top of page

9 Tips for Producing Fantastic Short Branded Documentaries

Short branded documentaries remain a powerful tool for storytelling and connecting with audiences on a deeper level. Beyond traditional commercials, short documentaries offer a glimpse into a brand's values, mission, and impact, fostering authenticity and trust. However, conceptualizing and producing stand-out short documentaries requires much more than simply scheduling shoots and arriving with a good camera.

In this article, we'll share 9 helpful tips for producing fantastic short branded documentaries, along with various examples from brands that showcase the power of the short documentary as a medium. Let's dive in and explore how you can leverage real stories to elevate your brand's narrative and build genuine connections with your customers.

1. Get Clear on Your "Why" & What You Want to Say

Before having your in-house team pack up their camera gear or hiring a documentary production company to start filming, figure out why you're making this short branded documentary in the first place. What's the story your organization is so passionate about sharing? What message do you want to resonate and stay with your viewers? And what action do you want your viewers to take after watching?

Your "why" should match up perfectly with your brand's values and goals, and speak directly to the people you're trying to reach.

A shining example is Another Birthday—one of many successful short branded documentaries produced by Apple. This 4-min film tenderly explores portraits of various people celebrating "another birthday" with family and friends. The "why?" Each person featured in this short documentary has faced a different life-threatening circumstance and subsequently received live-saving help from Apple's iPhone + Watch technology.

The film serves a very clear purpose—to remind us that Apple's technology helps us cherish life's most important things.

Here are some additional tips for getting clear on your "why" and what you want to say:

  • Brainstorm with your team. Get input on what stories would be most impactful and relevant to your brand.

  • Set clear objectives. What do you want to achieve with this short brand documentary? Do you want to raise brand awareness, change perceptions, or drive sales?

  • Develop a strong creative brief. This will help focus your ideas and ensure stakeholders are aligned before diving into the production process.

Once you have a clear understanding of your "why" and what you want to say, you'll want to more thoroughly consider your target audience.

2. Identify & Understand Your Target Audience

Crafting short branded documentaries that truly resonate requires a deep understanding of your target audience. Who are you trying to reach? What are their interests and values? Once you have a clear picture of your audience, you can tailor your documentary to connect with them on a deeper level.

Consider conducting market research, analyzing customer data, or even creating audience personas to gain valuable insights into your target demographic. This information will help you shape your story, choose the right tone and style, and ultimately craft short branded documentaries that speak directly to your target audience's hearts and minds.

Remember, a branded documentary is not just about promoting your product or service; it's about telling a story that your audience will connect with and remember. By understanding your audience and crafting narratives that resonate with their values and aspirations, you can create powerful branded documentaries that deliver impact.

In The Story of Air Max: 90 to 2090, it's clear Nike has a thorough understanding of their target audience for this short brand documentary. The interviews feature people in-the-know—from collectors and fans to Nike employees. The product cinematography speaks to sneaker culture's admiration of this iconic invention. The graphic style connects with historic cultural moments. And the story dives deep into the ethos and significance surrounding Nike Air Max's history and evolution.

Modern audiences have high standards and a ton of options, so be sure to do your homework on who your audience is and what might resonate with and delight them.

3. Secure Access to Compelling Subjects & Locations

Any documentary is only as powerful as its access. Without captivating subjects and evocative locations confirmed for the project, you may have difficulty getting your story off the ground in a meaningful way.

Early in the planning process, prioritize securing access to individuals whose stories align with your brand's message and resonate with your target audience. Look for people who embody your brand's values, can authentically articulate their experiences, and are willing to publicly share their stories. With documentary production, there's a massive difference between saying "We're imagining telling [x]'s story about [y]" and saying "We've confirmed that [x] has upcoming availability and is on board with our approach to filming their story about [y]."

Equally important is access to locations that visually enhance the narrative of your short branded documentary. When you're shooting in places where you have more control (e.g. sit-down interviews), scout locations that are aesthetically relevant and account for logistics like light conditions, power supply, crew accessibility, and noise levels. Well-chosen locations can add depth and context to your short documentary, making it more engaging and resonant.

In the case of this short branded documentary example, The Body Follows the Mind with Taylor Knox, Vuori utilized a connection they already had with Taylor Knox—a beloved professional surfer and Vuori Collaborator—and filmed the story across relevant locations near their coastal headquarters in Carlsbad, California.

4. Develop Your Story & Meticulously Plan the Shoot

With a clear objective, an understanding of your target audience, and confirmed access to subjects and locations, you're ready to dig deeper into your story, which will also inform the ways you meticulously plan your documentary shoot.

To start, identify your short branded documentary's central conflict—the unique tension, challenge, or obstacle that the subject(s) in your story must take action to navigate or overcome. This conflict can be a personal struggle, a specific challenge, and/or a broader societal dilemma.

Now consider the most effective ways to explore this story. Will interviews provide the framing of your story and motivate the subsequent b-roll and verité footage of key moments or events? Will your short branded documentary explore the history of [x] or [y]? If so, consider whether archival footage, stills, motion graphics, or voiceovers might be important tools for crafting the story.

