'The Naked Brand' Pushes Brands to Be Good Citizens

Documentary From Ad Agency Questus Aims to Educate Clients on Culture and Transparency

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According to some, we can't even be sure that advertising moves product. So the thought that "advertising can save the planet one small step at a time" will likely strike some as a stretch. But that 's one of the driving forces behind "The Naked Brand," a documentary produced by ad agency Questus.

Jeff Rosenblum, co-founder of the agency and co-writer and co-director of the film (along with Sherng-Lee Huang), isn't a moon-eyed naif who becomes teary-eyed over transparency and green initiatives. He's an ad guy and businessman, and he's well aware of the criticism -- some of it valid -- that will be attracted by claims that advertising can save the world.

The point, he said, is that corporations now find themselves in a connected world where advertising can't cover up shoddy products or egregious behavior -- not for very long, at any rate. So they have to approach business in a different way. Businesses can tap into the green movement, Made in America, transparency, culture or a better consumer experience.

Or, as Unilever Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed said in the film, "In the digital world, a brand is judged by what it says but more importantly by what it does. Advertising can introduce a brand to new consumers but ultimately a brand is judged by how it acts."

Mr. Weed is joined by a number of marketing heavyweights. The cast includes Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard; Porter Gale, former CMO of Virgin America; Bonin Bough, former senior director of digital and social media at PepsiCo; Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh; Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank; even Shaquille O'Neal.

None of whom, by the way, is a client of Questus. "We made a concerted decision not to have ourselves or our clients in the film," Mr. Rosenblum said. That was partly because he didn't know how it was going to turn out. Indeed, going into the project, he and his team weren't even looking to make a documentary. They simply wanted to educate clients, something that can be especially "hard for a small agency."

So they set out to make a short video about changing technology and the next generation of advertising. But then it morphed into something bigger.

"A lot of it started with Alex Bogusky," said Mr. Rosenblum, adding that the former CP&B executive had a large part in crafting the film.

The basis of the story is summarized at one point by Mr. Bogusky: "Being a great company is the new brand because there isn't going to be anything between you and the reality of that company."

Two of the major plotlines woven through the story are culture and transparency -- not surprising considered the players involved. In its one-hour running time, "The Naked Brand" does a solid job of making its points and punctuating them with convincing examples, whether it be the behind-the-scenes tour of a Zappos call center or the interviews with Patagonia's Mr. Chouinard. It's hard not to nod along with Mr. Bough's remarks about Pepsi Refresh even though, from our vantage point, we know the company has pulled the plug on it.

And there are two companies mentioned in the film that didn't participate, Apple and Walmart, neither of which immediately jumps to mind when one thinks of good corporate citizenship. Aside from the issues raised in the past year alleging poor labor practices among Apple's manufacturing contractors in China, Apple is one of the least transparent companies around.

Mr. Rosenblum notes that Apple has broadened what we think of as "advertising" to incorporate everything from initial product design to the actual retail environment. But, he pointed out, even that modern take on advertising "isn't enough to cover for bad corporate behavior," noting that in the current media environment Apple didn't have the luxury of just clamming up and wishing away the allegations about contractor FoxConn.

Walmart has its own issues, including a Justice Department probe of alleged bribery on the part of its subsidiary in Mexico. During a post-screening question-and-answer session over the summer, one woman all but demanded to know what in God's name the company was doing in the film. But it can't be denied that one of urban America's favorite, ahem, targets is leading its suppliers by the nose when it comes to wringing packaging, transport and other inefficiencies out of the system. It's something that 's good for Walmart's bottom line and, incidentally, for the environment.

And that 's the point, said Mr. Rosenblum. "It's not like it's a choice, like it's, "We can save the world or make money.' We can do both."

"The Naked Brand" will be screened at Advertising Week in New York, Advertising Week in Washington and a film festival in Las Vegas. In November, it will get a full digital release on iTunes, Hulu, Netflix and other platforms.

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