People are doing everything they can to avoid ads, so brands like KitchenAid, Verizon, P&G, and J&J are producing more long-form documentaries

  • Brands including KitchenAid, Verizon, and Procter & Gamble are producing more documentaries than ever.
  • Their popularity is due to streaming's growing popularity, the rise of purpose-driven marketing, and viewers' growing dislike of interruptive ads.
  • Filmmakers, directors, and streaming platforms have also become more receptive to working with brands. 
  • The trend has accelerated during the pandemic and could pose another threat to traditional TV ads and ad agencies as some brands bypass them to work directly with platforms and production companies.
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Last month, KitchenAid released its first documentary, "A Woman's Place," a 30-minute film that follows three female chefs who overcome bias in the male-dominated culinary industry.

"We looked at a plethora of issues and landed on this because it ties really well to our brand purpose of creating possibility in the kitchen," said Robert Sundy, head of brand and creative at KitchenAid's parent company Whirlpool. "There's an increasing expectation [from consumers] that brands have shared values and purpose —that's what drives loyalty and engagement." 

KitchenAid isn't alone. The rising adoption of over-the-top streaming, growth of purpose-driven marketing, and increase in ad-skipping had led more brands to get on the documentary bandwagon. For instance:

  • Brands including Nike, Johnson & Johnson, HP, and 23andMe have made documentaries in the past few years.
  • Verizon started making its first documentaries in 2017, and has produced four, including two this year.
  • P&G has prioritized long-form content in recent years, producing films such as "The Talk" and "The Look."

Documentaries can help brands reach — and gain legitimacy — among hard-to-reach consumers

The trend has accelerated in recent months as people stream more video the pandemic. The time spent with subscription OTT video in the US is set to surpass an hour per day this year, up 23% from 2019, according to Insider Intelligence's eMarketer.

"There are more eyeballs shifting there, but they also tend to have valuable audiences who are paying a premium for subscriptions," said Brendan Gaul, global chief content officer at UM. "These are likely the people that brands are trying to reach with their messages anyway."

Also, documentaries also can be a way for brands to show they're taking a position on social issues, as research has found people are more likely to buy products from companies that stand for something.

P&G, for example, produced documentaries with Queen Latifah's "Queen Collective" to promote filmmakers of color making films on topics like domestic violence and the shelter system. 

"Documentaries can elicit very emotional responses and help connect with people on a deeper level," said Tod Plotkin, founder and CEO at video production agency Green Buzz. "At a time when so many brands are associated with a cause, they can help exemplify them further."

Verizon has used documentaries to address topics like education and women's rights that are hard to address in short ads, chief marketing officer Diego Scotti said. "Speed of Thought" promoted 5G's impact on society while "Not Done" looked at the women's movement.

"We have stories to tell that need more time than a 60-second spot provides — 'Speed of Thought' is an example," said Scotti. "We needed to humanize the technology and at the same time, educate consumers about what 5G is. Going deep into each of the stories in the film was critical, and we needed the time a film allows for."   

Filmmakers, directors and streaming platforms have become more receptive to working with brands

Brands are also finding talent that might have shunned commercial work in the past are more receptive to this kind of work following the reception of films like Nike's "Breaking 2" and GE's "Breakthrough." Companies including P&G, Johnson & Johnson and KitchenAid have roped in award-winning producers and filmmakers like Alma Har'el, Dan Krauss, and Rayka Zehtabchi, said Mark Book, head of content at ad agency Digitas North America.

Some of the output has even gotten recognition outside the ad industry. "5B," a 2018 film commissioned by Johnson & Johnson about San Francisco nurses during the 1980s AIDS epidemic, was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

While marketers used to post documentaries on their sites or YouTube, they're also finding streaming platforms more receptive to picking up their films in the past two years, he added. Verizon's 5G film, for example, was found on Amazon, while Hulu is streaming KitchenAid's documentary.

Hulu has prioritized working with brands, introducing new ad formats like pause ads or licensing and co-producing scripted and unscripted branded long-form content, said Scott Donaton, its head of creative. 

"Brand storytelling done right is not a sidecar, it's the main event," Donaton said. "It's a conscious decision on our part and we're putting skin in the game as well."

With more avenues available to them, brands are now making documentaries in hopes of getting TV networks or streaming services to pay for them, just like a traditional publisher would, said Green Buzz's Plotkin.

"This way, they own the content but can still offset the production costs, and pick and choose their distribution channels," he said. "They can cut it down into different lengths and different versions for different social media channels." 

The potential losers in all this are traditional advertising channels like TV, where ad spending in the US is expected to drop a whopping 27.1% in the 2020-2021 season per Insider Intelligence's eMarketer. KitchenAid said that it was already adjusting its traditional ad mix to do more streaming video, including documentaries.

Plotkin says documentaries are good fits for brands that can't afford TV ads or want to reach audiences cutting the cable cord. A national TV ad can cost $250,000 to a million dollars to produce, plus 2-3 times more of the budget in media placement spend, while an eight- to 12-minute documentary can be commissioned for as little as $50,000-$100,000, he said.

Also at risk: advertising agencies, who have thus far controlled access to such media and whom some brands are bypassing. P&G, for example, worked directly with the creative collective Saturday Morning to make "The Look" last year.

"The bigger agencies are no longer the gatekeepers when brands can come and work directly with us," said Chris Uettwiller, CEO of production company Dirty Robber. "We're having more of those conversations."

Branded documentaries are also beginning to pay off

To be sure, documentaries are still a small part of brands' overall budgets. Non-traditional advertising is just 5% of P&G's media budget, its chief brand officer Marc Pritchard has said, and KitchenAid said that its documentary accounted for 10% of its advertising budget this year.

But production agencies Green Buzz and Dirty Robber said that they have fielded four times as many queries from brands about documentaries on average now versus five years ago, as high-quality documentaries can be made with socially distanced skeleton crews in the pandemic.

The trend may pose a threat to some agencies, but others are rising to the challenge. Digitas, for example, helped develop KitchenAid's most recent film along with Vox Media, while media agency UM's Studios division has made documentaries since 2011. 

"We've seen some brands bypass their agencies and have one-to-one relationships with media platforms, but we've seen the power of having our agencies be involved in the discussions as well," said Whirlpool's Sundy. "For us, it's still a three-legged stool."

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