Adweek’s Arc Awards: Recognizing the Best Brand Storytelling of 2017

From #NuggsForCarter to reliving the Russian Revolution on Twitter

Adweek's second annual Arc Awards honor the best in brand storytelling. Illustration: Ron Goodman
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

January is an interesting month for storytelling. At the outset you have the recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. This annual behemoth of a conference has traditionally focused on products and gadgetry.

Notably, as computing power steadily increases and the promise of 5G connectivity floats tantalizingly on the horizon, brands will increasingly have the power to effect near one-to-one marketing via things like AI and IOT. But the promise of such personalization will only really work with a good brand story—and one told in concert with the consumer’s own narrative created by, you guessed it, technology.

The bookend of the month is Sundance. This is the place where storytelling meets empathy and the spot where brands can showcase data-driven, non-interruptive creativity. Two years ago, Adweek saw this trend emerging and was lucky enough to partner with FPT Media, the producer of the BrandStorytelling@Sundance conference in Deer Valley, Utah, held during the Sundance Film Festival.

Last year, as part of that partnership, we created and hosted the inaugural Adweek Arc Awards to honor and celebrate the best brand storytelling of the year. We return this year with our sponsor, Screenvision Media, and our Arc Awards jury on Jan. 18, as part of BrandStorytelling, highlighting the truly amazing work profiled in this issue—and where we reveal our Grand Arc Award winner.

The consumer journey is full of technological and emotional twists and turns.  It will continue to be a fascinating story for brands—and Adweek—to tell. —James Cooper

Best Use of Animation
“A Balloon for Ben”
Agency: Zulu Alpha Kilo, Toronto
Brand: Cineplex Entertainment

When a Pew survey found that 46 percent of fathers said they didn’t spend enough time with their kids, Zulu Alpha Kilo hit upon the sequel to its 2015 viral hit, “Lily and the Snowman.” In the animated digital short, “A Balloon for Ben,” an overtaxed dad learns that “there is more to life than work and to-do lists,” said the agency’s CEO and CCO Zak Mroueh. With Canadian singer Em Patrick covering Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere,” Mroueh said, the mini-flick—released over the holidays in 2016—“built emotional resonance for Cineplex, beyond its utility as a movie screen company.”

Stats: 13 million views; sold $650,000 in campaign-themed gift cards in 24 hours; drove a 77 percent increase in brand favorability; visits to passed 146,000, beating objectives by nearly 300 percent, with an average online engagement of 7.5 minutes.

Best Use of Viral
Agency: VML, Kansas City
Brand: Wendy’s

Last April, a tweet from 16-year-old Carter Wilkerson asking Wendy’s for free chicken nuggets took on a life of its own, becoming a viral sensation, stoked by the chain’s red-hot social media team and agency VML. Acting in real time while staying on top of the cultural conversation “has helped build us as a ‘brand for me’ with our consumers,” said Christina Miller, VML’s associate channel director. #NuggsForCarter became the most retweeted tweet of all time (3.5 million). Bonus: Wilkerson earned a guest appearance on Ellen (the previous retweet record holder) and, of course, free grub for a year.

Stats: #NuggsForCarter generated more than 2.5 billion earned media impressions from nearly 1,100 placements; along the way, Carter surpassed notable tweets from President Barack Obama and the boy band One Direction.

Best Use of Long-form Nonfiction
“The Mirnavator”
Production company: Let Media
Brand: REI Seattle

In a bid to make the outdoors “the largest level playing field,” REI chronicled Georgia ultra-runner Mirna Valerio’s first 50K race of 2017. In the mini-doc, “The Mirnavator,” the athlete battled mud, heat and pain along with body shaming and harassment. It lit up the internet, becoming REI’s highest-performing video with more than 6 million views and transforming Valerio into a role model in the process. Capitalizing on the film’s success, REI launched 10 more mini-movies during the year aimed at making outdoor activity more accessible and inclusive, across gender, race, body size and aptitude. Dovetailing on its campaign, REI began carrying a broader range of clothing sizes in its stores.

Stats: 80 percent of the video views came from organic traffic, 50,000-plus shares were generated across channels.

