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When you start out as a filmmaker you align with themes, subjects and ideas that you are interested in. You produce them and then release them into the world. 

Viewers engage and ultimately you become known for your output. I believe the best brands can also follow this course when it comes to branded entertainment. Five years ago, Spindle received a call from an executive producer at T Brand Studio, the content arm at The New York Times. It went something like “we have seen your short documentaries, and they have the exact tone of voice we want to move towards within our branded entertainment at The New York Times. Will you team up with us to help develop the creative with us?” 

Each brand would give a journalist a topic to explore in the editorial. No product, just storytelling.

Of course, we said yes. Within the working relationship, The New York Times would write editorial articles and align thematically linked short-form video content within each post. Each brand would give a journalist a topic to explore in the editorial, and as a studio, and a director, we would develop and execute supporting documentary films. No product, just storytelling. It was one of the most rewarding periods of my career.

Above: T Brand Studio and Philips' The Longest Night, directed by Greg Hackett.

As a brand, it must be intimidating to move away from short term, quick wins and to start thinking long term. However, aligning a brand's values and purpose, with the right branded entertainment can actively engage audiences in more meaningful ways. It takes courage and will not necessarily show those quick wins that some marketing people want, however, this is a process of creating meaning, not content for a brand.

This is a process of creating meaning, not content for a brand.

The outdoor industry has been doing this since its inception. Skiing and snowboarding companies understood that you didn’t need to explicitly sell the product if your athlete already trusted your goods; they could, instead, sell the lifestyle through stories that their rostered athletes wanted to tell. To think about this laterally, what stories would Mo Farah, Raheem Sterling, Lewis Hamilton or Anthony Joshua want to tell if they had their way and the brands funded them?

Brands that are leaders in this field, such as Patagonia, actively fund both long- and short-form content that aligns with their ethics and values. Patagonia’s company mission is ‘to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis', so it makes sense that they would fund Damnation, a film that explores the impact of America’s development of dams on the environment, which incidentally is now available on Netflix. Similarly, Patagonia’s 'stories' section of their website, which covers topics on activism and the environment, as well as the climbing and skiing stories synonymous with their clothing, acts as a hub for finding films and articles aligned with such themes.

Above: A trailer for Patagonia's branded, long-form documentary, Damnation.

Another example of a brand funding long-form entertainment is Werner Herzog’s 2016 documentary Lo and Behold; Reveries of the Connected World. In it, Herzog, ponders the existential impact of the internet, robotics, AI, and the internet of things. As a telecommunications provider, NetScout funded and aligned with a theme in tandem with their product and went for it. It currently rates 7.5 on IMDB. Not bad, for branded entertainment.

Leaders in the field, such as Patagonia, have actively funded both long- and short-form content that aligns with their ethics and values.

So, if the average production budget for a long-form documentary is around £250k, and viewing statistics show that documentary, as a genre, sits above horror, sci-fi, action and adventure, thrillers and drama on Netflix, would now not be a good time to invest in long-form storytelling?

NetScout – Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

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Above: NetScout and Werner Herzog's documentary, Lo and Behold; Reveries of the Connected World.
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