From short reels on Instagram to a series on YouTube, brands have long been trying to harness the power of documentary to tell stories. Some have even partnered with broadcasters and streaming platforms to produce feature-length films. Why? Because documentary storytelling is a powerful tool to connect with audiences.
It makes sense. After all, human beings are hard wired for stories. It’s how we make sense of the world. But what makes documentary storytelling so effective for your brand and how can you use it better? Here are 7 magnificent tips to get you started:
1. Be Honest
For starters, you need a good story at the heart of your film. You’re in the realm of documentary-style content now, so your content is competing with the likes of broadcasters, streaming platforms, content creators and news media outlets.
But what do we mean by “good”?
One question to test whether your story holds up is simple: is it worthy of the audience’s attention? If you’ve ever watching anything yourself, you’ll be as good a judge as anyone! Just be honest and you’ll know.
Whatever the story you’re telling, it needs to be compelling or your audience will just switch off. Somebody on the precipice of disaster, discovery or adventure. A powerful moment of jeopardy, delight, loss or intrigue. Exclusive access or insight into somewhere usually out of bounds. Exploring new worlds or reimagining old ones. A transformative journey. An unexpected friendship. The story has to resonate, draw your audience in and hold their attention.
You might find a story that slots perfectly into your brand’s messaging or sits alongside a campaign. Great. But if your story doesn’t compel, your audience will happily skip over your film and carry on with their busy lives. Equally, you might think that an average story can be saved in its telling. Clever structure and good storytelling can help, but if the story doesn't resonate then it's always going to be an uphill battle.
A good litmus test can be writing a logline; a punchy summary of the story in no more than 25 words. Make sure your production company/agency has written one for any project you do. Or write one yourself! After reading that, ask, would you take time out of your day and watch that film? Be honest.
2. Dig Deep
These “good” stories that fit your brand are not easy to find. But do your research early on and it will be worth it.
Agencies like us will be able to do a lot of the leg work. It takes time and involves digging deep into (often) very strange places: web forums and message boards. There will be cold emailing and outreach on social media. Asking friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. It may even involve open call outs through more traditional channels like adverts in newspapers.
Importantly, we do always recommend being open-minded and not too specific in the search. If you’ve concocted an image of someone or something in your head, the chances of finding it are slim. Besides, doing that often blinkers you, blocking off exciting avenues your research can take you. If you do have to be specific, try writing down just a handful of the key attributes your storyteller or scenario must have. And stick to it.
Whatever approach you take, it’s important not to rush. We always recommend having phone calls with contributors and spending time with them before filming. Documentary can be unscripted, but if you’re confident that the person or subject matter will carry the story then everything will work out. So dig deep when it comes to research and you’ll find gems.
3. Take your Time
Now you’ve got their attention, what are you going to do with it?
Well, if the audience emotionally connects with the story, then the audience will emotionally connect with your brand.
This is where the documentary format really shines. You can allow the story to breathe; meaning audiences can spend time with the storytellers and immerse themselves in their world. Sharing in those moments can really forge emotional connection, so take your time.
Allowing space for that connection to grow doesn’t mean creating lengthy, unwieldy pieces of content. Instagram and TikTok are actually great places for documentary content, you might just need to think a bit differently about the format is all. Baking in an shorter episodic structure into the concept can be really effective on these platforms.
This was our approach for a recent series for Jäegermeister. We knew that the stories we were telling would work well in smaller single-focussed stories for social, as opposed to one longer piece. We still took our time telling the story, and instead of trying to pack everything into each film, each episode focussed on a different aspect of a contributor and their lives. This allowed audiences to get to familiar with them, and build up a connection over time.
4. Break Rules
When people think of ‘documentary’, they mights think of stuffy interview-led films or a more old-school tv style formal approach. It really doesn’t have to be like that. And, if you want to cut through the competition, our advice would be to stand out.
Be distinctive and bold. Bringing in elements like graphics, music and editing styles will really bring the story to life. The creative team behind the Jäegermeister project had all of these elements front of mind right from the start. It doesn’t have to be super cinematic. It can be low fi. Angsty. Filmed on an iPhone. However you do it, break rules.
5. Go Easy
It can be tempting to weave your brand into the film, but this could be a real turn off. One wrong foot and you run the risk of pulling audiences out of the story and eroding any of that valuable emotional connection you’ve built up.
Remember, the objective isn’t to generate an immediate uptick in sales through clunky product placement; it’s about creating something much deeper, long-lasting and genuine. Effective storytelling can forge powerful brand connections and align your brand with purpose and values; drivers that consumers care about now more than ever.
So go easy when thinking about how you can feature your brand in the story. Ask whether facilitating the storytelling is enough or whether your product needs to actually feature?
Porsche made a 20-minute film about the Northern Lights that barely featured a car. So be brave and resist the urge to do this...
6. Know your Audience
Telling unexpected stories is a great way to keep the brand fresh and tap into new audience. But it needs to feel like a natural fit. How does a luxury jewellery brand producing a controversial documentary about climate activism feel from the outside? Or a teeth whitening company making a gritty five minute film about an underfunded youth football club?
We’re not saying it won’t work. What we are saying is that it’s vital to know and understand your audience before you can create the content they want to watch. What formats do they consume the most? On what platforms? What length is best-suited? Do they want it broken up into episodes? What subject matters interest them?
And crucially, ask yourself if you, as a brand, can authentically speak about the story? If you can’t, then make sure you have people telling the story who can. I won’t name names, but a misfire here could be a disaster.
The real Goldilocks Zone is when you can tell stories that feel like a natural fit for your brand. That way, talking about your brand and knitting it into the story won’t feel so jarring.
7. Think Big
This is new territory, so think big. Brands are now faced with an opportunity to find different audiences beyond their loyal following, so think about exploring channels that you don’t own. We’ve already seen that tactic pay off. Brands like Heineken have partnered up with broadcasters like National Geographic, e.l.f. beauty have produced a YouTube series with Channel 4 and Guinness have produced a feature long film with Amazon Prime Video. We also recommend checking out the Waterbear Network, who have featured several successful brand documentary partnerships.
As long as brands think audience-first, they will thrive in this new space. And, to be brutally honest, it looks like they’ll have to if they want to compete for their share of attention. Because with ad-free streaming resulting in fewer opportunities for brands to interrupt (or be skipped over) it’s now more vital than ever for brands not to just “interrupt what consumers want to view, but rather, to become it” (Forbes).
Drop us an email if you want to explore the power of documentary storytelling for your brand.