Brands get into the documentary film biz

Why try the same old ad campaign when you can make a movie?
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Screening of Artifishal in Milan, Italy

An Artifishal screening in Milan, Italy packs 'em in.

What do wild salmon have to do with selling puffies? More than you’d think, says Alex Lowther, Patagonia’s creative director and producer of the brand’s 2019 documentary film Artifishal. Like Patagonia’s eight other feature-length environmental documentaries, Artifishal serves a dual purpose. It’s an educational tool about the threats facing wild salmon, but also a shrewd marketing strategy that speaks to modern, plugged-in outdoor consumers—folks concerned with the underlying values of their favorite companies.

Patagonia's 2019 film Artifishal is about the threats wild salmon face.

Patagonia's 2019 film Artifishal is about the threats wild salmon face.

Over the past two years, brand-backed films have popped up more and more, covering everything from inspirational athletes to gear to environmental advocacy and stewardship. Mystery Ranch recently partnered with Zion National Park to create a feature-length film highlighting the many ways people use the 100-year-old park. A shorter version will loop in the visitor center for decades to come, which is one of the reasons Alex Kutches, vice president of Mystery Ranch, saw “a huge opportunity to give back to one of the places that our business depends on, and show half a million park-goers per year what Mystery Ranch stands for.”

“Younger people are invested in brands that do more than just sell gear,” says Annie Nyborg, Peak Design’s director of sustainability. Nyborg spearheaded the company’s 2018 film Grizzly Country. “[Filmmaking] is part of growing brand awareness today. And it touches audiences who may not rely on social media for brand discovery.”

Abby Schwamm, account manager for Purple Orange, the PR company that helped market The Wilderness Society’s 2019 film Welcome to Gwichyaa Zhee, agrees. “A regular marketing message won’t change viewpoints in the same way a film can,” she says.

And it seems that these documentaries are getting the message out. Artifishal screened more than 500 times globally at Patagonia retail stores and other gear shops, attracting tens of thousands of viewers. And another Patagonia film, Blue Heart, about hydropower in the Balkans, also toured the world, helping generate 175,000 petition signatures the brand says contributed to a European Union resolution against small dams.

There’s no doubt the strategy is expensive—Peak Design spent $100,000 on Grizzly Country. And it might even mean shifting marketing funds away from the usual advertising channels. Strick Walker, Merrell’s former chief marketing officer, says the brand doesn’t do much traditional advertising anymore. “We’ll do some print [ads],” Walker says, “but we really believe that the better the content we create, the more people will experience it and share it.”

Neither Merrell, Mystery Ranch, Patagonia, nor Peak Design are looking for immediate return in the form of increased sales. Instead, says Nyborg, “It’s one piece of a complex brand loyalty puzzle.” With films, brands are playing the long game. “We have an opportunity to inspire people, and we believe our business will benefit from that,” Walker says. 

Brands also cite extra benefits, such as local media attention, attracting consumers to retail partners for screenings, broader consumer reach from festivals—and a boost to brand recognition. “Every major player in the outdoor industry now knows who we are because of [Grizzly Country],” Nyborg says. “It started relationships and conversations at the Outdoor Retailer show, and that return is enormous.” 

This article originally appeared in the third issue of The Voice. Subscribe here.

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