Conduct research about your subject(s). This should include pre-interviews with them to learn about their history, perspectives, motivations, and potential narrative threads related to the story you're exploring. Pre-interviews will significantly improve your approach to sit-down interviews, which are often the cornerstones of short brand documentaries.

Based on your research and pre-interviews, start to plot out possible "scenes". What you discovery in pre-production can motivate and shape what you decide to film, as well as how you decide to film it. During a pre-interview, does the subject focus on an important upcoming moment or event? If so, you'll likely want to plan specific b-roll and verité footage of that "scene".

Parallel to crafting your short branded documentary's creative approach, consider the realities of your budget and schedule. Create a detailed budget that accounts for all potential expenses, including pre-production planning and preparation, location fees & permits, equipment rentals, crew labor, and post-production costs. With a budget drafted, you can revisit your list of "scenes" and begin to make concrete decisions about must-have "scenes" vs. "scenes" you can cut. As you decide on must-haves, be strategic about scheduling. The more shoot days, the higher the costs. Are there ways to consolidate your shooting schedule in order to reduce costs?

Proper budgeting and scheduling not only keep your production on track financially but also help in managing resources efficiently, ensuring that the project stays within scope and meets deadlines.

By meticulously planning both creative and logistics, you can maximize the potential of your story while avoiding common pitfalls that can disrupt the documentary production process.

Arc'teryx Presents: The Pass—produced by Well Travelled Collective—is a fantastic example of the magic that happens when you frame your story and meticulously plan the shoot for your short branded documentary.

5. Hire the Right Size Production Team

The size of your production crew can significantly impact the quality and efficiency of your short branded documentary. A larger crew can provide more opportunity and expertise, allowing you to capture a wider range of shots and perspectives. However, a smaller crew can sometimes foster a more intimate and comfortable environment for your subjects, leading to more authentic and unguarded interviews. Additionally, a smaller crew can be more nimble and adaptable, allowing you to access locations or situations that might be challenging (or inaccessible) for a larger team.

Good Pictures provided a 6-person crew and produced this short branded documentary, Drive by Curiosity: The Lanny Smoot Story, about a Disney Imagineer recently inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

If you're looking to hire a production team for your short documentary, Good Pictures can help. We're a documentary production company that has produced projects with clients including Disney, Samsung, and UCLA. View some of our documentary work and contact us to get started.

6. Prioritize the Subject & Story, Not the Brand

While it can be tempting to turn your short branded documentary into a blatant advertisement, resist the urge. Viewers are savvy and can easily detect when they're being sold to. Instead, focus on telling a compelling story that has inherent value and organically incorporates your brand's values and message. Let the story take center stage, and the brand will naturally shine through.

A great example of this is YETI Presents | The Ballad of Pecos Hank. This short branded documentary follows the journey of Pecos Hank—a songwriter, musician, and storm chaser.

A viewer of this short brand documentary left the following YouTube comment:

Sponsored by yeti, expected more product placement, got amazing mini documentary on one of the best storm chasers out there. Thank you yeti, major respect for this.

The nearly 2,000 "likes" on the above comment indicate that many other viewers share this sentiment. The result is a win-win—viewers receive a great story about an fascinating person, and YETI receives significant brand awareness and positive brand perception.

Through the various short brand documentaries they produce, YETI consistently does a fantastic job prioritizing subjects and story over promoting their own brand. Even the thumbnail, devoid of the YETI logo, prioritizes subject and story with its text: "THE BALLAD OF PECOS HANK".

Yeti does strategically prioritize their brand in a couple key places:

  • The video title, which starts with "YETI Presents"

  • The opening titles at 00:03, which also start with "YETI PRESENTS"

  • The closing end card at 12:06, which presents the YETI logo and links to related branded stories

7. Commit to a Perspective & Style

Short brand documentaries provide a chance to say something meaningful and stand out from the crowd, so avoid the temptation to simply mimic what's been done before. Commit to a unique perspective and style that reflects your brand's personality and sets you apart from other brand documentaries out there.

Your brand has a voice—a way of seeing the world. Your documentary should echo that voice, that perspective. It's not just about the story you tell, but how you tell it.

Maybe your brand is quirky and playful. In that case, your documentary could embrace a lighthearted tone, with playful editing and a whimsical soundtrack. Or perhaps your brand is more serious and thoughtful. Your documentary might adopt a more contemplative style, with longer shots, thoughtful interviews, and a subdued score.

Consider these elements when defining your short branded documentary's perspective and style:

  • Interview Questions: Ask questions that elicit unique and insightful responses from your subjects. Don't be afraid to ask unexpected questions that reveal hidden aspects of their stories.

  • Cinematography: Experiment with different camera angles, movements, and framing to create a visual style that's distinctly yours. Think about how the visuals can punctuate your perspective.

  • Music: Choose music that complements your brand's personality and the mood of your documentary.

