For years, brands have produced documentary content in an effort to engage their target audiences but a number of trends, including the growing popularity of documentaries, consumers who skip ads with abandon and a shortage of funding for documentary film-making, is changing the ways they employ them.

Historically, branded documentaries have been short films distributed through online channels like YouTube. In most cases, the involvement of a brand was explicit, with brands and/or their wares featured prominently in some fashion.

Such efforts are still commonplace but brands are increasingly investing in different models that are more subtle but at the same time more involved.

Specifically, according to Universal McCann’s chief content officer Brendan Gaul, more brands are now going as far as to take on producer-like roles. “Brands are spending money to make a film that then they’re hoping to sell to a distributor that then is going to put it out in a world where an audience has to pay to watch it,” he explained to Digiday.

For example, Johnson & Johnson hired UM Studios, Universal McCann’s content production arm, to produce a documentary about nurses who care for AIDS patients. The film won the Grand Prix award at Cannes Lions this year and earned an invitation to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.

Johnson & Johnson is not alone. A diverse group of brands, including Stella Artois, Airbnb, Apple and HP have invested in large documentary productions.

Authenticity is key

Not surprisingly, those involved in the production of documentaries, including the filmmakers themselves, say that brand-produced documentaries can’t be commercials. If they start to feel like commercials, the likelihood of them resonating with viewers and gaining distribution is likely to decrease.

Instead, brands seem content to attach themselves to documentary projects and let the filmmakers tell the stories they believe will make meaningful impressions on viewers. One of the reasons for this might be that even though brands are investing substantially more dollars up front, the economics can be attractive if the documentaries gain a modicum of traction.

Because they own, in whole or in large part, the documentaries they back, brands have the opportunity to recoup their costs through distribution deals with television and cable networks and streaming services such as Netflix. They can also earn revenue from ticket sales if the films are screened in theaters. While the direct revenue generated might not exceed the costs, the overall ROI calculus in the context of brand marketing could still be positive.

Opportunities abound

While directly supporting the production of documentaries is the obvious way for brands to take advantage of the documentary opportunity, brands are also taking other approaches. For example, a number of large pharma firms, including Sanofi Genzyme, Horizon, Biomarin and Takeda, are sponsors of Disorder: The Rare Disease Film Festival.

Launched two years ago, the two-day event showcases films, including documentaries, that tell stories related to the experiences of people battling rare diseases. Sponsorship of the film festival doesn’t just entail signage and shout-outs. As festival co-founder Daniel DeFabio, whose son has a rare genetic disorder, told FiercePharma:

“The great thing that we see happen is when we bring together the different stakeholders—of course the patient community and the advocates for patients—but also industry. They don’t just participate as sponsors, they actually attend and sometimes are among our speakers. And then clinicians and geneticists who might do the diagnosis. Getting all those same people in the same room to hear these stories, that is the goal. We hope it’s creating opportunities where people talk to each other and maybe start to think about a disease they weren’t focused on previously.”

According to Ramona Sequeira, president of Takeda USA, “We are committed to not only working to develop new treatments but to also working with our partners to raise awareness of rare diseases.” Raising awareness of conditions is the central focus of unbranded ads, which have become more widely-used as pharma marketers find themselves operating in a more challenging environment.

Of course, brands’ growing embrace of documentary film usually isn’t a philanthropic undertaking. As Digiday pointed out, brands ultimately need to justify their investments, so establishing KPIs is a must. Not surprisingly, most of the KPIs established for documentary efforts are related to brand awareness rather than sales.

That would seem to raise the risk of malinvestment, but with large numbers of consumers, especially younger consumers, saying that brands have a responsibility to do more than just generate a profit, it’s likely that as long as this new wave of documentary film lasts, brands will continue to try to ride it.

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