Brand Upon the Brain

Art and advertising collide in the burgeoning genre of branded documentary

Matt Naylor (l) and David Modigliani of Flow Nonfiction
Matt Naylor (l) and David Modigliani of Flow Nonfiction (Photo by John Anderson)

Tide knows laundry. That much you can count on in this world. And the reason the Tide brand has survived for more than 65 years is because everybody knows that Tide knows laundry. Through good times and bad, while wars raged and while peace reigned, during eras of enormous social upheaval and eras of profound political tranquility, Tide has been there, a DayGlo orange-and-yellow bastion of consistency in a forever-changing world, manufacturing detergents and fabric softeners ad infinitum, toiling away in its own mundane corner of the American experience so that we don't have to.

Yes, surely nothing is as mundane as laundry and nothing as consistent as Tide. Or maybe not. This is the 21st century, after all, when computer programmers and music producers (not singers) are the coolest guys in the room. And corporate synergy campaigns make it possible for even the blandest corporations to partner with your favorite film franchise or be the home of your beloved football team and make themselves hipper by association. In this world, Tide – which makes laundry detergent, remember – can work its way into the heady, rarefied territory of both the Red Cross and Frederick Wiseman and not seem out of place.

Consider this: A year and a half ago, Haiti was hit by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that left nearly 100,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. Wanting to help but recognizing its limitations (or its area of expertise, depending on your point of view), Tide responded to the calamity the only way it knew how: by sending 10 sets of washers and dryers to the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, which had been overrun with patients after the quake and was struggling to provide them with anything resembling clean linens, and to the Zanmi Beni Orphanage, which had been hastily established by aid groups when it became clear that a building in the hospital where 40 abandoned children were being housed was damaged beyond repair.

Recognizing an opportunity when they saw one, executives at Proctor & Gamble hired Flow Nonfiction, an Austin-based creative agency/production company, to make a film about the company's efforts in Haiti to draw attention to the program and, by extension, the Tide brand. Not a commercial, really, and not some scripted burst of self-congratulation, but a real documentary about the program and the people affected by it. So last September, filmmakers David Modigliani and Matt Naylor went down to Port-au-Prince and shot hours of footage, chronicling the arrival of the laundry machines and interviewing the people working at the hospital and the orphanage. The result of their work, the 20-minute "Espwa (Hope)," released in January, was an example of a new kind of marketing that the crew at Flow Nonfiction call "branded documentary."

According to Modigliani, the idea for branded documentaries came about in response to two very significant trends in the way we deal with media and the way we consume goods. The first is that we now live in a world where, as he tells me, "we're not captive audiences anymore. We all seek out content. Companies have to connect with the public and their consumers in new and different ways. They're seeing a return by purveying content of their own and creating their own proprietary distribution platforms."

Secondly, study after study has shown that consumers today want to purchase products from companies that engage in acts of philanthropy and whose business practices are consistent with certain vague notions of environmental sustainability, workers' rights, and other social motivations. Consumers no longer just want to purchase goods; they want to buy into a lifestyle and a whole philosophy of global citizenship. And corporations know this. In its fourth annual global consumer survey, released last year, independent public relations firm Edelman claimed that 62% of consumers worldwide would switch brands if a different brand of similar quality "supported a good cause." Good global citizenship, in other words, is good business. And to the owners at Flow, the best way to show that your company is engaged in acts of corporate social responsibility is to tell the story of those acts. And the best way is a documentary because it allows for a level of emotional engagement with audiences (consumers) more traditional advertising techniques can't hope to touch.

"People respond to the authenticity of the documentary medium, of real people telling their stories," says Modigliani. "People lean into a story if they don't feel like they're being marketed to, [and] documentaries have an authentic style of storytelling that hits home. People feel engaged, and they are impacted by the real stories and the real people rather than by some script."

Naylor says that the branded documentary approach works on the premise that in our media-savvy, media-skeptical age, storytelling – not explicit brand-pushing – is the best way to sell consumers on a company that has done good work.

"From a storytelling standpoint, branded documentaries are new for the managers of these companies," Naylor says. "Within the narrative structure, the point of the story can't be your brand. Your brand can be a character in the story; it can appear organically in the story. But when you're thinking about how to structure the piece, how to build characters, how to tell a story, the point can't just be to promote the brand."

