Branded a success: how to make television a winning part of your content strategy

Being on television can boost a brand’s reputation, as well as sales and profits, but opening your doors to film crews is not a decision to take lightly

When the programme commissioners at Sky landed upon Greggs they hit TV gold. And the bakers hit the big time.

Before Greggs: More Than Meets the Pie was shown by Sky in 2013, the bakery chain reported falling sales and pre-tax profits. A year later, sales were rising and pre-tax profit had jumped 41 per cent. Of course, not all that can be attributed to the TV series, which attracted up to 1.27m viewers per episode, but it certainly helped.

Greggs is just one of many companies, including hauliers Eddie Stobart, London department store Liberty, the easyJet airline, Royal Opera House and Liverpool Football Club, which have opened their doors to the cameras.

These access documentaries are hugely popular with commissioners as the mistakes and triumphs that affect all businesses unfold in front of viewers. They do so with a spectacular intimacy, which helps rack up the ratings. As Greggs’ experience shows, this can be endearing to the audience, burnish the brand and boost sales. But is it for everyone?

Handing over control

According to Jane Gerber, co-founder and chief executive of Peanut & Crumb, a production company with eight years’ experience of making access films for the likes of the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and Sky, brands that carefully manage their image might not be able to stomach the lack of editorial control.

“Access TV is paid for by the broadcaster, so they are the ones who decide what gets seen, not the brand. The cameras really do get to film warts and all and the editors will pick the bits they think make the best storylines, which might not always feel that edifying.”

Having said that, boundaries can be outlined at the beginning and clauses in the contract can stipulate anything that can’t be shown. The subjects also get the opportunity to fact check.

The lack of control isn’t the only thing worth considering before signing up. There’s what Gerber calls “managed disruption” caused by filming, which can go on for many months. And brands should ideally have enough resources in-house to dedicate some to liaise with the production company. This should probably include marketing and communications people who can keep management up-to-date with progress. And even if you can tick all those boxes, your story might not be right for the telly.

Plugging into the zeitgeist

To get the attention of a production company, let alone be commissioned, the brand has to have the right story to tell. The films must touch the viewer and plug into the zeitgeist – which isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Gerber mentions Channel 5’s Paddington Station 24/7 about life inside the London station, which averaged 1.3m viewers per episode for its first series. She points out that while we’ve all been delayed by points failures, suffered from leaves on the track and moaned to fellow passengers about bus replacement services, we might not have given that much thought to the people whose job it is to sort out the messed up timetables, book the buses, keep the tracks clean and the points in order – the stars of the programmes.

“The series put out a message ‘bear with us, we’re human too and we’re trying hard in difficult circumstances’. And the public understood,” she says. Her company is currently working on projects for a company in the food industry, another in the arts and some charities. “They all fit the bill in different ways,” she says.

Commissioners also like a peg – perhaps an anniversary, or a link with royalty, the Olympics or some such – and will be looking for something that they might be able to return to for a second series if successful.

Choosing the right partner

Still think your company has what it takes? Then it’s time to get serious. Critical to success is finding a compatible production company, advises Gerber. “If you think your brand could be the subject of a series, look for production companies that have done programmes you like and talk to them. They’ll be able to tell you whether your idea has legs. And if they think your brand has got what it takes and are keen to go ahead, give it more thought to make sure you want to commit,” she says.

Once you’ve got a production company on side, it’s time to set up a core in-house team that will work with it. They will be the central point of contact, help hone the idea and provide addition information and insight and keep management in the loop.

Next comes working out which broadcaster is best suited to the story. Gerber says the BBC typically wants access to the C-suite and will drill down on what is happening at the top to show how it affects the rest of the organisation. Channel 5, on the other hand, focuses on frontline staff and has a more populist angle.

If a broadcaster likes the idea, expect another couple of months’ work spent refining it before it actually gets the green light. It’s at this point that you sort out access agreements between the production company and the brand. This is when the brand sets out who and what can be filmed and gets peripheral players’ permission. These might include customers and suppliers, even the families of staff.

Taking shape

Next comes pre-production with more research, which is when the storylines are clearly defined and each episode takes shape. All this takes months, during which you’re having to cope with Gerber’s “managed disruption”, when the production company and then camera crews will want access. You should also build in contingency in terms of time and people because schedules can slip, despite everyone’s best efforts.

Finally, it’s editing – about five weeks per episode. And then it’s show time.

Smart marketing departments will piggyback the broadcasts, often gaining print media attention that will augment the programme’s reach. But don’t worry if the experience isn’t already there in-house – it can be hired in.

Boosting reach

Abid Ali, who used to work at as the European business editor and is currently economics editor at Al Jazeera, gives the example of an international business network where he worked on the online content for its marketing and advertising programme. It set a target for the amount of views it wanted for its interviews featuring industry executives and personalities within six months – and achieved it within three. He attributes much of that success to the media support the programmes received from an in-house freelancer, who wrote colour pieces with enticing headlines about each episode as well as tying them into wider industry trends, ramping up interest across other media.

It’s this kind of success that makes access TV something worth thinking about. Another option is sponsoring shows or content related to your industry – and neither are just for commercial brands. Ali has worked with oil companies trying to present their green credentials, Middle Eastern countries wanting to show they’re open for business and draw in investment, and brands wanting to elevate themselves to luxury status by association with elite sports.

“CNN was really pushing the boundaries in early 2000 with sponsorship and programming. The most successful campaign has got to be Malaysia raising its profile as a travel destination. The Malaysia, Truly Asia campaign was so good it is still with me 15 years on,” he says.

It’s this ability to connect with the audience that is so powerful – something that cannot necessarily be achieved with a 30-second advert or a 2,000-word article in a magazine.

Says Gerber: “You can’t underestimate the power of a TV series. They can get everyone talking about them at the water cooler, down the pub and on social media. They get your brand talked about in ways you could never achieve with other forms of media.”

Pay to play

Some brands may love the idea of being on the small screen, but really can’t imagine giving up editorial control. If that’s the case, there are broadcast platforms, such as BBC Worldwide, that take paid-for programmes.

Alternatively, brands can commission production companies to make vlogs or podcasts about them – landmark Knightsbridge retailer Harrods has recently done just this. But in each case, these outlets are unlikely to deliver the same level of exposure as a broadcaster-funded access film.

“You’ve got to think about where your audience will come from. Yes, you might get an audience by posting online, but it’s unlikely to reach the millions you can with TV,” cautions Gerber.

If this sounds more comfortable, you’ll need deep pockets. There’s so much content out there, yours will need the high production values delivered by a professional, experienced production company to stand any chance of being noticed. This doesn’t come cheap – the BBC quotes £10,000 to £500,000 for an hour of factual television.

For this price, you’ll retain editorial control, meaning you get to dictate exactly what is shown. But be prepared to take advice on what makes a good storyline. The professionals should know their business and stop ideas that won’t catch the viewers’ imaginations and suggest others that will. Other than that, the process is the same as for traditional open access TV.

As Gerber says: “If you’re going to do it, do it properly with the professionals or it will be a bad experience, wasting time and money.”