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Social-First Documentaries and the Brand Storytelling Opportunity

You can watch the majority of today’s documentary films on platforms like Netflix, National Geographic Channel, and HBO. Most are created by indie filmmakers, non-profits, and environmental groups. None of that, however, stopped a healthcare company from creating a documentary series and releasing it on Instagram.

As reported by Adweek, Terri Bresenham, GE Healthcare’s president of sustainable healthcare solutions, hoped to showcase the work that women are doing to provide quality healthcare to communities around the world. Heroines of Health follows three women in three different countries as they strive to make a difference. GE Healthcare posted a minute-long video of its subjects every day until the 30-minute documentary film was complete. It can now be watched in its entirety on Instagram.

There’s no arguing the value of a film that shines the spotlight on an indispensable but under-appreciated group of people. And yet, the existence of Heroines of Health begs the question: What does a brand like GE Healthcare stand to gain from producing a social-first documentary film?

Marketers Borrow Real-World Events to Help Them Tell Brand Stories

Branded documentaries that air on social media before appearing anywhere else aren’t exactly a mainstream marketing tool, but GE Healthcare isn’t the first to embrace the concept, either. Last year, Japan Airlines sponsored a five-minute long YouTube documentaryin which Japanese artist Yassan flew more than 65,000 miles to spell the word “PEACE” on a map of the world using GPS tracking technology. Also in 2016, NOMAD Skateboards released Road to Tokyo, a 20-minute exploration of the global campaign to make skateboarding an Olympic event.

Even hazelnut-cocoa treat-maker Nutella has a documentary series. Its Nutella Originals short films profile people who spread joy in unique ways. Meanwhile, Coors Light’s My Climb. My Story follows L.A.-based fashion designer Shezi as he embraces healthy living after nearly losing his burgeoning business and his life due to a tumor.

All of these films address a different issue, but there’s a common thread that binds them. Each documentary serves the brand that made it. Heroines of Health demonstrates GE Healthcare’s dedication to its industry, along with its mission to provide better patient care worldwide. Nutella’s videos don’t push the product down viewers’ throats, but rather emphasize the brand’s “Spread the Happy” tagline.

In most branded documentaries, the link to the sponsor is often subtle. If a product makes an appearance at all, it’s entirely in context. For example, in My Climb. My Story, Shezi celebrates his post-operative success with a party where his guests drink Coors Light.

The result has all the benefits of native advertising — a form of paid digital advertising that’s integrated into the publishing platform in an unobtrusive way — while also tapping into consumers’ current interest in nonfiction stories. “Documentary filmmaking is hot right now,” Fast Company reported late last year. “As the means to make a movie get cheaper, and people better understand what kinds of stories are worth telling, the appetite for non-fiction storytelling on our various screens has grown.”

As such, agencies like The Sound Media and 72andSunny are developing films that convey what matters to their brand clients. “When you tell the stories of real people and the incredible things they’ve faced, it becomes both really powerful and really personal,” Jed Cohen, creative director with 72andSunny — which created Coors Light’s My Story. My Climbtold Fast Company in another article. “This type of content also allows us to naturally highlight the role of our product as a ‘refreshing reward’ in real and relatable scenarios.”

Whereas traditional advertising puts the focus on marketing, branded documentaries typically tell a story that reflects the brand’s values, mission, or spirit. Factor in the ease with which viewers can share that story across social media, and you can see why organization big and small might be tempted to produce an online film.

Why Video is the Key to Branded Documentary Content

For marketers — especially those tasked with increasing brand exposure and building affinity — the payoff of investing in a social-first documentary can be huge. GE Healthcare’s Heroines of Health videos received more than 250,000 views, 80,000 likes, and 400 bookmarks on Instagram within the first week. That’s a lot of brand awareness.

It isn’t really platform that’s important, though, but the medium. According to eMarketer, American adults spent 13 minutes per day watching video in 2013. This year, across all channels and devices, they’ll devote 12 hours and 7 minutes daily to video — and much of that content is digital. The global digital video audience will grow by 8.2 percent this year, eMarketer also reports, with 62 percent of all internet users watching some digital video content.

Social sites like Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook attract millions of viewers who are hungry for this kind of visual content. Some brands, like Patagonia, are finding ways to leverage all three platforms at once. The Slab Hunter, which documents woodworker Ben Wilkinson and promotes Patagonia’s Workwear line through video, photography, and text, is available on the brand’s blog. Patagonia also shared excerpts of the video on its Facebook and Instagram accounts, while the full story resides on YouTube.

It’s just one of countless videos produced by Patagonia, but The Slab Hunter was viewed more than 4,100 times during its first week online.

Social-first documentaries may not be traditional in nature, but they have the potential to be just as engaging to the consumers that matter most to brands. Companies with a story to tell would be smart to take a cue from Terri Bresenham and GE Healthcare. There’s a lot to be gained from this innovative marketing strategy.

Top image by 1000 Words.

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