Best Use of Long-form Film
“Common Ground”
Agency: Zulu Alpha Kilo, Toronto
Brand: Harley-Davidson Canada

Zulu Alpha Kilo set out to debunk the misperception that Harley-Davidson is a brand solely for white guys over 50, creating a 12-part documentary series that was “half road trip, half classic foreign-exchange” program, said the agency’s CEO and CCO Zak Mroueh. Featuring riders from Canada alongside those from New Zealand, Mexico and India, the film “challenge[s] the stereotypical image of what people think a Harley rider looks like by celebrating Canada’s diversity,” said Mroueh. Tapping into the “sense of discovery” found on the open road, this summer 2017 campaign racked up 8.7 million views and more than 47 million impressions, exceeding target goals by some 200 percent.

Stats: more than 415,000 engagements with the video series; market share rose 1.9 percent against its nearest competitor, despite an overall industry drop of  3.8 percent.

Best Live Broadcast/Livestreaming
“Holiday Wishes”
Agency: Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners
Brand: Reyka Vodka (William Grant & Sons), Iceland

Riffing on hypnotic slow TV, along with the country’s dry wit and “charmingly offbeat personality,” Iceland’s Reyka Vodka enlisted one of its superfans to wish “Happy holidays” (or “Gleoilega hatio”) to every single resident—by name. Fun fact: Iceland has 320,000 residents, but only 4,512 approved Icelandic names. The presenter/fan, Frikki, greeted his fellow countrymen on Facebook Live in late 2016, and it was punctuated with a slew of preplanned interruptions: cheering men in Viking helmets, a stuffed puffin, even Bjork’s infamous swan dress made an appearance. Skal! (That’s Icelandic for cheers.)

Stats: 533,869 people tuned in to watch; 23,882 liked or commented, for a 4.5 percent engagement rate.

Best Use of Influencer/Creator Marketing
“Music Liberates Music”
Agency: BBDO New York
Brand: Bacardi

Deepening its Caribbean connection while embedding itself into the current pop music scene, Bacardi linked up with reggae-tinged Major Lazer and Spotify, donating free studio time to aspiring Caribbean artists. The campaign last summer gave fans the opportunity to “do what they’d normally do, listen to music they love, and help the up-and-coming Caribbean artists that influence so much of the music at the top of the charts nowadays,” said BBDO ecds Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar. Overall, eight artists from six islands received studio time. Their tracks were released on a Spotify playlist, while the musicians kept all royalties.

Stats: In two months, the Major Lazer song was played 4.3 million times, generating 128 hours of studio time; one of the Caribbean artists secured a major record deal.

Best Sponsored Content
“The 67% Project”
Media/production company: Refinery29
Brand: Lane Bryant and Aerie

Only 2 percent of female-consumed media reflects the 67 percent of the women in the U.S. who are considered plus size. “The 67% Project” aims to change that. Taking “a stance on how media should look,” popular lifestyle site Refinery29 presented a diverse range of women across its editorial content during the fall of 2016, created body-realistic stock photography with Getty Images, and named TV stars Chrissy Metz (This Is Us) and Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black) and blogger-designer Gabi Gregg as ambassadors. Bolstering the campaign with retailers Lane Bryant and Aerie, #SeeThe67 encouraged tweets about body-size bias, and the brand-sponsored Every Beautiful Body conference took on the issue of how women are represented in America.

Stats: #SeeThe67 garnered 266 million social media impressions and 773 million press impressions; Danielle Brooks’ Instagram announcing her participation in the program snagged 373,000 views.

Best Use of VR
“The Missed Spaceflight”
Agency: VML Poland
Brand: Samsung Poland

Four decades after Polish cosmonaut Tadeusz Kuziora first trained for the Soyuz 30 mission, he finally made it into space, albeit virtually, thanks to Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and Gear VR goggles. “The Missed Spaceflight,” part of the brand’s ongoing “#DoWhatYouCant” campaign, fulfilled Kuziora’s longtime dream of (virtually) walking in space and admiring the sunrise over Earth. “We wanted to prove that nothing is impossible,” said Olaf Krynicki of Samsung Electronics Poland about the five-minute docu-film, shown last summer, “and that success depends only on our persistence and perseverance. I hope that ‘The Missed Spaceflight’ will become an incentive to follow even the most unlikely dreams.”

Stat: more than 500,000 views (Polish version) in two weeks.

