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Documentary Storytelling: 6 Examples From Brands That Nail It

Documentary Storytelling

You would be hard pressed to find a marketer in 2016 who doesn’t believe that publishing content is as important or more important than paying for advertising. Yet somewhere in the race to publish more, hit more channels, and optimize reach, we’ve lost sight of the art of great content creation and the returns from more ambitious projects.

In my mind there is not a more powerful – and more underused – medium than the documentary film. Brands rarely take on artistically complex video projects because they require a level of creative and technical talent that most brands (and even many of the agencies that serve them) don’t have access to. Of course there are some that pull it off beautifully. Brands like Patagonia are master documentary storytellers. These brands are immersed in the visual world and have a clear point of view to share with their audiences.

What about brands that don’t have such a rich source of stories to pull from? Or brands you would not associate with artistic film projects? What can we learn from the projects they launch?

All about the drumsticks

In 2015, Church’s Chicken teamed up with World’s Fastest Drummer (an event that invites drummers to play the most single strokes in 60 seconds). But rather than just sponsor the event, Church’s Chicken produced an eight-episode documentary that explores the lives of those who vie for the title of world’s fastest drummer. (In case you’re wondering about the connection between fried chicken and drumming … it’s drumsticks of course.)


The documentary, Fast Company, captures the quirky but oddly compelling world of speed drumming. At the heart of the documentary is Boo McAfee, speed drumming champion and inventor of the Drumometer (the machine that counts the number of strokes per minute). The series also includes vignettes with other unlikely characters – from young, fast-rising speed drummers to the guy with the fastest drumming feet. Each two-minute episode follows a condensed hero’s journey, exposing the hard work and passion required to reach the top echelons of speed drumming. The series concludes at the semi-finals of the World’s Fastest Drumming championships, teeing up the finals in Nashville, Tennessee.

The idea was the brainchild of Church’s Chicken Chief Marketing Officer Mark Snyder, who wanted to reach a new audience: young men. When Snyder’s team researched the type of content young men gravitated to, high on the list were achievement-based videos. The world of competitive speed drumming was a perfect fit, thought Snyder.

“When you step back and look at the results, you’d be hard pressed to figure out how to grow engagement with customers online and how to grow a broader customer set if you don’t get into this type of storytelling,” says Snyder.

In total, the eight webisodes generated 5 million views and 18 million impressions. The buzz from the events and films also drove a 12 percent increase in sales in a single weekend in Atlanta (where the national speed drumming event took place), and an 18 percent uptick in Nashville (where the world championships for speed drumming take place).

Why such a powerful reception? Barry Poltermann, founder of About Face Media, the documentary film group that produced the Church’s Chicken series, puts it this way: “Documentaries have huge audience appeal – just click on your Netflix menu to prove it. Documentaries also happen to be a practical and affordable way to communicate with an audience. Having said that, you should experiment with all different types of video projects, not just documentaries. You want to consider and explore any video content and video channels people voluntarily engage with.”

Documentaries have huge audience appeal & are a practical way to communicate via @onionbap #visualcontent Click To Tweet

Nearly a year after the multi-episode documentary was completed, Church’s is still seeding content to its channels, telling the story of speed drumming. Well-crafted stories aren’t simply about the art of storytelling, they also deliver on the science of content reuse and reach.

Well-crafted stories also deliver on the science of #content reuse & reach via @soloportfolio #storytelling Click To Tweet

Telling the right story

Milwaukee-based About Face Media is an agency that specializes in documentary films. Documentarian Poltermann has edited a number of feature films, including the Sundance-winning American Movie (for which he was also the producer) and the upcoming Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made.

He says that while documentaries are a powerful format for brands to reach new audiences, brands should understand the difference between true documentaries versus reality-style programming. “Authentic documentary stories are not the same as ‘real-people’ or even ‘documentary-style’ marketing pieces,” says Poltermann. “What moves people are genuine documentaries, not marketing pieces crafted to feel like documentaries.”

What moves people are genuine documentaries, not marketing pieces crafted to feel like them via @onionbap Click To Tweet

Poltermann says his agency uses a lengthy process to unearth stories that both appeal to the brand’s audience and capture the brand’s point of view and identity. As part of that process of digging for stories, he says there are critical ingredients absolutely essential to get the project right:

Story landscape is the setting in which a brand has both the credibility and expertise to tell a great story. “When Stella Artois chose to tell a story about hand-painted billboard artists, the brand’s commitment to traditional craftsmanship gave it the permission to talk about that topic,” explains Poltermann.

Story hero is a single person or a group striving toward a common goal. The most powerful documentaries focus on someone who has a goal or quest and ceaselessly strives for it, and for whom something big is at stake. That person’s journey should intersect in some way with your brand’s mission or area of interest.

Brand documentaries: From somber to silly

Up There: The brewer Stella Artois funded a documentary that became the source material for an ad campaign about the disappearing art of hand-painted advertisements. Through poignant interviews with artists, Up There takes a loving look at the history of hand-painted billboards, and the few who still paint beautiful murals on buildings in New York City.

Stella Artois “Up There” from Visual Catch on Vimeo.

Spent: American Express created a long-form documentary as part of a larger program to teach its audience about financially underserved communities in the United States. The documentary exposes the underbelly of the U.S. financial system: payday lending, check-cashing services, and other short-term, high-interest loans marketed to those without access to traditional banking services. It shows both the heavy toll it exacts on working-class families, as well as the ways in which both the financial services industry and government can help those at risk.

The Story of Content: In a bid to explain the phenomenon of content marketing to newcomers, the Content Marketing Institute produced a 43-minute documentary highlighting content-focused brands and the marketers who fuel them.

Living off the Walls: Shoe company Vans is producing a series of documentaries that chronicle the lives of young artists and athletes who push boundaries and inspire others through their creative expression. Vans has a long history in documentary film; its original documentary about skateboarder culture in Southern California was released in 2001.

Kiss and Tell: A grooming-care company (among other things), Gillette offers a less-serious take on the medium. Clocking in at just under five minutes, the film explores the lost art of kissing … and blames facial hair as an obstacle to it. It’s a pretty hilarious look at what one participant describes as the “effort to look lazy” among young men, and the suffering that women endure by kissing men with too much stubble.

The end (or the beginning)

As our conversation ended, Church’s Chicken’s Snyder offered this advice for marketers interested in documentary storytelling: “If filmmaking is something you are trying to explore, make sure your idea is a big one and different from what people would expect of your brand.”

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our bimonthly print magazine.

Looking for more ways to maximize the impact of your video content? Get practical insights, advice, and answers in our 2018 Guide to Essential Content Marketing Tactics.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute