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Getting Real about Brands and Impact Films

Blackfish is a prime example of a film inspiring impact - courtesy of

As more brands move into making content, especially long and short form film, many are starting to make films intended to have social impact. While films and media made for impact aren’t right for every brand, they increasingly make sense for brands wanting to share their values with consumers who consistently say they want brands to take a stand. But while many brands are making impact entertainment, too few are actually doing what it takes to have an impact, and need to start thinking harder about what impact means – before audiences (consumers) begin to see this as more cynical “purpose-washing” and brands meaning to truly have an impact have difficulty rising above all of this noise.

In a recent study from Soul Pancake, Participant Media and BrandStorytelling (conducted by the Harris Poll), “three out of four C-suite members say they are comfortable investing in impact entertainment, with 86 percent of the C-suite respondents noting they plan to increase or maintain impact entertainment spending over the next three years.” But tellingly, the same study showed that “more than 60 percent of respondents said brand awareness was the most significant success factor, while less than 40 percent responded that “positive measured change in the issue” was a success factor, a more than 20 percentage point difference.” As the study’s authors noted- this is a problem.

This gap – where brand awareness matters more than actual impact – is easily detected by consumers. People can sniff out false marketing pretty fast, and it’s no longer enough to just signal your values – people want action. And impact doesn’t happen just because someone watches your film. Watching your impact film can lead to increased awareness about an issue, and even empathy for the people and issues depicted. But for a film to truly have impact, it needs to lead to some form of action – usually changed behavior. This could be joining a cause, or signing a petition, or contacting a Congressperson. Or just telling others to see the film so it changes their minds as well. In many ways, making an impact film is just an excuse for all the things you can do around the film that lead to impact. But too often, brands just release the film and assume the job is done.

Without this extra component, audiences are likely to see your impact entertainment as just another commercial, albeit one for your values. Brands that truly want to have an impact – and want their consumers to know this – need to begin budgeting for actual impact campaigns, and need to set clear, realistic goals and metrics for impact before they release their film (and often before they make it). But the Impact Entertainment report also showed that 53% of respondents lacked the knowledge to start an impact initiative. So how do we bridge this dual purpose and skills gap?

The traditional documentary world has been making impact films for quite some time, and there’s an entire sub-industry dedicated to ensuring that films have an actual impact. In fact, the field became so obsessed with impact a few years ago that filmmakers could barely find funding if impact wasn’t an express part of their agenda. Organizations such as the Doc Society (which runs the Good Pitch) held boot-camps and studies to create best practices for having an impact through media. Working with leaders in the field such as Sundance and the Ford Foundation, they even created a Field Guide for anyone interested in having an impact through film (it was just updated this past week). This guide is a good place for brands to start learning about how to truly have an impact. It’s long, but it’s one of the only comprehensive places to study impact and incorporate it into your work.

But there’s more that can be done. The conversation around impact is ongoing in the traditional doc world – at events like Good Pitch, and also conferences and festivals such as Sundance, Hot Docs, IDFA, the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real Conference and more. The brand-doc community needs to integrate more with the traditional-doc community. Brands can learn a lot about best practices for impact, and probably bring some much needed marketing experience to the conversation. But we have to get these two groups in the same room more often.

Courtesy of docsociety

Getting any film seen by audiences takes hard work, but luckily this work can overlap with having an impact. Partnering with grassroots groups working on the issues on the ground can lead to impact, and butts in seats (or eyeballs on screens). Tying your goals for a film to your existing CSR objectives can help build employee buy-in, lead to obvious partners for screening and impact outreach, and make your values more transparent through action. Many brands have teams that are well-connected with politicians working on these issues – show them your film, and have them meet with groups advocating on these issues. Raise awareness to your customers through all of your marketing and retail channels. Spend marketing dollars not just to promote the film, but also to promote the impact campaign around the film, which can also have the dual effect of getting the film seen while having actual results. These are just a few of the things brands can do to increase impact – the Field Guide can help you think of more. So can speaking with brands that are already doing this – I won’t name names here, but we all know which brands are taking more concrete actions, and many will share lessons learned (perhaps at BrandStorytelling in January).

You don’t have to set out to completely change the world. But by tying measurable impact goals to your film’s release, you can ensure that the viewer knows you are serious about the issues in your film, and can join you in taking even small steps towards addressing those issues. This will elevate your brand above the noise of those engaging in “purpose-washing” and let your film have real impact.


About Brian Newman

Brian Newman, founder of Sub-Genre, consults on content development, financing, distribution and marketing to help connect brands and filmmakers with audiences. Clients include: Patagonia, REI, Keen, Yeti Coolers, New York Times, Shopify Studios, Stripe, Sonos, Sundance, Vulcan Productions and Zero Point Zero. Brian is the producer of Love & Taxes, The Outside Story, and The Ground Between Us, and executive producer of Shored Up. Brian has served as CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute, and is on the advisory board of the Camden International Film Festival.

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