How Google and Cisco's Remarkable Documentary Treats Branded Content Differently

Is their D-Day story an outlier, or the future of the format?

In January, the Brand Storytelling event at the Sundance Film Festival screened a documentary that featured an intriguing mix of collaborators: a Fortune 500 company, a team of YouTube creators, and two groups of veterans who had honored the 75th anniversary of D-Day in remarkable fashion the previous summer—and gotten the experience on film.

The 40-minute doc, titled Here Am I, Send Me, tells the story of Team Goldstar and Team Freedom, two groups of U.S. Army veterans who had decided to parachute into Normandy, France, last June—75 years after the Allies' bloody and heroic seaborne invasion against heavily fortified German positions during World War II. The group included a Gold Star mother, Scoti Domeij, whose son Kristoffer—a celebrated and almost mythic figure in the Army Rangers—was killed in Afghanistan in 2011 while on his 14th combat deployment.

Devin Supertramp—the YouTube influencer channel with 6 million subscribers, led by Devin Graham and Zane O'Gwin and best known for filming extreme stunts, including some for youth-focused consumer brands—shot the film, which was a departure in tone and subject matter for them. And it was all made possible by Cisco, which funded the project without requiring much, if any, creative input. Indeed, Cisco barely promoted its involvement, beyond "Made possible by Cisco" messaging at the beginning and end of the film.

It was a unique recipe for branded content. The respectful, light touch of the sponsor—there's no product placement or Cisco brand narrative at all within the content of the film—makes the emotional storytelling feel authentic. And the Google execs who shepherded the documentary on the brand side at YouTube likewise say it was a rare and special project for them, too.

See the full film, which lives on Devin Supertramp's YouTube channel, here:

Branded Content That's Story First

The project's roots date to October 2018, when Matthew Griffin, aka "Griff," a former Army Ranger who did three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, gave a talk at a Google offsite about the value of tenacity and grit. While there, he happened to mention his hopes for a D-Day anniversary jump. To the execs in Google's U.S. BrandUnit, what Griffin was describing—particularly the parachuting part—felt a lot like YouTube content.

In a matter of days, they got him on the phone with Carter Hogan, then part of the Devin Supertramp collective. (Devin Supertramp was originally the alter ego of a single filmmaker, Devin Graham, but the moniker now comprises several directors.) Google knew the sizable Devin Supertramp audience was interested in both military history and extreme sports like parachute jumping. Griffin's story seemed like a great match, as long as the Devin Supertramp team was willing to tackle more sobering subject matter.

"Is he capable of pulling this off? Can he actually capture this footage? Would he be interested? All those questions came up," Mike Hudson, a creative strategist at Google, tells Muse. "On our end, the pieces came together relatively quickly. Finding the audience insight and connecting a potential creator. It made sense from our standpoint, which shifted our thinking from this being a history documentary for cable TV into thinking this is actually content that would thrive on YouTube."

For the BrandUnit team, it was a different way of working. Normally they start with an advertiser as the client, but in this case, they came to think of Griff as the client. Indeed, the corporate sponsor only came aboard later. 

"Most of the time, our job is to translate an advertiser's message or challenge into 'YouTube speak' for YouTube audiences," says Gary Hoffman, a creative director and content architect in the BrandUnit. "In this case, it was, 'How do we bring this story of sacrifice to life via YouTube in a way that connects with an audience?' The through line was entirely Griff and his team doing something awesome, versus starting with a product feature or brand message."

Griffin, who as a military man had always admired Google's high-performance corporate operations, trusted their gut feeling on Devin Supertramp—and he was immediately on board once he saw the team's previous work.

"The first image they sent me is Devin's people skydiving off a Slip 'N Slide out of the back of a C-130 [Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft]," he says. "I said, 'That's it. That's my guy.' [Devin] is so good that camera manufacturers send him the newest camera to show people what it's capable of doing. We want people that creative on our side."

Less than 24 hours later, they were on a Google Hangout with Graham, chatting about the operation.

The Devin Supertramp team decided Zane O'Gwin would direct the piece and Graham would be the cinematographer. The Google team and the Army veterans both say O'Gwin and Graham had plenty of creative freedom to tell the story in their own way.

"We gave very limited creative direction," says Hoffman. "We tried to give them some guardrails of things we thought were important to hit. Mike [Hudson] had told us some insights about things that perform well as it relates to aviation and historical information. So we gave them some nuggets we thought might be useful. But we are all firm believers in letting the content speak for itself. Our job is to bring together a filmmaker who can tell a story in a really compelling way, and an audience that wants to see it. We feel like we accomplished that."

Griffin—who has appeared in short documentaries before, including one from 2017 titled Adventure Not War, set in Iraq and sponsored by The North Face—also trusted the filmmakers and their creative process. But he did require one specific thing: that everyone on the crew wear Ranger uniforms.

"Most filmmakers that we take on these types of trips, it's usually their first time doing anything of this nature. It's a matter of making them immersed in the experience," Griffin says. "In my team-building experience—the stuff I did in the military, and stuff I've done professionally—the simplest way to do that is with a uniform. The whole production crew feels like they're part of the team. We know they're inherently going to feel the gravity of it, and it will come out in the finished product. And we feel it really did."

Support From Cisco

The film never would have been made without support from Cisco, and that deal came about in an unorthodox way, too. The technology giant wrote a check for several hundred thousand dollars to fund the project, largely thanks to a sole senior executive there who'd taken a personal interest in the story.

