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On an empty lot outside the office, a silver Hyundai Tucson sat idling in front of some palm trees, its headlights running and tires turned at just the right angle. The setting sun added that amber filter that makes a shot look like someone poured ginger ale all over the lens. It looked like the shot at the end of a standard car commercial, the part right before the brand's logo and leasing details overtake the picture.
Even the conversation around the car typified a regular commercial shoot. BuzzFeed Motion Pictures Creative Producer -- and the shoot's director -- Jesse Burton huddled with Woojong Kim, Hyundai's senior manager of advertising collateral. The pair were discussing camera angles.
It would have been a perfectly fine commercial. Except it wasn't necessarily a commercial. For starters, instead of the Hyundai logo and leasing details entering the frame, it was a father carrying his daughter on piggyback. The father-daughter duo weren't professional actors, and the scene being filmed wasn't the hero shot of a 30-second spot; it was a transitional sequence for one of the minutes-long video's storylines. The video (below) also won't air on TV; it was posted on Dec. 21 to BuzzFeed's YouTube and Facebook channels, the fourth in the campaign's series.
"One of the sins in automotive is we've spent too much time on TV trying to sell and not enough time storytelling," said Hyundai CMO Dean Evans, who declined to say how much money Hyundai spent on the campaign. Since joining the auto brand in August 2015, Mr. Evans's marketing strategy has been to "build a nice, stronger, more well-loved brand while we sell more cars in the background," he said.
Selling through storytelling is tough. But it's easier if you know the story you want to tell. "The goal really is you want people to share. You want people to relate and identify with that message and ultimately the brand is the facilitator of that," said BuzzFeed's Senior VP of West Coast Sales Jennifer Klawin.
For Hyundai, that story was how people can recoup quality time with one another while they're in a car. "Our creative platform was called 'provoke change,'" said James Zayti, group media director at Hyundai's agency Innocean. "And we felt the Tucson can be a catalyst to provoking change. Really we looked at it [as] can the Tucson help people disconnect for a while and engage in other things, other things being more on the lo-fi side?"
The next question is how to tell that story. BuzzFeed has produced 10 videos for auto brands this year, according to Ms. Klawin, so its branded-video team had experience coming up with answers. But it took a different approach for Hyundai's campaign. Instead of a one-off video, BuzzFeed and Hyundai opted for a series of four. They would try out three different approaches in three separate videos, then regroup to assess what resonated with the brand's target audience of millennials and apply that insight in making the fourth video.
In mid-October, members of BuzzFeed's branded video team, Hyundai's agencies Innocean and Initiative, and Mr. Kim convened at BuzzFeed's Hollywood office to review the campaign's first three videos, which were released in late September, and figure out what to do for the fourth and final one.
Originally, BuzzFeed, Hyundai and the brand's agencies planned to see which one of the initial three videos outperformed the other two and recreate the winner for the series' fourth installment. That shouldn't have been too hard considering how different the videos were. One featured people trying to work for 24 hours straight. Another showed how people working in a coffee shop react when the wifi goes down. And the third recorded couples imitating each other while driving.
However BuzzFeed and Hyundai had a hard time picking out a single winner from the three videos. Not only were they successful collectively -- they received 6.7 million views as of the October 13 meeting, easily surpassing the 2.8 million views BuzzFeed had guaranteed Hyundai -- but they succeeded individually and in different ways.
The "People Try Working for 24 Hours" video had garnered the most views: 3.2 million, with 2.3 million on YouTube and 637,000 on Facebook. But the message of "What Happens When There's No Internet" -- the value of taking time away from your devices -- seemed to resonate the most of the three videos. And "Couples Imitate Each Other Driving" generated the most comments because viewers liked the people cast in the video, who were normal folks instead of professional actors.
BuzzFeed's head writer for branded videos, Erin Schmalfeld, threw out one idea for the fourth video. What if they filmed couples spending 48 hours together without access to their phones or the internet? The framework combined some of the top elements from the preceding three videos. BuzzFeed could have one or more real-life couples trying to perform activities like finding a restaurant, buying groceries or visiting a museum without help from technology. But there was a problem.
"I don't want this to be something where it's a challenge for somebody to not use technology," said Hyundai's Mr. Kim. "I don't want to force a map in their hands and have them try to find something old-school when we offer the best navigation [in the car]. I don't think that should be the message."
Mr. Kim wanted the message to be people living in the moment and how Hyundai's cars and the technologies they offer facilitate that. "It's not about how uncomfortable it is to be without a device or the internet. It's more about how liberating it will be," Mr. Kim said.
Eventually BuzzFeed and Hyundai settled on the idea of taking three couples and having them each perform a different activity without their smartphones that takes them out of their comfort zones. Initially the couples would be thrown off by not being able to grab their phones, but by the end of the video -- BuzzFeed's and Hyundai's teams hoped -- the couples would realize they can survive without their phones (thanks, in part, to the car's technology) and that becoming less dependent on the device made them more present with one another.
"We see great social sharing when a video makes a point," Ms. Schmalfeld said.
An older couple -- audience favorites from the campaign's earlier couples video -- learned how to salsa dance on the beach. A same-sex couple went to a magic show. And the father-daughter pair flew around Los Angeles in a helicopter that didn't have doors.
In each of the storylines, the couples would drive to the activities in the Hyundai Tucson, a way to incorporate the product at the heart of the promotion without belaboring the point. That idea stemmed from the "Couple Imitate Each Other Driving Video," which had "by far the most brand integration" of the three videos, Mr. Burton said during the October brainstorming meeting. "They're in the car for the bulk of the video, and we didn't see any negative outcomes from the audience about that," he said at the time.
The lack of pushback likely had to do with the fact that the car wasn't the star of that video. There were commercial-style shots of the Tucson parked or being parked, but for the most part the car was in the background. For about half of the video in which the couples imitate one another driving, it was the background -- as it is in the fourth video. In the end, BuzzFeed and Hyundai tightrope-walked the line between selling and storytelling by making the car being sold quite literally the vehicle for the story.