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What is docu-style branding? And why it works.

The landscape of video advertising is constantly evolving. Different industries and brands are looking all the time for stronger methods to create brand loyalty and one method is finding its stride: documentary branding.

The best place to start with understanding docu-style branding is to watch it for yourself. But to put it simply, documentary branding is the telling of a story in which the primary subject attempts to accomplish a goal, or overcome an obstacle, and your brand is part of their story. The goal of the branded doc is turn, and turn customers into fans.

This is an important point to make: fans are the best thing a brand can have because what does a fan do, or rather, what could said fans are? Fans are loyal. In the sports world, a fan will wear their team’s brand, cheer for them in good times and bad, and speak of the team as “we” and “us”. Consider your favorite companies. I’m sure they create fantastic products, and their service is top notch, but how often have you caught yourself singing a company’s praises for other reasons? For reasons deeper than a great end product.

Documentaries tell a story that captures the spirit for which your brand stands. The subject should be someone, or a group of people, who hold in their person, the values important to your company. In telling their story, and how your company is a part of it, you create a brand culture that attracts like minded people.

Who are your clients? What demographic are they in? What are their interests and hobbies? Let’s say you're a tech company that provides software solutions for businesses in the medical field. Are there medical professionals that use your software to serve and heal their patients? Or maybe your software helped to streamline a system for a local physical therapy office. Say you decide to use a branded documentary to tell the story of one of your clients, or patients. Inevitably, the use of your software will be there, occasionally prominent, but often in the background of the story making the whole thing possible. In the decisions of your subjects and the challenges they face we’ll begin to see the values your company holds dear: courage, determination, and compassion.

This is the kind of story that turns customers into fans.


Let’s talk practicals for a moment. How long should a brand documentary be? Aren’t they always more expensive than other, shorter video ads? Branded documentaries, on the shorter end, can be 3-5 minutes long, long enough to introduce the key players, their pursuit, and the outcome of their pursuit. On the longer side, branded documentaries can clear 10 minutes and weave together more than one storyline. This brings with it the obvious concern about cost. The company finance department wants to know, “If we spend ‘X’, are we sure there’s going to be a return on investment?” Cost can vary to a large extent, but there are two points to keep in mind.

  1. Documentaries are more about what feels real, than polish. This means that, from a production standpoint, less crew and equipment is needed than a highly polished 30 second ad for social media. So while the video itself will be longer, this does not always translate to higher costs.

  2. Normally social media ads’ effectiveness have a short lifespan. They run once on your various channels, then they live on your YouTube page as a part of your recorded history, but after that they’re no longer in use; not so with branded docs. The story doesn’t have a lifespan because it’s about the timeless qualities that set your brand apart from competitors. If you’re a service based company, the doc can be included in project proposals as a “Get to Know Us” piece.

Maybe you’re in a field where it’s difficult to see how docu-style branding could be effective or even possible. Consider finding a video production company who understands this kind of branding, and reach out to them. Sometimes it’s tough to see the stories hiding in plain sight, and a trained set of outside eyes and ears will help narrow down the stories worth telling.

A potential question about documentary branding is why choose this method over other video ad styles? Nearly every style has its place, so it shouldn’t be used to the exclusion of everything else, but it goes back to organically creating fans of your brand. More traditional advertising at some point makes a direct sell to you the viewer (“Come down to Bob’s Auto Store and get yourself a new battery!”), then there’s the Nike style ad in which a great athlete is wearing Nike, but not selling you the shirt off his or her back, rather the ad is saying “Nike honors great athletes.” This gets closer to what docu-style branding accomplishes, but still is not the same. Thirty seconds is not enough time to develop a narrative, or character arc. The branded doc opens up those additional layers in a story and creates space to ask something more specific like, to keep in line with our Nike example, “Why does Nike honor great athletes?”

“Why” is the question short ads are unable to tap into, but branded documentaries answer. They also answer other questions like, “how we do what we do” (a behind the scenes look) or “how we reached this point” (a telling of company history), or “what we’re made of” (a focus on employee stories and culture), but in answering “Why we are the way we are” you give customers a team worth cheering for.

Author: Caleb McKnight


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