December 21, 2017

Revitalizing a City: Driving Connection Through Song

Several years ago, Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation (NCVC), set out to accelerate tourism to the Music City.

He hired VML to revamp his website, but John Godsey, VML's co-chief creative officer for North America, had another idea.

"Make a documentary," Godsey told Spyridon.

Branded entertainment is not a new arm of marketing, but it's tough to make it work; advertisers are asking consumers to want to watch ads, which is a hard sell.

"No one wants to be sold to," Godsey said. "How you balance that brand and that entertainment is everything. You can spend your entire career trying to figure out what is the right balance."

But this was the perfect opportunity to showcase interesting content that needed a long-form platform to truly tell the whole story in the most compelling way.

Making the documentary was a risk Spyridon was willing to take because the story aligned perfectly with the city's "music city" positioning.

"Trying to stay in the lanes is the worst mistake you could make; you're going to go nowhere," Spyridon said. "You have to break the boundaries because the competition is too stiff."

VML and the NCVC collaborated to produce "For the Love of Music: the Story of Nashville," which was released in 2013. It aired on some of the biggest television networks in the world, including ABC, Foxtel, Palladia and CMT.

The documentary pays homage to Nashville's rich history and bills the city as the world's most musically diverse. Since its debut, numerous magazines, including National Geographic, Conde

Nast, Lonely Planet, Travel + Leisure, and Frommer's, have named Nashville a top tourist destination.

Branded entertainment was the right way to tell the more complete story of Nashville's music scene. According to the NCVC, Nashville's annual visitation has leapt 45 percent over the past 10 years, from 9.6 million visitors in 2006 to 14.1 million in 2016.

Advertising the diversity of an entire city in the form of a compelling documentary is one thing, but how does branded entertainment work with a much narrower focus, say, promoting a product like Absolut Vodka?

When Pernod Ricard asked VML South Africa to help it "erase the brand decline in local market share" for Absolut, CEO Jason Xenopoulos carefully considered the African market before making a determination.

Xenopoulos said Africa has long been considered the "dark continent." "[It's] a place of witchcraft, savagery," he said. "A barbarian landscape just waiting to be tamed, to be civilized -- to be saved from itself."

But he knew better. "Young Africans are tired of having global brands shoved down their throats," Xenopoulos explained at a gathering of clients and VML employees at VML's headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. "They're tired of being targeted by irrelevant global insights. They want to be recognized for who they are, for where they come from, for what they hope to do and the places they dream to go."

Xenopoulos said many African countries are seeing a renaissance in creativity, and the world is beginning to notice. Artists are reappropriating bits and pieces of their traditional culture into a style Xenopoulos describes as post-colonial pop. And where violence once ruled, now "revolutionaries wield creativity as their weapon."

Could VML bottle that vibe? To celebrate this renaissance, Xenopoulos and his team tapped South African hip-hop artist Khuli Chana -- to endorse him, not the other way around.

With Chana's help, VML scoured the continent for exemplary artists of every make: musicians, painters, muralists, makeup artists, choreographers and dancers.

"We asked them all to harmonize around a single idea," Xenopoulos said. "We called it 'One Source.' You see, every drop of Absolut Vodka comes from one source in Sweden. But, as Africans, as human beings, we all come from one source as well: from Africa, the birthplace of humanity, the source of all creation."

The 2016 harmonization resulted in a recording of eight tracks featuring 10 African artists, a documentary series, a music video and live performances -- and a Khuli Chana signature edition bottle.

The recording, which included artists KG, Victoria Kimani, VVIP, Stonebwoy, E.L and DJ Breezy, shot to No. 1 on iTunes in Africa.

Though the Nashville documentary and Absolut's record deal were classified as branded entertainment by the institutions that lauded them as advertising achievements, consumer response suggests the two projects registered purely as entertainment.

"We have created a feeling in that branded entertainment and the authenticity that goes with it," Spyridon said.

The first documentary was met with such success that he'll be releasing a second in early 2018: "It All Begins with a Song: the Story of the Nashville Songwriter." It's sure to be so engaging that viewers won't question why they suddenly must visit Nashville.

Butch Spyridon, John Godsey, Jason Xenopoulos and Khuli Chana spoke at VML's Sterling Sessions, an event timed to coincide with VML's 25th anniversary, that featured national thought leaders and marketing luminaries who contemplated what's next for our industry and beyond. To see more from the Sterling Sessions, visit