TBI Weekly: Why cutting a deal with brands can deliver on documentaries


Tapping into brand’s budgets can open up swathes of opportunities, with documentaries one area offering particular potential. TBI’s resident branded content expert, Luci Sanan, explores how it works.

More brands are using television – by which I mean ‘video content’ viewed on any device – to tell impactful stories about things that matter to them, their audience, and our planet. Why wouldn’t you look to the “world’s most powerful art form”, as coined by Louis Theroux at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival, as an effective way to tell such stories?

Brands are increasingly becoming active participants in the process of creating stories, instead of drifting into irrelevance in the ad break.

As brands are now actively engaging in storytelling, this trend is becoming more common: they are no longer acting as passive observers but are actively involved in crafting narratives and content that relate to their values, products, or messages.

Luci Sanan

Diving into docs

Advertisers are growing increasingly comfortable with using documentaries to tell stories and communicate brand values. Fueled by streamer investment and the global audience’s seemingly insatiable appetite for authentic stories, such as true crime and journalistic features, more documentaries are being watched than ever before.

Hence, it makes sense for advertisers to want to be part of that trusted, celebrated and respected storytelling narrative, especially in areas of social responsibility. A 2023 study (Matthew Rossetti, East Tennessee State University) analysed brand-funded documentaries and climate change, noting that the medium “uses emotions” to “complement information dissemination,” allowing “stronger engagement with audiences.”

Unilever’s The Future of Farming (2023) explored sustainable agriculture; Our Land (REI, 2022) narrates the story of a coastal town in Maryland devastated by environmental racism; and Paradise Won’t Protect Itself (Corona, 2021) follows marine biologists fighting to safeguard Australian coral reefs.

All these stand as excellent examples of calls to action around important issues through short-form documentary storytelling. I would venture a guess, though, that none of these films have reached a particularly wide audience or had the opportunity to be effectively distributed beyond internal channels and YouTube. (I’d happily be proven wrong.)

It is, however, an entirely different game to finance and/or produce a premium-budget feature documentary that can be widely distributed; something that can stand on its own editorial merit, that can travel (beyond paid placements), and captivate and enthrall its audience, without the interruption of advertisements.

This endeavor requires collaboration with top filmmakers, producers, directors, distributors, and media partners from the outset.

Channel 4’s Super Surgeons is developed in partnership with Macmillan and demonstrates broadcasters’ readiness to collaborate with brands and charities to narrate impactful documentary stories

There is no shortage of 90+ minute adverts made by creative agencies sitting on YouTube without an audience. To win at this game, advertisers need to behave like content producers and broadcasters in how they tell stories, despite the fact that successfully bringing together the brand, production, and distribution of a documentary is no small task (I will happily assist).

The 2014 Patagonia film DamNation can be found on Netflix. Originally launched at SXSW, it stands as one of the finest examples of brand storytelling surrounding a critical issue: the devastating impact of dams on fragile ecosystems. It is 97 minutes long.

Another noteworthy feature-length documentary from Patagonia is Artifishal, which delves into salmon farming and its horrific environmental consequences.

The brand was also behind 2022 release The Scale of Hope, which features former White House climate advisor Molly Kawahata discussing client issues, climate change and the struggle for systemic change. Patagonia serves as a prime example of a brand communicating issues that matter through documentaries.


Aligning values

While such documentaries may lean more towards ’cause-related marketing’ (CRM) rather than being purely profit-driven, I am undoubtedly more inclined to purchase a Patagonia product after watching ‘DamNation.’ The film aligns the brand’s values with my own, conveying a sense that Patagonia is a force for good in the world.

However, accurately measuring this return on investment (ROI) is another matter — and frankly, one that shouldn’t overshadow the creation of compelling storytelling.

5B (Johnson & Johnson, 2019) stands as another excellent example of brand journalism, forging a connection with the audience on a human level, regarding a cause that matters to the brand and its consumers.

The documentary recounts the poignant story of the first dedicated AIDS ward in San Francisco in 1983. Directed by Paul Haggis (Crash) and Dan Krauss (The Kill Team), it’s an effective storytelling piece surrounding a potent subject, bolstered by genuine TV talent.

You can find it on Amazon, alongside several other brand-funded films that shine a (largely optimistic) light on significant societal issues such as black rights, transgender issues, and homelessness.

While not a film, this year’s Channel 4 (UK) series Super Surgeons, produced by Wonderhood Studios and directed by Grierson award-winning talent, is developed in partnership with Macmillan.

This demonstrates broadcasters’ readiness to collaborate with brands and charities to narrate impactful documentary stories. The three-part series tracks world-leading oncologists utilising pioneering technology.

As we anticipate the future of documentaries and contemplate the upcoming cohort of exceptional storytellers, we should not forget to view brands as storytellers. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

Luci Sanan runs independent consultancy firm, 53 Degrees North Media, and has previously worked for The Story Lab, DRG, Banijay International and Small World IFT.

Read Luci’s previous columns here:

What Barbie teaches us about branded content

How to grow branded entertainment & avoid pitfalls

How to engage with advertisers & why unbranded shows are about to boom


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