Updated: Jul 7
When you think about marketing, documentary film probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
Far from being a passion project though, this kind of content is actually becoming something of a necessity for brands seeking to relate to today's customers. This is due, in part, to today's audiences being generally more discerning and selective about what they choose to watch; as well as the fact that more and more social media algorithms are directing users away from more overt, spammy marketing content.
But thinking of a story that your business can tell in this form demands a different approach to more traditional marketing. Here are a few ways of getting started:
Turn a campaign into a story
One of the simplest ways for a brand to use documentary storytelling is to take a campaign and to find the deeper story behind it. Stella Artois, with the twelve-minute film Up There, used their Ritual Project campaign — for which they had commissioned nine large-scale hand-painted wall murals around New York, each one detailing a specific stage in the ritual of pouring a glass of Stella Artois — as a springboard for a more human story.
The film follows the team of wall-painters and tells a story that takes in an array of compelling threads — the intricate craft of traditional hand-painted advertising and how it's dying out, the individual painters' histories with the trade, and the general experience of working and viewing the city from such a high altitude, to name just a few.
Whilst doing this, the film also serves to give a longer life to the original campaign, allowing Stella Artois to organically and unobtrusively present the advertisement and their branding in the film.
Look beyond your products
Some of the best branded documentaries show a deep understanding of the wider context around their products and services. Writing for The Content Marketing Institute, Denise Roberts McKee provides advice to brands looking to find authentic stories that reflect their values and culture (as well as those of their target audience).
"Think of a venn diagram in which one circle is your company's core values and the other is your audience's passions and desires. The story landscape lies at the intersection: a setting your audience can't help but be curious about or drawn to, and where your company can embody its human side."
One of the key examples that McKee cites is Stacy Peralta's Dogtown & Z-Boys, a film which was funded by Vans and that explores the skateboarding subculture in California. She praises Vans for wisely giving the filmmakers full creative control over the project, and focusing on authenticity and quality over overt branding opportunities.
"There are ... no gratuitous shots of major characters wearing Vans outfits head to toe. Of course, some of them did wear Vans shoes. Or hats. Or T-shirts. But as the brand was already making inroads into skateboarding culture, it felt natural to see Vans apparel in the film."
A similar relationship between a company and an artist can be seen in Werner Herzog's internet-themed documentary Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, commissioned by communications company NetScout. In terms of what the film does for the brand, it displays a willingness to engage with the wider conversations surrounding the internet — from the positive and negative points, to the deeper philosophical questions raised by Herzog's idiosyncratic approach to the topic.
One of the film's producers, PJ Pereira, talked to AdWeek about why this approach to content is particularly important when it comes to fostering a relationship between a brand and their audience:
"It needs to be the worth the money to the client, and worth the time to the audience. In [so much] branded content ... the agencies have been trying to please the brand, and that's all. Now, the bar is higher. It also needs to be a good investment of time for the audience. Finding that balance is way more difficult."
Use a documentary to show how your brand can contribute
As well as adding to conversations that are relevant to your brand, the documentary form can be an ideal way of showing what your brand gives to the world.
Various studies highlight that a growing percentage of the general public take a brand's values and social politics into consideration when making consumer decisions. At the same time, brands who combine a social consciousness with their marketing can all too easily run the risk of dividing their audience, or crassly appropriating complex issues (as was the criticism levelled at Pepsi's infamously misjudged Live for Now ad).
Documentary storytelling allows brands to engage with social issues in a more sincere and grounded way, with themes and ideas able to be approached in a more nuanced and sensitive way than is possible with the shorter, more immediate, framework of a traditional ad.
Examples can be seen in a variety of sectors — from the dental company Fixadent, who funded and documented the dental surgery of a rare white lion; to Apple who, as part of their Shot on iPhone campaign, released The Reef, Maldives, a film that raises awareness of conservation charity MWSRP while showcasing the capabilities of the iPhone XS camera.
It goes without saying that, compared to many more traditional methods of marketing, documentary is quite a different approach and one that, naturally, demands a different mindset.
By adopting this mindset though, and thinking more in-depth about the range of stories that your brand can tell — whether about your campaigns, your products, or where your business fits in the larger scheme of things — you can create great content that people will want to seek out for themselves; and that can present a more human side of your brand that is harder to express through more traditional means.