Scott Neil, a Green Beret who was part of a second group of veterans to get involved—Neil's team was dubbed Team Freedom, while Griffin's was Team Goldstar—got to know the Cisco exec while fundraising for the project. 

"He said, 'I love the idea. I just want to support you,' " Neil tells Muse about the Cisco exec's motivation. "Out of all the money I've raised and all the nonprofit stuff I've done, this was a genuine effort to see us get to Normandy. It was a nontraditional Cisco alignment. It was to honor the moment in history, and allow a group of friends and Gold Star mothers to be part of it."

"It wasn't for branding. It wasn't for visible recognition," Neil adds. "It was honestly just to support this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some veterans."

Indeed, the Cisco executive remains anonymous, and Cisco itself hasn't sought any publicity around the film beyond the onscreen credits. Nor did the company choose to comment on its involvement in the film to Muse.

This model of branded entertainment—a company financially supporting a film because it believes in the message, not because it's necessarily a opportunity for self-promotion (beyond the halo effect of being associated with an admired product)—isn't the standard one. But it's becoming more common. Dove's support of the Oscar-winning animated short Hair Love, with the brand likewise appearing only in the credits, is another example.

Believers in the model say it's a long-term branding play that can be just as valuable as anything focused on short-term performance, even if it's naturally less measurable at first.

"It's a unique case other brands can learn from," says Hoffman. "It could be very easy for a brand to come in with heavy-handed messages about technology today and all the improvements that have been made since World War II, but they didn't. They let the story come to life the way it deserved to be told."

"They took a long-tail view of the content," adds Hudson. "Let's not focus on short-term objectives for this campaign; let's think of it as something that's going to have a very long shelf life and is going to be very high-quality. The return will come over a longer process. It's a new kind of sponsorship. You're telling a pure story, and the brand plays the role of patron as much as sponsor. Cisco is not intruding on the story, yet they play a role in the beginning and the end. For us, that's very new. It's a different vantage on branded content."

Done right, the brand doesn't get lost at all, the Google execs say.

"We've been having a lot of discussions about the project since it was screened at Sundance," says Hoffman. "I have to say, pretty much every conversation I have involves someone asking about Cisco and praising them for allowing the story to come to life the way it did. Anecdotally, the reception across the industry has been very, very positive."

Metrics Beyond Views

Of course, distribution on YouTube, a public platform that's infinitely more accessible than film festivals, is also a huge bonus of this kind of play.

"It's available globally. It's available anywhere. It's available on demand," says Hudson. "That didn't use to exist, so even the concept of 'Hey, let's sponsor content that's going to be up for a long time' is actually kind of new. How would you access these things before, other than at film festivals or having a tape of it or something? There is no way. It's exciting for us because we can show this to companies and tell them this is something brands are doing now. It's that longer-tail view of the value of a great story." 

"It's about speed to market," adds Griffin. "It's about sharing a link instead of waiting two months for it to come to a film festival. And you're not going to drag a kid to a film festival anyway and have them be excited about sitting at a theater with old people watching documentaries. But if they can sit on the couch with a soda with Dad, and the whole family's having an emotional response to it through a format the kids are excited about—I think that's cool."

As of this writing, Here Am I, Send Me has over 127,000 views on YouTube. To Griffin, that's 127,000 more people who understand the sacrifice made by soldiers like Kris Domeij—and the WWII soldiers who came before him.

"There's so much going on in the veteran community right now, where people are trying to do runs to remember somebody, or do fundraisers. My concern is, the the American public really doesn't care. They'll put a sticker on the back of their car, or they'll say 'Thank you for your service.' But that's where the work stops," says Griffin. 

"To really get them to take a definitive action, they have to feel it. They have to be connected to it. I want people to know who Kris was. He was a transformative human being for the United States Army. What he did changed the face of how the U.S. Army fights counterinsurgency wars. The fact that he was killed in his 14th deployment by a roadside bomb and left behind a wife and three kids—there's 100,000 more people now who know his story than there were before. That's why we wanted to do this [film] at such a high level—we want more people to understand what it takes to do what we do. And if they don't like it, maybe they should take a different action about it so these guys can come home."

Views aren't the only metric, either, particularly for a longer piece of content on YouTube.

"The thing I tend to look at, especially for longer content, is the sentiment around it, and the sentiment is through the roof," Hudson says. "It's universally positive in the comments, and in the ratio of the likes. The praise that's in there is effusive. It clearly emotionally connected with people. We got to see it on the big screen at the festival, but I've also seen it on my laptop, I've seen it on my television, I've seen it on my phone. I was wondering at first, 'Is this going to come through across devices?' But it clearly did."

Griffin couldn't be more thrilled with the way film turned out. He says it raises the bar for veterans' stories across the board, and he has plenty of anecdotal evidence to back that up.

"This film destroyed all expectations I had," he says. "I didn't even know how to respond when I saw the first trailer with the scene where Scoti falls out of the plane. I was leading a hike for a couple of Rangers in the Cascades. We had just gotten off the trail and went to a little burger joint. We're sitting outside on a patio in the middle of summer, and I pulled it up on my phone. And here you have four muscle-bound, heavily tattooed, barrel-chested freedom fighters who are all tearing up at the table in a matter of minutes. To generate that kind of emotional response, from that type of people, who don't do that, is crazy. They did a fantastic job with it. It beat every expectation I could've imagined."

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards and the founding editor of Muse by Clio.

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