  • Editing: Use editing to draw viewers' attention to specific lines and moments. Editing can also be used to create specific connections between ideas, contributing to your perspective on the story.

The short branded documentary Ball People | GQ Sports does an excellent job finding a voice that complements GQ Sports' intelligent-yet-witty, contemporary brand. There's a playfulness in the tone—an intellectual self-awareness that has fun with the story while sincerely connecting to documentary's subjects. Notably, the directing choices, music score, cinematography, and editing all contribute to a distinctive perspective and style that supports the GQ Sports brand voice.

8. Shoot More Than You Think You'll Need

In the world of documentary filmmaking, serendipity is your friend. Real life rarely unfolds according to plan. As much as it's important to meticulously plan for the shoot, it's the unscripted and spontaneous moments that often hold the most captivating footage. To capture these golden nuggets, it's important to keep cameras rolling.

Think of it like fishing: you strategically go to certain areas at certain times and cast a relatively wide net, not knowing what you might catch. Similarly, by filming extensively, you increase your chances of capturing those unexpected interactions, raw emotions, and genuine reactions that elevate your short brand documentary from good to fantastic. The wealth of footage allows you the freedom to experiment in post-production (which we'll cover next).

Remember, flexibility is key in documentary filmmaking. By embracing the unpredictable nature of reality and filming generously, you'll hopefully have the raw materials to craft an authentic and engaging story that resonates with your audience.

9. Be Open to Story Changes in Post-Production

Post-production can be where the magic truly happens in a short branded documentary. It's where hours of raw footage transform into a cohesive and compelling narrative. While a meticulously planned shoot is essential, it's equally important to be open to the story's evolution during editing.

Don't be afraid to experiment with different narrative structures, pacing, and music choices. Trust your instincts and let the footage guide you.

Think of the editing process as a "final re-write." Meaning, you:

  1. "write" (through planning) an initial approach to your story

  2. "re-write" your story through what you film and how you film it

  3. "re-write" your story again through your editing decisions around shaping the story's content, tone, and rhythm.

Remain focused on "why" & what you want to say, while also trusting the editorial power of the post-production process. Don't be afraid to make bold decisions in response to what you filmed (or were unable to film). While considering ways it's possible to shape the story in post-production, it's important to mention a couple inherent ethical responsibilities of documentary storytelling:

  • respect your subjects, and treat them as you would like to be treated

  • respect your audience, by ensuring that you're not betraying their assumptions about the truth of what you're communicating to them

Bonus Tip: Find a Story That's Inherently Visual

Focusing on a story that's inherently visual can improve the production and final outcome of your short branded documentary.

For example, a short documentary about data privacy may prove difficult—and perhaps quite expensive—to produce, because of the abstract and technically complex nature of the subject matter. Live action footage may be partially or wholly insufficient, requiring heavy reliance on design, illustration, and animation to adequately present largely abstract concepts.

Whereas, a short branded documentary about the race for different companies to design, manufacture, and distribute the world's best GPU hardware lends to a more concrete and visual story. With the right access, the latter provides opportunities to film people prototyping designs, lively manufacturing facilities, and various transportation processes in action.

By seeking out stories with a strong visual component, you can create more captivating and engaging short branded documentaries that connect more deeply with your audience.

Bonus Tip: Let the Story Guide the Length

According to the Academy Awards, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a short documentary can technically run up to 40 minutes in length.

That said, there's no one-size-fits-all for the ideal length of short documentaries. Instead, let the story itself dictate how long the film needs to be. Some stories can be effectively told in just a few minutes, while others may require more time to fully develop the narrative and deliver emotional impact.

Consider setting a general target runtime range for budgeting and scheduling purposes, but don't force your story into a predetermined exact runtime. Instead, focus on crafting a concise and engaging narrative that leaves a lasting impression on your audience. If your story naturally unfolds within a shorter timeframe, embrace that. But if it requires a bit more time to fully develop, let it breathe.

Ultimately, the length of a short branded documentary should serve the story, not the other way around. Focus on crafting a well-paced, engaging narrative that leaves a lasting impact on your audience, regardless of its duration.

A Close Relative of Short Brand Documentaries

In certain cases, you might be looking for a way to tell an impactful story that resonates emotionally with your audience but doesn't necessarily fit into the short branded documentary format. For example, many brands have successfully leveraged the power of PSAs & social impact campaigns to drive awareness around their mission and values. If you're interested in exploring the benefits of producing an effective PSA, read this article, which outlines 10 PSA examples and evaluates their efficacy.

Ready to Produce Your Short Branded Documentary?

If you're looking for a full-service documentary production company, check out Good Pictures' work and schedule a free 30-min call with a producer.

Based in Los Angeles, Good Pictures is a documentary production company specializing in crafting dynamic stories that resonate with diverse audiences and drive impact. Good Pictures' clients include Samsung, Disney, and UCLA. Contact Good Pictures today to discuss your next documentary project.

bottom of page