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In recent years, branded documentaries have gained popularity in the marketing mix among a wide range of brands, including Stella Artois, Ericsson, Audi, Proctor & Gamble (Pantene/Downy), PetSmart, Jack Daniels, and Revlon’s Mitchum deodorant and many others.

What are Branded Documentaries?

The difference between branded documentaries and advertising or public relations is that they are actually “micro movies” (usually 3-20 minutes long) versus ads or sound bites (under 90 seconds). And unlike corporate videos, branded documentaries are issues-focused, versus brand-focused. These micro movies “feel” different. They tell emotive stories with cinematic techniques, resulting in a deeper and more engaging experience than is possible from any form of direct promotion.

Branded documentary director Nathaniel Hansen provides some insight: “Viewers are a lot more media and message savvy than we often give them credit for. If the film is people- or issue-focused, it’s a great way for the brand to take a back seat and let the content build demand.”

Some filmmakers behind branded documentaries prefer original music scores to heighten this cinematic experience. They feature real people telling stories around issues and events in their own words with authenticity that only the “real deal” can evoke. The sponsor’s brand may not be featured in the production, though sometimes cleverly placed. Instead, these films often use a carefully crafted storyline to present a worthy cause, or build a solid case for why certain attributes present in the brand are important in making people’s lives better.

Pantene Pony Up

Pantene Beautiful Lengths used branded documentaries to promote a cause: donating human hair to make wigs for cancer patients.

For example, in 2012, Pantene Beautiful Lengths charity expected to donate a record 12,000 real hair wigs to women fighting cancer nationwide. Though we can’t confirm this goal was met, the Pantene Beautiful Lengths website reports that since it’s inception in 2006, Pantene has donated to cancer patients approximately 24,000 wigs made from 400,000 consumer-donated pony tails. As a core component of Pantene’s marketing program, they created a branded documentary series that captures compelling stories from hair donors and wig recipients to drive public interest in the Beautiful Lengths program. In Pantene’s case the documentary was clearly branded. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BK0J5jgf36M&list=SPIUDgI1r16CsQxkYdDNImNXCV3Rrf2EXM&index=1

Painting Coconuts is a documentary posted in January of 2013 that takes viewers behind the scenes of the model-building genius of the Audi Quattro® Experience. This one-of-a-kind slot car track creates a virtual driving experience with the world’s first car-mounted camera and iPad display/controller to put participants in the seat of a model Audi Quattro as it streaks around the highly detailed model track. “Drivers” take control of a custom-made 1/32 scale Audi A4 model slot car to test their on-track skills  and promote the luxury auto brand. This documentary was a great way to leverage the investment in building the track, bringing it to the masses in a well-made 15-minute film (though it could have been 9 minutes with the same impact). It didn’t necessarily stir me to any form of action, but it did raise my awareness of the Quattro and associated it with detailed craftsmanship and driving enthusiasm.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQxOKtCWEGE

Albert Maysles

Legendary documentary director Albert Maysles helped Mitchum keep it’s slot on retail shelves.

Mitchum rekindled interest in the heritage brand by sponsoring a nationwide contest in search of the “Hardest Working Man in America” in 2010. The deodorant/antiperspirant brand worked with CAA Marketing, director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour,” “Red Dragon”) for a branded-entertainment program that played to its heritage and tagline: “So effective you could skip a day.” The winner was Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands & Waters, who alone racked up more than 50,000 votes for the award. Chad hauled over 6 million pounds of garbage from America’s rivers and their water sheds over the last 10 years, working seven days a week and selling what he could from the trash. See http://vimeo.com/64632163 for a short video case study including traditional and social media programs supporting the program and results.

Telling v Selling

Why are branded documentaries becoming so popular? My knee-jerk research reaction while writing this blog was to pit branded documentaries against traditional advertising effectiveness. But after doing some research, I realized it’s just not that simple: They are two entirely different forms of promotion, like PR and advertising. Branded documentaries deal with issues. They tell longer-form stories that engage viewers in causes of social conscience, learning, or special interest, then associate the content with a brand through sponsorship or some other non-direct means.  By contrast, advertising deals with overt selling messages based on direct product use features and benefits. You might say the contrast could be summed up as “Telling versus Selling.”

Can documentaries actually convert customers or make paid promotion more effective with a halo effect? I’d love to see a study on that.

Market Drivers

The motivational model consumers use to make purchase decisions appears to be changing. One major driver is the growing culture of social responsibility (aka “causes”). Brand consumption is no longer an “I” thing, but now a badge of community consciousness. Consumers and customers feel and show others that by “participating in brands” (aka buying and using them) they’re actively making the world a better place. The emotional logic goes something like this:

“This documentary makes me feel strongly about this cause →
This brand is associated with this cause →
  (they must be providing some kind of support for it, right?) →
So by buying their brand (consistently), I can support this cause →
This makes me feel good because I am making the world a better place!”
 

Another driver of brands’ increased investment in documentaries is the ubiquitous adoption of online video by the world’s population:

  • Online video now accounts for 50 percent of all mobile traffic and up to 69 percent of traffic on certain networks. (Bytemobile Mobile Analytics Report).
  • 52 percent of consumers say that watching product videos makes them more confident in online purchase decisions. (Invodo)
  • Over 6 billion hours of video are watched each month on YouTube—that’s almost an hour for every person on Earth (http://www.youtube.com/yt/press/statistics.html)

Statistics supporting web video as a dominant medium go on ad infinitum.

Attributes of Successful Branded Documentaries

For the most part, it appears that filmmakers and brands agree on the common attributes of successful branded documentaries.

  • Identify and define success metrics before you begin the production—you’d be surprised at how it guides decisions throughout the production
  • Be sure that the story aligns with your brand’s positioning
  • Use real stories and real people—it’s really hard to fake real life
  • The documentary should be built on professional cinematic qualities, so don’t try to use a director who produces mostly commercials or reality-style smart phone videos
  • Focus the storyline around emotional engagement (a kind of stress), some facts, and a dash of humor (to relieve the stress at strategic points)
  • Make it personal to the masses (present the topic in a way a great number of people can relate to)
  • Before you begin, implement a content marketing strategy for roll-out across an integrated campaign
  • PICK YOUR BATTLES – branded documentary is a BIG leap of faith for most brands and clients
  • Focus on the issues and the people who are impacted by them, not the brand

Contact GroPartners Consulting for more information on how to make branded documentaries work for your organization.

GroPartners Consulting

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