Brands have big screen ambitions

Psst! Wanna be in the movies? A growing number of consumer businesses are getting involved in a new wave of documentary-style films to communicate their values and engage customers.

With so many marketing messages competing for attention, brands are looking for ways to involve themselves in content that goes beyond simply advertising. Product placement, programme sponsorship and branded entertainment are just some of the methods companies have been attempting to achieve this.

The newest trend is businesses using serious documentaries to help them form a more meaningful connection with their target audiences. Brands and companies are becoming the new commissioning editors – partnering with directors and producers and forging new business models for funding, distribution, outreach and participation.

In the past few months, The Co-operative has backed Burma VJ, a cinema-released documentary following the efforts of independent video journalists to expose the truth behind the 2007 uprising. Waitrose has funded distribution and marketing for The End of the Line, a feature-length film about the threat to the world’s oceans posed by over-fishing, and Coca-Cola-owned energy drink Relentless has released Powers of Three, a surfing documentary.

Other brands have also made documentary-style content, which is more product-led than these previous examples. Kimberly-Clark’s Kleenex tissue released a film last year featuring Olympic athletes and hopefuls sharing emotional stories in Let It Out: The Movie. It was tied in with the brand’s Let It Out marketing campaign to coincide with the Beijing Olympic Games. Honda has more recently made a series of short films for a corporate brand campaign called Dream the Impossible, featured on a dedicated website. There are a growing number of similar examples.

The developing trend for this new wave of brand-supported documentaries is gathering such momentum that a panel is set to discuss the subject at the forthcoming Edinburgh TV Festival in a slot entitled New Best Friends: Brands and Documentaries.

The chair of the session and chief executive of Channel 4’s Britdoc Foundation, Jess Search, believes the trend is driven by a combination of factors. One element is the disruption of the financial structure of television by the explosion in digital media, meaning production partners are needed in a way they were not before.

Another, Search suggests, is that with so many marketing messages out there, companies are keen to communicate with audiences in a way that offers real engagement and a connection to their messages. “Documentaries can be authentic – something brands are eternally seeking to be when they communicate their values,” she adds.

Search explains that unlike past times when TV broadcasters or film studios controlled all access to the world of documentaries, this barrier to brands taking control no longer exists. While TV stations might still want companies on board to provide funding, the brands no longer need broadcasters. “Anyone can become a content producer and distributor; they don’t need those gatekeepers.”

Not only do brands not need broadcasters as “gatekeepers”, but by avoiding television they can side-step the complex regulatory landscape of broadcasting, which prohibits how involved companies can become in editorial content.

In terms of distribution routes, Search says that although television and cinema are still important for documentaries because they convey an assurance of quality and trigger press coverage, that is changing. She says it’s easier for films to garner attention online. Short films flourish in a digital environment, she suggests, due to their ability to be passed easily from user to user.

There are a number of ways brands can get involved with the documentary trend but three main types of business model seem to be developing. One is to back a film that has already been made and become a distribution partner, as Waitrose did with The End of the Line, a film about the consequences of over-fishing (see box, below).

Waitrose senior buyer Quentin Clark, who was responsible for the tie-up, says: “We had no input to the film. We committed ourselves to put our resources into promoting it and we got a credit at the end of the film.”

Waitrose leveraged its involvement in a plethora of ways and though there was a very tangible 15% increase in fish sales in the four weeks following the film’s launch, Clark appears to be completely genuine in his concern for the issues raised in the film. He says: “I know it sounds trite but we wanted to help drive attitudinal change. If Waitrose is part of a solution then that’s where we get the return on investment; but in a way, that’s a spin-off.”

The second model is for a brand to get involved from the start and effectively produce the content. Coca-Cola-owned energy drink Relentless did this with the surfing documentary Powers of Three. The brand had total editorial control of the content (see box, below).

Comparing these first two methods, Search says: “If brands get involved when a film is finished, they know what they are getting so to some extent, there is less risk.

“As anyone in films will tell you, the earlier you get involved with a film, the greater the risk because you don’t know how it will unfold,” she notes. “But potentially there are greater rewards; brands are effectively the producer and have total control.”

Ross Cairns, the creative director from Erasmus – the agency that helped create Relentless and which retains a stake in the brand – wrote and directed Powers of Three. He says: “There are two ways to approach branded content – you can put the brand in it or you can let the brand surround it. We take the latter view, rather than corrupting the content; others may take a different view.”

Cairns says getting involved in documentaries is not for every business. He says that it only counts where a brand has authenticity in a particular area or the message of the film fits the corporate philosophy. He adds that if brands are contributing to creating the content “you really have to have something interesting to say”.

The third model involves a brand putting money into a production but remaining at arm’s length from the editorial. Search says: “I think this is going to be a really interesting area of growth.”

She points to the example of Eurostar’s backing of Shane Meadows’ film Somers Town, which although not a documentary is an example of this kind of funding. Search says: “It’s more risky for brands but it is where the really interesting territory lies. If you want to communicate authentic messages, you have to let the film maker do his job independently of the brand because that’s when you get the most potent results.”