Best Charity/Pro Bono/Pro-Social Effort
“Down Syndrome Answers”
Agency: FCB Canada
Brand: Canadian Down Syndrome Society

What’s the life expectancy of someone with Down syndrome? Can he or she learn to ride a bike, read or play sports? People living with the genetic anomaly answered those questions and more via a 40-video YouTube series from FCB and the nonprofit Canadian Down Syndrome Society. In late 2016, “Down Syndrome Answers” created a “self-sustaining, always-on campaign” that also provided “expectant parents facing a Down syndrome diagnosis with a searchable resource,” explained FCB reps. As a result, the video series now turns up at the top of Google searches on the topic.

Stats: 455 million media impressions; 240,000 video views; 893 percent increase in referral traffic to and a 101 percent increase in organic traffic to the site.

Best Use of Short-form Nonfiction Serial/Series
“Letters of Peace”
Agency: Cramer-Krasselt, Milwaukee
Brand: Paper and Packaging Board

In this digital era of emailing, texting and tweeting, the Paper and Packaging Board wanted to recapture “the emotional power of the handwritten word.” Enter the analog “Letters of Peace” campaign. The brand and agency Cramer-Krasselt filmed five survivors of terrorism and violence, including those from the Boston Marathon bombing and the Columbine shooting, reading aloud from their handwritten letters touching on themes of forgiveness, love and hope in its “How Life Unfolds” video series. The inspiring letters, the center of the brand’s holiday 2016 marketing effort, also ran as full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal. Custom content on Upworthy and Little Things promoted the videos, with broad distribution across digital and social platforms.

Stats: 9.5 million total video views; 300 earned media placements; 350 million media impressions.

Best Use of Short-form Fiction Serial/Series
“The Disappearing Girl: Reinventing Romcoms for the Social Media Generation”
Agency/production company: Fullscreen
Brand: AT&T

Magician and YouTube star Collins Key was instantly smitten with a dark-haired beauty he met at one of his fan gatherings. But the mysterious woman left only an Instagram handle in her wake. Who was she? AT&T Hello Lab and Fullscreen used this scripted premise to create a young adult romcom combined with a digital scavenger hunt called “The Disappearing Girl,” with consumers playing the role of wingmen and social sleuths over an eight-day period. The subtly branded project, launched in late 2016, catered to millennials and Gen Z audiences who “expect a personal relationship with their media,” said AT&T execs, and who want to “drive storylines forward through multiple touch points.”

Stats: In the first 72 hours, the initial video received more than 1.7 million views; fans started looking immediately for clues across Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

Best music video
“Bacardi x Major Lazer Snapchat Music Video”
Agency: BBDO New York
Brand: Bacardi

As part of its ongoing “Sound of Rum” campaign, Bacardi joined forces with electronic music trio Major Lazer, debuting this first-of-a-kind, 60-second music video via Snapchat Lens. Set to the band’s hit single, “Front of the Line,” and deploying facial recognition and AR, this summer 2017 program made Snapchat users the stars of their own music videos. Proving that millennials love to “talk about new functionalities of their social media,” said BBDO ecds Danilo Boer and Marcos Kotlhar, within 24 hours, the videos earned 42 million views across the globe. Bacardi followed up, transforming an “epic supercut” of those consumer snaps into an animated film. By creating an industry-first, said Boer and Kotlhar, “we could become part of that conversation.”

Stats: Bacardi used Snap’s targeting to reach every U.S. user over 21; 18 million fans unlocked the Lens; the program amassed 29 years of viewing time in a single day.

Best Use of Social
“#1917Live: What If Twitter Existed 100 Years Ago?”
Brand: RT Moscow

If the Bolsheviks had access to social media, Tsar Nicholas II might have live-tweeted his abdication while Vladimir Lenin could have summarized his famously long-winded speeches. That’s the thinking behind RT’s “#1917Live: What If Twitter Existed 100 Years Ago?” campaign. Launched in 2017, RT’s fictional media doppelganger, Russian Telegraph, created Twitter accounts for famous figures and invited users to virtual role play in this “digital time machine” with news updates and interactive Q&As. Over the course of a year, this back-to-the-future exercise generated 120,000 tweets with the #1917 hashtag, nabbing nearly 100,000 followers.

Stats: More than 100 Twitter handles created by participants; the hashtag #1917Live generated more than 25 million impressions; fans include best-selling author Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist), historian Helen Rappaport, scholars at Oxford, politicians and journalists; the campaign has been covered by media in a dozen languages.

