Five rules to make a Damn Fine Documentary


The documentary is one the most popular forms of brand film. But which ones are effective, and why? Here are five rules to follow plus a few traps to avoid, inspired by Gorilla Gorilla’s Damn Fine Documentary survey of over 2,000 brand films.

What works?

Rule number one is to make your video stand out. Audiences can choose from far more video content than they could ever watch. Brand filmmakers have produced a lot of that content, and in truth too much of it is me-too stuff.

Dean Beswick, Gorilla Gorilla Founder and Creative Partner, sees this as a reaction against traditional advertising, which picky audiences are increasingly inclined to reject. The best brand documentaries resonate with authenticity and avoid trying to sell the product.

Authenticity can’t be created, but it can be unearthed. So rule two is that all good documentaries are built on deep research and careful casting. Smart comms professionals spend time hunting down the really powerful stories. The right story will do the heavy lifting for you.

What’s trending?

It might be more of a surprise (not to us at Moving Image) that one of the standout trends is watching longer programmes. There’s a myth that your edit needs to be short to get engagement, so it’s good to see brands adopting the proven broadcasting method of immersing the audience in a compelling narrative. Rule three is don’t be afraid to make a longer edit.

Rule four is think series, not one-offs. We all watch more of what we like, so smart comms professionals start with an idea that can run as a series. It doesn’t mean committing more budget, but if your first film is a hit you have a ready-made audience for stronger ROI down the line. Here’s a great example from Hilton:

There’s more on the campaign here.

Damn Fine Documentary highlights that most powerful creative ideas are about a big theme. Gender equality, ageing and inclusion offer a place where brands connect with their audience’s emotions. And film is uniquely well-placed to unlock that positive emotional response. Rule five is don’t be afraid to connect your story to a huge question.

Google’s ‘Search On’ series features a fine example in Daniel and the Sea of Sound, at the top of this article.

US tech brands lead the way in storytelling with documentary, but European and UK brands aren’t far behind. Volvo’s The Unseen Ocean endorses the company’s sustainability credentials without preaching.

Astra Zeneca’s Breathless: The Story of Life with Severe Asthma has a dedicated microsite with a clear call to action.

Five rules for brand documentary success

  1. Make your video stand out
  2. Spend time on research and casting
  3. Go long
  4. Series, not one-offs
  5. Big issues

The naughty list

We’ve all done it. You know that shot where your subject is walking but going nowhere, shot from behind? It’s become a bit of a cliché, so it’s worth asking your producer to find something fresher and more relevant. Shots of people driving nowhere or staring into the distance are just as common.

Setups like these are popular because they work well, especially when combined with music and the human voice. The danger is you end up making that me-too film your audience has seen before.