With the value of advertising under ever-greater scrutiny, the idea of making a brand the subject of its own fly-on-the-wall documentary is increasingly tempting for marketers.
The popularity of business-related programming is running high, thanks to BBC shows such as Dragons' Den and The Apprentice, and broadcasters are growing more amenable to the idea of prime-time shows centred on well-known companies.
Brand-focused programming is nothing new. During the 90s, budget airline easyJet was the subject of docusoap Airline, while a host of businesses, including Burger King, Ann Summers and House of Fraser, took centre-stage in the BBC's management-bashing fly-on-the-wall show Back To The Floor.
This concept was reversed in 2009, when Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King used a Channel 4 show, I'm Running Sainsbury's, to promote shop-floor workers to managerial positions. Now, Middle England's favourite retailer, John Lewis, is the subject of a three-part documentary currently running on BBC2.
Floundering roadside restaurant chain Little Chef also recently opened its doors to the TV cameras for Channel 4's Big Chef Takes on Little Chef series, which showed celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal revamping the brand's outlet in Popham, Hampshire.
C4 is to revisit the concept later in the year, with several renowned UK brands, including British Airways and Butlins set to receive the benefit of Blumenthal's culinary wisdom (Marketing, 10 March).
Mark Eaves, managing director at Drum, PHD's branded-content division, says content-producers are more aware of the importance of brands in everyday life, while brand owners are keen to appear open and honest.
'Among programme-makers there has been a move to become more interested in the world of brands,' he says. 'Of course, brands will be cautious of stitch-up jobs, but that kind of programme has become very hackneyed.'
Nonetheless, the dangers of such shows for marketers were spelled out by the portrayal of Little Chef chief executive Ian Pegler in Big Chef Takes on Little Chef. In particular, he faced the accusation that he was using Blumenthal's intervention as a glorified publicity stunt and had no intention of replicating the resulting format across the chain.
Little Chef marketing director Cathy Stevenson says the documentary had a hugely positive impact on the brand, but admits it was not without difficulty.
'What you perceive and the programme-maker's view are not necessarily the same, so you have to be confident that the programme will be fair,' she says. 'For us, it gave a great platform to communicate our brand changes.'
Stevenson believes any marketer considering inviting in the cameras should maintain an open mind, but warns production companies may twist situations to make a show more watchable.
'From an editorial point of view, the only thing you can influence is where you allow them to film and who you allow them to talk to', she adds. 'You've got to believe that the outcome will be positive, and if you're not confident then it is a risk not worth taking.'
No substitute for marketing
John Lewis director of marketing Craig Inglis advises against thinking of such a programme as a marketing exercise.
'You can't rehearse it, you have no control over the edit,' he says. 'I expressed my concerns to the production team and they reassured me, but a word of warning to anyone doing (a documentary) for misplaced reasons - it is not a replacement for marketing plans.'
Inglis adds: 'In our case, we had to put our trust in the people in the business to cope with the inevitable sticky moments, and we were confident that people would do the right thing.'
Mike Parker, head of strategic sales at Channel 4, takes the view that not every brand is suited to the warts-and-all style of a TV documentary. 'Little Chef's reputation was so low that it had nothing to lose, but then again a show like Airline only ever reminds me of how awful I think easyJet is,' he says.
'It is a gamble marketers take with brand awareness. With an ad you have complete control over the message, but with (this kind of) content, there are massive risks.'
In all likelihood, at least one individual or aspect of the brand will be sent up by programme-makers keen to retain viewers' attention. For marketers, it is a question of weighing up whether 30 or 60 minutes of uninterrupted exposure is worth the inevitable moments of ridicule.
How to star on TV
Top five tips for marketers tempted by TV programming
1. Don't have a game plan. The programme is likely to turn out differently from your expectations.
2. Know your brand values. Is your brand right for a warts-and-all inspection?
3. Be prepared. The editing may throw up some unpleasant surprises.
4. Get ready for criticism. Prepare your PR team for potentially sticky moments.
5. Do not treat it as a replacement for ads. The show should accompany, not replace, advertising plans.