Narratives and Commerce

The Austin Chronicle has published a profile of Flow Nonfiction, an innovative creative agency started by my old friend David Modigliani:


According to Modigliani, the idea for branded documentaries came about in response to two very significant trends in the way we deal with media and the way we consume goods. The first is that we now live in a world where, as he tells me, “we’re not captive audiences anymore. We all seek out content. Companies have to connect with the public and their consumers in new and different ways. They’re seeing a return by purveying content of their own and creating their own proprietary distribution platforms.”

Secondly, study after study has shown that consumers today want to purchase products from companies that engage in acts of philanthropy and whose business practices are consistent with certain vague notions of environmental sustainability, workers’ rights, and other social motivations. Consumers no longer just want to purchase goods; they want to buy into a lifestyle and a whole philosophy of global citizenship. And corporations know this. In its fourth annual global consumer survey, released last year, independent public relations firm Edelman claimed that 62% of consumers worldwide would switch brands if a different brand of similar quality “supported a good cause.” Good global citizenship, in other words, is good business. And to the owners at Flow, the best way to show that your company is engaged in acts of corporate social responsibility is to tell the story of those acts. And the best way is a documentary because it allows for a level of emotional engagement with audiences (consumers) more traditional advertising techniques can’t hope to touch.

I tend to be somewhat skeptical about corporate philanthropy, as it smacks of managers taking advantage of their position at the expense of shareholders with limited voice. Yet I also think it’s true that for consumer brands, CSR may well be a crucial part of securing the loyalty of fickle consumers. Virtually all consumer brands are selling a narrative, and Flow is helping them do that.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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