On Capturing Authenticity: Q&A with Visual Journalist Alicia Carter
Jordan Kelley, Content Director, BrandStorytelling.tv
Alicia Carter is a visual journalist and creative producer, using her storytelling prowess and producorial chops to bridge the gap between strategy, production, and distribution to create impact-oriented stories. In addition to being a teller of stories, she is a keen observer of storytelling and its application in the world, specifically its implementation by brands and organizations seeking to shape and share their emotional identities and values. Her recent graduate school report ‘Capturing Authenticity’ explores brand-sponsored documentary video storytelling to define brand values and social impact, all while working to uncover the implications of brand journalism on the journalism industry. Brand Storytelling caught up with Carter to discuss her findings:
Thanks for taking the time to chat Alicia. Authenticity has become a sort of nebulous catch-all term in the world of brand-funded content and entertainment. What made you want to tackle exploring its definition in this unique space?
I entered this industry as a career change and a student, which gave me an incredible opportunity to ask questions and explore topics that interested me. Documentary video is only documentary if it is authentic. I wanted to explore what that meant when a brand is involved and how it can be compromised or captured to the viewer and the brand’s advantage. Video is powerful and impactful, and rather than just selling goods and services, it can have a more significant influence on human behaviors, challenge perspectives, raise awareness, and make a difference in global and local issues. When a brand breaks that wall and starts creating content about the topics they are passionate about, the positive or negative impact they have on society, and how their products fit into how we live, they have to be authentic to be successful. That means engaging and connecting with their audiences on a human level, taking feedback and adapting, or shaking the skeletons out of their closets and challenging themselves. I am enthusiastic about documentary content and want to see it funded, but I also hope that we can take the time to ask important questions, understand the ethical limitations of brand-involved work and ultimately, be thoughtful as an industry.
You touch on some key themes that certainly come up again and again in the world of brands making their foray into storytelling. In the third chapter of your report, you take aim at the all-too common problem of brand’s centering themselves and traditional ad ROI’s in the story-developing conversation. Why is that a mistake and why do so many brands make it?
I understand why a lot of brands feel this way. They are spending money, and it isn’t easy to measure the impact of a brand-sponsored documentary video with data like product sales or website visits. It can also be time-consuming to conduct surveys and focus groups and understand the video’s impact on brand perception. What’s more important about documentary video is their ability to communicate values instead of products. Not only can the video production process explore and uncover a lot about an issue, but it also drives conversation about topics that really matter to people.
My research found that while brands should be transparent about the sponsorship in the video, they shouldn't be over-the-top with the use of the brand name, products, or employees that it becomes advertising. Research suggests that when people see advertisements, brands lose their attention rather than draw them in. In brand-sponsored documentary video the outcome is increased brand engagement, loyalty, recognition, and awareness. I’m really interested in ideas on how to measure those outcomes so it’s easier to get brands on board.
In your findings, you touch on two elements that have gone hand-in-hand of late in the brand storytelling space - authentic storytelling and furthering social impact. Why in your view is corporate social responsibility something that can no longer live buried in a brand’s yearly reporting and how can storytelling change that in a genuine way?
In recent years, we have witnessed a global pandemic, environmental disasters, an economic recession, a movement for Black lives, and a U.S. election. The public applauded brands that engaged in current events, such as Nike Inc., Patagonia Inc., or Ben & Jerry's Homemade Holdings Inc., while brands that stayed silent or posted performative press statements were criticized. Values and actions, more than products, are now what differentiate brands. Brand-sponsored documentary videos ask that brands become directly involved in a social issue and do something about it. Brands can integrate brand-sponsored documentary video storytelling into a marketing campaign and their corporate social responsibility strategy that leads to tangible positive outcomes. A great example of this was Door Dash's Southside Magnolia video and campaign that supported restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. A restaurant's survival is integral to Door Dash’s existence and purpose. The video raised awareness and pushed the company to become directly involved in economic empowerment and food insecurity.
Readers of your report will recognize quickly that it’s more than a traditional report or white paper - you include opportunities for readers to discuss questions, engage in workshop activities, and take a closer look at how certain content was made. What inspired that choice and why do you think it is important for readers in the branded content space to go through those motions thoughtfully?
I’m a visual learner, and I have to organize my thoughts before embarking on a project. 'Capturing Authenticity’ was sort of a journal for myself as I worked with S’well on creating the film Curious by Nature. The conversations we had along the way were just as important as the final video. I wanted to help other brands and filmmakers take that journey by providing engaging and actionable resources.
Your final chapter points directly at projects you executed with brands. What lessons did you learn along the way that you were able to implement when working with brands like Burt’s Bees and S’well?
Creating a video project in 2020-2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult, and I'm grateful to have partnered with Burt’s Bees and S’well. It was vital that I worked with their brand stewardship and impact managers because they saw the creative vision for the projects and had experience in crafting value-oriented work. My conversations with non-profit partners uncovered questions about budget, editorial ownership, compensation, and marketing exposure, which each brand had to address uniquely.
After having written ‘Capturing Authenticity’, what’s one piece of advice you might share with brand marketers looking to execute on an authentic piece of brand journalism?
I think it’s essential to lay the foundation first and find the journalistic ‘beats’ that your brand touches, such as climate change mitigation or technological innovation, to discover what’s happening today. Create a network of storytellers and have conversations about compensation, diversity, and your editorial principles. One piece of content won’t be enough. The most notable brands in this field are consistent and integrate it into their marketing strategy.
What’s next for you Alicia? Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
I try to keep my website up to date and am always available by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Since finishing Capturing Authenticity and graduating with my M.A. from UNC-Chapel Hill, I’ve covered stories in Puerto Rico and Alaska. I’ve since joined Lowe’s Companies, Inc. as a Senior Video Producer to craft stories about how we live and am an Adjunct Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill teaching Introduction to Digital Storytelling.
About Alicia Carter
Alicia is a video producer and journalist with a deep love for documentary stories that connect us and challenge our perspectives. She earned her M.A. in Media and Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is an Adjunct Professor there. Her work is published in National Geographic, U.S. News & Report, Scalawag Magazine, and Here Magazine, and she is a 2021 Overseas Press Club Foundation Video Fellow. Carter is based in Raleigh, N.C. and is a Senior Video Producer on Lowe’s Companies, Inc., content team crafting stories about how we live.