Search points out that charity WWF put money into producing the over-fishing documentary The End of the Line, but that the message remains the film-maker’s. “I think that’s going to be the step for brands – when they can say we didn’t influence that piece of work, it is a film-makers’ piece of creativity and we are proud to be stand behind it and be associated with its messages.”

The Co-operative has been involved with documentaries for many years on numerous levels, including funding distribution, sponsoring screenings, commissioning work and encouraging and financing young film makers (see box, below). The Co-operative’s marketing director, Patrick Allen, says the company uses film not just to convey its messages but as a “call to action” for causes it believes in, as part of the brand’s social goals agenda.

So far, so good. But what about potential pitfalls? As Nike found to its cost, being associated with films remains a risk. The sportswear company backed the football documentary In the Hands of the Gods, which opened in cinemas but the film did not appear to set box offices alight.

Search acknowledges: “Welcome to the film business! The risks and rewards are exaggerated and you need expertise to navigate it, which brands won’t have in-house.”

Search also flags up a danger if brands – anxious about investing so heavily in documentaries – try to control the creative process too tightly. This can kill the creativity of the project. The most successful of these projects appear to rely on the brand having trust in the project; not only does the film-maker have full rein but the brand receives maximum credibility.

Some in the business have other reservations about producing these new-wave documentaries; they wonder if real-life content sits comfortably with corporate funding. Twofour Broadcast managing director Melanie Leach says: “We make a lot of advertiser-funded programming but not in the documentary space, that tends to be the most problematic.”

Twofour is responsible for Big Chef Takes On Little Chef, a series that followed Heston Blumenthal’s quest to revamp the Little Chef chain, among many other light entertainment programmes.

Leach says branded content seems more “straightforward” when it is understood that it is a light entertainment proposition where you can clearly introduce the product or service and be upfront about what has been paid for. She says: “I think it becomes slightly murkier in the world of documentaries and that makes it more complicated.”

Leach suggests that perhaps what is needed is an education process, where audiences better understand the growing relationship between brands and content in the UK. In the US, advertiser-funded programming has been the model that has always underpinned American broadcasting and audiences there understand the relationship perfectly.

For brand marketers, however, a more pressing snag in getting involved in documentaries is the difficulties in demonstrating return on investment. With heightened scrutiny of marketing spend, film-makers are going to have to address this if they are to succeed in securing funding from brands. Until now, ratings have been the chief metric for assessing consumption of media, but these new stakeholders are likely to have other needs for measurement and evaluation.

Once measurement is convincingly up to scratch then many brands will be able to look at new-wave documentaries as a realistic option, which can affect audiences in a way that few other types of advertising can achieve. As Andy Whittaker, chief executive of The End of the Line and Burma VJ distributor Dogwoof, reveals: “It isn’t really so much about just getting publicity; it’s more about getting belief.

“If one person sees The End of the Line, gets passionate about it, and tells ten friends, then it does a more deep-seated job than any other form of marketing can achieve. Even if the brand is only there by association, it adds to that brand’s story.”

Case study

Although The Co-operative has a fundamentally different business model from many others getting involved with documentaries – social goals policies mandated by its members and no shareholders who might scupper expensive initiatives – Allen concedes the business is financially aware. Its film activity is not purely altruistic.

He says: “It does have a commercial benefit too.  We stock the right range of Fairtrade products and sustainable fish; we know that’s what our customers want.”

He hopes that the commercial and social effects of the documentaries will continue to build The Co-Operative brand and promote its causes. If the strategy ends up pushing sales in the group’s high-street outlets too, it’s fair to say Allen will be counting it as a triple win.


Should your brand get involved in branded documentaries? Follow this checklist to find out.

  • Great brands have heritage and values. Does your brand have a story that could move you into the world of content?
  • Embrace the broad range of creative thinking that sits outside the advertising industry. It will give you a new perspective.
  • Making films or programming requires fundamentally different ways of working for marketers more used to briefing advertising agencies. Make sure everyone understands the goals of others involved; collaboration is paramount.
  • Look at that CSR strategy you always mean to adopt but never quite get round to. How could it become a big factual content idea that captures the nation?
  • Digital content distribution opens a conversation between you and your audience. Think of content creation as a dynamic way of engaging through entertainment.
  • Plan the distribution and marketing of the content to audiences just as you would any other communication. The content is the starting point, but the supportive marketing around it is where you can make your brand central to everything.
  • If you’re thinking about investing in content that is looking for a UK broadcaster commission, be aware that there are still very strict regulations regarding the interplay of brands and programming. Work with specialists and seek advice early.
  • Be honest about your involvement and respect editorial integrity.
  • If your first thought is ‘how can I get my logo in shot?’ go and make an ad instead.
  • First of all, entertain. Second, advertise the entertainment.

Source: Mark Eaves, managing director, Drum PHD


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