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Center Fresh has recently launched a digital film in partnership with Dharma 2.0 which is the advertising branch of the production house:

Called ‘Parda’ (trans. curtain), the film shows the daily routines of two individuals (a young boy and girl) living in the same building. The artist in the film, played by actor Anjali Sivaraman attempts to draw the face of a man she meets every day in the lift. This act becomes interesting in itself as the ubiquitous masks cover half of the faces these days. Eventually, it is revealed that both people in question looked forward so much to their tete a tete in the elevator as they ended up getting ready to go to work, thus following the routine even on a Sunday. The characters fit the young, metro city, working professionals as a cultural stereotype. They are fair-skinned, very good looking, drive their own posh cars and hence are aspirants for living abroad.

Visually, the storyline borrows from tropes of romance, specifically, the ‘first encounter’. But is deriving one’s storyline from a fairly popular cinematic trope enough to qualify one’s content as branded content?

At two minutes and twenty-four seconds, Parda almost matches the length of branded content because traditional ads typically run for a much shorter duration, at thirty to forty seconds.

But even so, the narrative code followed by Center Fresh’s digital film is like that of an advertisement. Typically, the advertising code is that the story magnifies a small problem in the everyday life of the protagonist and then offers a solution through thoughtful product placement. It basically spins a short narrative where the product is positioned in such a way that it becomes the key to solving all problems being faced by the characters.

In the aforementioned digital film, Center Fresh Mints make an appearance right at 0:06 seconds, just before the girl enters the elevator and subsequently every day. The mints are thus the essential confidence booster right before the girl-boy encounter. In other words, the product placement is just like it would be in an advertisement. For the viewer, the story begins with the product/packshot, clearly signalling that this is an ad for Center Fresh Mints.

The reason behind avoiding explicit product placements upfront in branded content is because the video then plays out like an ad, which is an interruption to content viewing. Whereas the entire point of branded content is to create sustained engagement, like the content itself does.

With an advertisement, consumers might not even wait for it to finish while a piece of branded content is received with alacrity to find out how the narrative plays out. An ad works on capturing attention for a brief time span but branded content aims to provide an immersive or engaging experience. This engagement thus produced over time builds a brand connect that eventually translates into brand equity.

So, what are the ways in which branded content leads to engagement?

We believe an efficient way to do so is through taking part in a cultural phenomenon. Brands that participate in the cultural conversation find relevance among consumers. The content presents interesting takes on everyday issues or questions a popular stance. Thus, it is taking the conversation ahead or creating a space of pondering upon a cultural issue.

Given the omnipresence of masks these days, marketing has become a challenge for mouth-freshener companies. Most people would rationalise the need to not use a mouth freshener now that the mouth odour is masked by a mask. So, the digital film by Center Fresh ritualises the use of a mouth freshener for one’s own confidence. It associates the mints with the entire feeling of meeting someone. Mints become a part of the experience. This association is noteworthy for Center Fresh’s long-form advertisement as it makes the execution quite good.

But the format of branded content demands a deeper understanding of culture. For instance, for the genre of romance where the Center Fresh narrative is located- a good point could be to start with the “first encounter”. The genre of romance in branded content is not yet codified so one would need a comprehensive study of how the myth of first encounters is constructed in popular culture.

The moment of “pehli nazar” or love at first sight, has been celebrated since time immemorial in cinema. From ‘Titanic’ where a young DiCaprio promises Kate Winslet that he “won’t let go” to ‘Main Hoon Na'' where Shah Rukh Khan is forced to perform a dare as Sushmita Sen passes by with a flying pallu, the first meeting has been overexploited as a cinematic trope. Another trope of the heroine’s dupatta getting stuck into the hero’s watch or button has been enacted so many times that now many influencers mock it.

In fact, the entire ‘first moment’ has become a well-established cliche in the romantic genre of cinema, that these so-called meet-cutes are often the talking point in comic movie reviews. Within cinema too, we have examples that subvert the serendipity associated with this moment. One of the most poignant first meetings is depicted in Masaan where Richa Chadha and Vicky Kaushal meet towards the end of the film in a very ordinary fashion. He offers some water after seeing her crying.

So, a very important factor when attempting to create engaging content is depicting relatable people going through equally relatable issues. Doing so leads to representation where one sees a version of their own self on the screen. The idea then becomes to find out how the digital relatable persona behaves in situations one faces in real life. Thus going with authentic middle-class and relatable characters, as opposed to perfectly pretty and rich people, has more chances of finding resonance.

Based on these - that is a mix of traditional and contemporary cinematic portrayals, pieces from popular young content creators or comics, an exploration of sorts vis-a-vis the “first moment/meet” can be made. This would more or less provide any producer with an understanding of the zeitgeist. A fresher perspective on this trope or any particular trope then can be made according to the specific consumer category or a larger audience. Such perspectives would pique curiosity and interest – or as mentioned before, lead to an engaging viewership.

While we discussed branded content from the perspective of a particular genre and trope, the process would hold true for most categories. Branded content warrants an investigation of the culture it is to be produced in from different angles. Thereafter, the production occupies a relevant space within contemporary conversation and culture.

Hopefully, Center Fresh will move on from the Dharma produced long-form TVC to creating engaging branded content around the “First Encounter” moment - both in popular culture and in lived culture. There is a rich vein of stories, humour and even myth to be mined around this moment which can create deeper engagement for audiences and more strongly establish the relevance of mouth fresheners and mints for confidence-boosting, mask or no mask.