Anne Lewis
Anne Lewis (Photo by John Anderson)

Not even 2 years old yet, Flow has already made films documenting the charitable foundations of corporate clients like Microsoft, Pantene, and Downey, as well as nonprofits like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Chillmark Community Center, each film and "cause-marketing" campaign designed to walk the line between philanthropic evangelism and bald-faced self-promotion. As Proctor & Gamble Assistant Brand Manager Matthew Krehbiel put it during a panel discussion about branded documentaries during last year's South by Southwest Festival, "By building that closer bond with our consumers [through charitable work and branded documentaries], we [are] able to drive loyalty and really increase the base business behind what is essentially a campaign to increase our equity."

Simply put, consumer recognition drives corporate profits and branded documentaries drive consumer recognition and, more importantly, consumer engagement.

Modigliani, Naylor, and their other partner at Flow, composer David Rice, began their partnership while working on Modigliani's excellent noncommissioned, independent 2008 documentary, Crawford. Interestingly, that film, which looked at the small Texas town George W. Bush declared his home in 1999 and the eight-year media frenzy that resulted, is as much about a brand being created as it is about Crawford. The Bush election team moved its candidate to his new home only months before he declared his candidacy in order to brand him as a true brush-clearing, heartland cowboy (rather than the prodigal son of New England aristocrats), and the media responded by branding Crawford as a bastion of monochromatic, bland, middle-American conformity and post-9/11 American nobility. Neither story was true, of course, but they played well on TV and did what they were supposed to do – sell a candidate and sell a narrative.

No one is doubting that the branded documentaries Flow makes are true, but the fact that they are commissioned by groups looking to bolster their corporate images has to make you wonder if only a particular truth can really be told. Can branded documentaries, with their focus on a particular story, a particular truth, really be considered documentaries? Or are they something entirely else and new, a liminal phenomenon somewhere between documentary and advertisement, a clever marketing technique born in our hyper-marketed age?

I decide to ask Anne Lewis. As a longtime director of documentaries dealing with issues of social justice and cultural democracy and a senior lecturer in the University of Texas' Department of Radio-Television-Film, Lewis has been thinking about documentary filmmaking and its relationship to corporations and consumerism for decades. She's the kind of muckraker who sticks a camera in the face of a project manager at a strip-mining site and demands to know his take on the effects his company's practices are having on its employees and the land they're destroying. Her documentaries are very, very unbranded.

"If ads push people and corporations toward altruism, it's a good thing. I'm just not sure they should be called documentaries," Lewis tells me. "Their company's name, Flow Nonfiction, is accurate. I think they are doing nonfiction. But documentary is a little bit different from nonfiction. The intent of documentary is always to reveal the truth and confront the truth. When you have a branded doc, that's not the intent; it's the style of documentaries rather than the intent. The intent of branded docs is not to allow you to explore something and make up your own mind about whether this is a good or a bad thing or maybe a good and a bad thing."

Lewis stressed that she has nothing against branded documentaries as a concept and that she doesn't question the motivations of the filmmakers at Flow, at least one of whom is a former student ("I question the motivations of the corporations"). But she is concerned about the role branded documentaries could play in a future where funding for stand-alone, uncommissioned documentaries is becoming more and more scarce, and about the impact that lack of independent vision could have on our understanding of the world.

"Arts funding keeps getting cut, so there's less and less of that independent voice out there," she says. "So corporations are filling the need for us to know something about the world. And eventually all we're going to know is this branded stuff, what the corporations want us to know. That's what we're going to know about Haiti or what we're going to know about Somalia. We're not going to have the real force that documentary can bring to an issue because there's no funding for it.

"You don't get at the truth unless you have been challenged. A real independent doc says, 'Let's try to understand this,' and forces you to ask questions about social justice and fairness and business practices that corporations probably don't want us asking, especially the ones funding the film in the first place."

I asked Modigliani and Naylor (Rice was unavailable) if they're ever concerned that the process of making branded documentaries could force them to compromise who they are as documentarians. Naylor says the key has always been in what movies they choose to make and which companies they're willing to work with.

"I think that's one of the reasons we find ourselves so consistently in the socially conscious space," he says. "The stories that these companies are wanting to tell are stories that fascinate us and that we feel like are doing some kind of good. The very clear line is, we're never going to tell anything untrue or tell anything that intentionally distorts what's actually going on."

In other words, Flow Nonfiction collaborations with Phillip Morris or Halliburton or Merrill Lynch probably won't be coming to a theatre or a Facebook page near you anytime soon.

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branded documentary, Flow Nonfiction, Espwa (Hope), David Modigliani, Matt Naylor, David Rice, Anne Lewis, Matthew Krehbiel, Crawford

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