13 brands, from Coca-Cola to REI, that are pouring money into movies and TV to reach consumers with Hollywood-style storytelling

  • Mattel’s Barbie is just one of many big brands getting serious about making Hollywood-style entertainment.
  • Marketers are trying to get consumers’ attention as traditional ads are getting skipped or ignored.
  • Here are 13 new and established players that are becoming Hollywood’s new financiers.

“Barbie” may be the summer movie, but many other major brands are getting serious about producing Hollywood-style entertainment.

They are attempting to capture the attention of consumers as traditional advertisements are being ignored.

Procter & Gamble sponsored radio shows in the 1930s, giving us “soap operas,” but brands are getting more ambitious, collaborating with prestige producers like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and Oscar-winning Michael Sugar to make high-quality films, not just well-disguised advertisements. (A complete list of those producers can be found here.) Brands are also becoming more systematic in tracking project outcomes in order to justify the cost.

Brands take different approaches to the level of control they seek, but both producers and marketers agree that the more control a brand is willing to give up in the creative process, the less commercial the result — and the more satisfying for audiences as entertainment.

Some in Hollywood still regard such work as tainted, but attitudes are changing. Brands are also arguing to distributors that they can bring marketing muscle to the table to help projects reach a large audience. Some in the brand entertainment industry envision a day when streamers actively seek out content from brand-driven studios, just as they would any Hollywood production company.

“Brands want an audience, and studios want financing and quality IP, so their interests are aligned,” said Brian Newman, founder of Sub-Genre, which advises companies such as Unilever and REI on content strategy, development, distribution, and marketing.

Insider has identified 13 new and established brand players, listed alphabetically below, who are making the most significant moves to create innovative and high-quality filmed content.

AB InBev: The beer giant is just getting started in entertainment, but it has enlisted the help of two creative heavyweights: “Spotlight” producer Michael Sugar’s company, Sugar23, and marketing pioneer Jae Goodman, who helped build Nike’s studio, Waffle Iron Entertainment. Lauren Denowitz, an AB InBev marketer who runs the draftLine Entertainment studio, is looking for stories that promote the beer category as a whole to develop into shows and movies that can be sold to streaming services like Netflix and other distributors.

Coca-Cola: Late last year, Coke made a big splash in scripted features with “Christmas Always Finds Its Way,” a three-film series about the holidays bringing people together (and continuing its holiday marketing tradition). Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment produced the series, which was streamed on Amazon’s Prime Video, ensuring a large audience. According to Selman Careaga, president of Global Coca-Cola Category, who led the project, Coca-Cola’s goal was to create content that was good enough for Amazon to put on its streaming platform.

John Deere: John Deere is using films, grants, and other efforts to promote itself as having a positive impact on people and the environment. Under the direction of Mara Downing, VP of corporate communications and brand management, the farm machinery manufacturer will release two documentaries this year: “Odd Hours, No Pay, Cool Hat” about volunteer firefighters, which will be available digitally, and the Al Roker-led “Gaining Ground: The Fight For Black Land,” which Deere will fund.

Lego: Due to its inherent connection to fun and play and multi-generation appeal, the toy company is one of the giants in extending its brand to filmed entertainment as well as other touch points. Lego’s TV and film efforts, now led by Jill Wilfert, SVP, head of entertainment and licensing, date back to 2014’s “The Lego Movie” and include hit TV shows like “Lego Ninjago” and franchised films like “The Lego Batman Movie” with Warner Bros. The company has released four theatrical films with Warner Brothers and is working on a new slate of theatrical films with Universal Studios.

Mattel: With “Barbie,” Mattel has the summer movie of the year, and it’s only getting started. While it’s difficult to imagine any of them achieving “Barbie”-level buzz, executive producer Robbie Brenner has plans for 45 more films after “Barbie,” according to a New Yorker article, 17 of which have been announced. Viewers can expect a Hot Wheels film produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, a live-action Polly Pocket starring Lena Dunham, a Barney film starring “Black Panther” star Daniel Kaluuya, and more.

