital transformation helped improve three very difficult lives.

Mia showed the first of the films at the Summit. (It was released in October, a second is in production, and a third is still in concept phase.) Never Done tells the heart-wrenching story of a single mom who had to isolate during the pandemic. She couldn’t work, and she and her children were about to be evicted. But… thanks to a determined city worker and the efficiencies generated by digital transformation at city hall, she was able to get help in time to stop the eviction. Ultimately, she found a new career and turned her entire life around.

Yeah, ok, it sounds a bit maudlin, but it’s genuinely moving and uplifting, and well worth your 15 minutes. Go ahead, click here to watch Never Done now. (Kind of a tear-jerker, so bring some tissues.)

The film’s only reference to technology is by way of the city worker’s dad, who made the decision to digitize the city records. Unless you are watching the film online and click on the link at the end that takes you to the Publicis Sapient website, you’ll never know who is behind the film, other than the director and film crew. Most people today watch films and documentaries on a digital device. So if they want to find out more about the subject they click on a link. Kind of like watching the “behind the scenes” segments of Downton Abbey.

So how do you measure impact when there is no branding?

Mia gave us lots of answers. The obvious measure was how many people clicked through to the Publicis Sapient website at the end of the film. And of course, they track the media coverage and messages.

Also, Publicis employees embraced the film and shared it wildly. From their comments, it was clear they were proud to be part of the organization that created it. So increased employee engagement was added to the list of metrics.

And Mia was clear that, while she does regularly track the number of leads, phone calls, and new clients her department generates, those weren’t really the objective. The goal was to help people understand the power and rational for digital transformation.

Of course, at some point, it might be a good idea to use a survey to determine whether a change in perception has occurred. But if the attendees watching the film at this year’s Summit were any indication, there is no doubt that it definitely got the message across. ∞

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