Are ‘documercials’ the future of branded content?

Documentaries about brands are more than just compelling content; these documercials could even be something like a lifeline for companies in trouble, argues Digitas’s Mehdi Elaichouni

We live in a world where consumers are choosing to ignore ads, with 47% blocking ads according to a recent GlobalWebIndex report.

It is not that consumers are not interested in brand advertising anymore; they just discover brands and products through other less intrusive methods. This is noted by the 60% of consumers who feel more positive about a brand they discover through product placement according to a study in the Journal of Management and Marketing Research.

Streaming services like Netflix or HBO now make product placement a major part of their monetisation plans. All of Amazon’s original programming contains brand integrations while Netflix has product placements in 74% of its original series according to Business Insider allowing it to monetise beyond subscriptions.

As an example, you might remember seeing KFC prominently featured in a scene from the Netflix show ‘Stranger Things’.

KFC integrated into a scene of ‘Stranger Things’

Over the past few years, a less obvious format has become the norm for more authentic and genuine product integration: documentaries.

I consider myself a professional documentary watcher. I have seen a diverse range of these films and believe that even in the most unusual documentaries, I always find something unexpected to learn.

Whether it’s a dark investigation into the consequences of keeping orcas in captivity or a film following an 85-year-old sushi master of a Michelin three-star restaurant in Tokyo, documentaries are among the most unusual and persuasive art forms.

And that’s exactly what brands want: persuasion.

F1 Team Redbull featured on Netflix documentary Formula 1: Drive to Survive

Rather than intrude, documentaries offer an opportunity for a symbiotic relationship between production companies and brands, delivering a more genuine product placement aimed at the  ‘traditional’ ad-sceptical consumer.

Over the past few years, we have seen brands taking part in a documentary-style video in two distinct ways. Either by sponsoring the whole film — a ‘documercial’ — or appearing in an ‘independent’ documentary, sponsored by a third party.

When things are going well

One of the best examples of the documercial is the ‘Defiant Pioneers’ short films created by Volvo. The first episode called ‘Nemo’s Garden’ tells the story of an Italian dad and son who created a way to grow crops in the sea, in response to the destruction of fertile lands by climate change.

You can see Volvo cars here and there during the film, driven by the Italian dad, but the primary objective is to position Volvo as a brand committed to innovation and fuelling human progress.

Another great example is the Netflix original documentary, ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’. The ten-part series created in deep collaboration with Formula 1, gives spectators a unique insight into the sport.

In terms of timing, the docu-series was launched just a few weeks before the start of the 2019 F1 season in March, and that tells you exactly what’s in it for the brand as it tries to grow viewership and fans of the sport.

In both instances, a documentary is used as a native marketing tool to build brand awareness, engage an audience and eventually generate leads.

When things get ugly

On the other hand, when brands are not fully sponsoring the creation of a documentary, understanding what’s in it for them gets a bit harder to grasp.

The best example, in my opinion, is ‘Dirty Money’ on Netflix. The award-winning six-episode documentary covers aspects of greed, fraud and corruption committed by big pharma or car brands.

It’s fascinating to see that each episode will always show both sides of the story by talking to victims, but also employees or senior management of the company that committed fraud or corruption.

The first question that came to mind is ‘why the hell you would you appear in a film meant to hurt your business?’. I initially believed that watching the episodes will further rupture my faith in humanity. But weirdly, it made me better understand why a company will cheat diesel emission tests or raise the price of life-saving drugs to $300,000 a year, because of human greed.

When things are not going well for a brand, having your voice heard is better than not being there. As the French say, “Les absents ont toujours tort” that translates to “The absent are always in the wrong”.

Better to be there, and apologise, sincerely. The Nottingham School of Economics found in an old study that twice the number of unhappy customers are willing to pardon a company that apologises, over one that offers only monetary compensation.

Streaming services are the new battleground for documentarians, and branded content with players like HBO investing more than $10 billion last year in original material.

Even Apple just announced its streaming video platform, Apple TV+ with the expectation that it will spend over $2 billion a year on original content.

To help with the funding, I expect that we will see an increasing number of brands working with directly with the productions to create authentic content highlighting their values, or helping to reposition them in a crisis.

In a nutshell, whether things are good or bad, documentaries offer brands the ability to inspire and connect with an audience craving authenticity.Mehdi Elaichouni is lead strategist at Digitas. He is based in Singapore



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