Neutrogena: Neutrogena Studios, which debuted in 2021, is J&J Consumer’s first brand-funded content studio, producing feature documentaries and scripted shorts. Its first project, directed by Studio Content Director Sebastian Garcia-Vinyard, was the Kerry Washington executive-produced documentary “In the Sun,” which won best environmental short documentary at the Seattle Film Festival. It has since produced two short films, “En Avant” and “If My Voice Rang Louder Than My Skin,” in collaboration with the Hollywood-favored nonprofit Ghetto Film School.

Nike: Nike’s success in brand films is widely admired. It had nothing to do with “Air,” the film about the company’s rise starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but its 2-year-old studio, Waffle Iron Entertainment, led by cofounder and head Justin Biskin, landed a first-look deal with Apple TV+ in 2022 to create sports content for the platform. Previously, HBO aired “The Day Sports Stood Still,” a documentary about the pandemic shutdown produced by Howard and Grazer’s Imagine.

PepsiCo: Veteran PepsiCo marketer Lou Arbetter leads PepsiCo’s Content Studio. Highlights include “Hood River,” a documentary that aired on HBO (now Max) in 2021 and was executive produced by Robert Rodriguez; and “The Show,” a Showtime documentary about the making of the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show, directed by Emmy-nominated Nadia Hallgre. “The Color of Cola,” based on an all-Black Pepsi sales team, is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Stanley Nelson. Arbetter stated in a 2021 interview that the studio’s goal is to continue producing content “that any streaming platform, studio, or what have you will produce.” “It just has to be entertaining for the sake of entertainment.”

Procter & Gamble: Procter & Gamble’s P&G Studios uses filmed entertainment to promote the consumer packaged goods giant as socially responsible. Kimberly Doebereiner, the studio’s head, collaborates with prestigious production partners such as Imagine Entertainment, Sugar23, and Hello Sunshine to create documentaries that have aired on Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Paramount+, and other platforms. Its LGBTQ+-themed documentary “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker” was mentioned as an Oscar contender. The studio is working on 15 projects, including “Rising Phoenix: A New Revolution,” a film about the Paralympics, and “Empire Waist,” a YA scripted film acquired by Blue Fox Entertainment.

REI: The outdoor retailer entered the original entertainment market in 2021 through its content arm, REI Co-op Studios, with the goal of promoting the outdoors as well as its corporate green and DEI commitments. The studio, led by longtime REI marketer Paolo Mottola, has backed the Kyra Sedgwick-directed “Space Oddity” to promote environmental issues, as well as “Frybread Face & Me,” a narrative coming-of-age film about a Native American boy with Oscar-winning Taika Watiti as an executive producer.

Saint Laurent: In March, Saint Laurent launched a film production company, the first of its kind from a fashion house. Saint Laurent Productions, led by the brand’s artistic director, Anthony Vaccarello, has collaborated with auteur directors to create high-end projects such as “Strange Way of Life” by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal, which premiered at Cannes; it is also working with directors Paolo Sorrentino and David Cronenberg. The idea is to maintain the brand’s long-standing connection to cinema; there will be no branding in the films, but Vaccarello will design the costumes.

Unilever: The packaged goods behemoth has lofty goals for film, television, and other media, as well as new and innovative financial models for producing them. Unilever Entertainment, led by global head of entertainment and culture marketing Kelly Mullen, has been producing work that builds on Unilever’s social purpose-based marketing. “Dads,” a 2019 documentary on fatherhood produced by Imagine Entertainment and directed by Ron Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard, is currently available on Apple TV+. Another social media campaign promoted “Girls Room,” a 2020 scripted series from Emmy winner Lena Waithe.

WeTransfer: WeTransfer is a file-transfer service that is popular among artists and creators. WePresent, its storytelling platform, highlights both their work and its own. WePresent, led by journalist and short-film producer Holly Fraser, has commissioned works from Moses Sumney, Solange Knowles, and others, winning an Academy Award in 2022 for “The Long Goodbye,” a hard-hitting film about racism in Britain starring Riz Ahmed and Aneil Karia. “WeTransfer is a unique company.” Everyone knows it as a file-sharing company…but it’s always had a strong presence in the creative industry,” Fraser told Monotype. “The mission of WePresent is to be the most representative creative site in the world.”

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