Best Use of Long-form Fiction Serial/Series
“GE Podcast Theater Presents Life.Af/ter”
Agency: BBDO New York
Brand: GE

After GE tapped into the popular podcast genre with its award-winning thriller, “The Message,” in 2015, the following year, the appliance giant raised the bar with “Life.Af/ter,” an AI adventure showcasing elements of “Her” and “Ex Machina” while highlighting the company’s advances in science and technology. The 10-episode fictional drama explored social media’s oversharing culture and the pitfalls of exposing so much of our lives online. Downloaded 1.8 million times, the series counts astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as a fan. Andy Goldberg, GE’s CCO, called the effort “a great way to reach audiences with a different message,” specifically GE’s work in digital twinning.

Stats: 524,350,000 downloaded minutes, making it one of the most downloaded podcasts of the year; partners also created VoiceTree, a fictional social media site where fans could dig further into Life.Af/ter’s alternate reality.

Best Use of Short-form Fiction
“The Talk”
Agency: BBDO New York
Brand: P&G

This breakout two-minute short, depicting black parents through the years having “the talk,” a discussion centered on racism, societal prejudice and survival (and not the birds and the bees), with their children, was named as one of Adweek’s “10 Best Ads of 2017.” Although not intended as a political statement, the brand “believed we could shed light on this process to help everyone understand how bias affects us all,” said Verna Coleman-Hagler, NA brand operations at P&G. The global powerhouse is committed to “representing the unique and diverse experiences of our consumers, and our brands will continue to tackle bias and its harmful effects,” she said. Following its August debut, “The Talk” pulled in more than 7 million views.

Stats: 86 percent positive sentiment; 200,000 shares; 858 million earned media impressions.

Best Use of Brand/Product Integration Into Existing IP
Alien: Covenant “Meet Walter”
Agency: 3AM
Brand: AMD and Fox

Michael Fassbender plays Walter, the hunky android and the world’s most advanced synthetic companion, powered by AMD’s brain chip in this eerily beautiful two-minute branded short. Part of Fox’s marketing campaign for the sci-fi thriller Alien: Covenant, this faux commercial, released last spring, gave real-world fans the opportunity to experience the potential of artificial intelligence. “Meet Walter” amassed 10 million views. Expanding the definition of traditional product placement, the film was made in collaboration with 3AM, the entertainment marketing offshoot of director Ridley Scott’s RSA.

Stats: More than 140 tech, entertainment and advertising media outlets covered “Meet Walter”; the video had a 72 percent YouTube retention rate and a 29 percent Facebook engagement rate, versus a 25 percent movie trailer average benchmark.

Best Use of Live Experience/Events
“Probably TEDx”
Agency: Happiness/An FCB Alliance, Brussels
Brand: Carlsberg

While legacy brands have been known to resurrect their founders in nostalgia-heavy campaigns, Carlsberg may be the first to bring back its originator from the dead. Combing through the company’s archives, the 170-year-old Danish beer brand used a hologram to present its late founder, J.C. Jacobsen, offering words of wisdom and advice in a 17-minute TEDx talk given in Copenhagen, last fall. Dubbed “Why you should answer every question with probably,” the agency partners wanted to create content that merged the company’s heritage with a new brand of inspiring relevance for today’s consumer.

Stats: The team spent eight months researching the Carlsberg archives and Jacobsen’s writings; the speech was split into one-minute “snackable” content films; content has reached more than 3 million people (still in use in eight European markets); Jacobsen is the only posthumous TEDx speaker.

Best Use of Short-form Nonfiction
“Day Zero”
Production studio: Bloomberg Media Studios
Brand: Optum Health

The story of Delta Air Lines flight attendant Patrick Waddle’s odyssey to find a life-saving liver transplant provides the framework for Optum’s commitment to improving healthcare. The moving nine-minute film opens with doctors telling Waddle he has a three-year wait for a transplant, charting his course to finally receiving a new liver, aided by Audrey, his Optum, RN transplant case manager. Putting a human face on transplant patients while showcasing the personal approach to healthcare (and encouraging viewers to become organ donors), the video broke new ground for emotional storytelling for both agency and client, and with 500,000 hits, becoming Bloomberg’s most-viewed video to date.

Stats: 20 percent of people who used Bloomberg TV, print or online properties reported viewing the film (within 30 days of its April 2017 debut); of those who saw the film, 72 percent said it made them think Optum is a compassionate company, and 86 percent said it made them want to learn more about Optum.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 15, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.