Advice for brands that want to be movie stars

Content marketing in the medium of film has evolved from random product placement, according to speakers at a recent GroupM event.

A scene from Dangal
A scene from Dangal

At 'Blazing New Paths to a Content Ecosystem', A GroupM-sponsored event in Shanghai last week, the Bollywood hit Dangal, starring Aamir Khan, was a frequent talking point. The biopic on an Indian father training his daughters to be wrestlers has become the highest-grossing non-Hollywood film in China, raking in close to $150 million at the box office since its release in early May.

Previous foreign films that have done well in China have typically fallen into the mainstream sci-fi, animation and action genres. So Dangal’s commercial success shows that the appetite of Chinese cinemagoers extends to biopics and people-focussed stories, said Karen Cao, chairman of Road Pictures, a film investment and branded-content marketing firm with offices in China and Los Angeles.

"The audiences are seeking something in common with the real-life characters in the movies," she said. "In Dangal, the moviegoers are deeply moved by the blood, sweat and tears experienced by the characters. The movie has fulfilled the emotional needs of the audience, and so its popularity is not entirely unexpected."   

As audiences form deeper emotional attachments with films, content marketing will naturally resonate better with consumers. After all, brands such as Aston Martin and Martini are as integral to the 007 series as the exploits of the British spy itself. Heineiken famously invested heavily into the 2013 release Skyfall, reportedly covering one third of the film's budget.

"Unlike TV dramas, what is so unique about movie as a medium is the seamless way with which we can integrate the story of the brand into the narrative, leaving a more lasting impact on the audience,” said Frank Zhu, CEO, Oriental Dreamworks. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the reach of widescreen releases is a few times smaller than digital and TV dramas, not to mention that the campaign timeframe is limited by the movie’s screening period, given that most movies play for one to two months in theatres, at most.

On this aspect, Zhu said advertisers and entertainment executives can learn a thing or two from Hollywood by running campaigns for movies three to six months before their release date and maintaining the hype several months after that. “Rather than just placing products in the films, brands should work more closely with the studios in promoting the films," Zhu said. "This is something widely seen in Hollywood films.”

(L-R) Frank Zhu and Karen Cao

While brands and filmmakers may not always see eye-to-eye, Lan Ruilong, vice president of Dirty Monkey Films, remarked that the industry welcomes the initiative demonstrated by brands to be more hands-on in content of the film (think The Lego Movie).

“Of course, brands have their own ideas on how they should be seen in the films, and we are very keen to work with them in the early stages of the development of the film to come up with the content and tone desired by both parties,” said Lan. Speaking to Campaign Asia-Pacific, Lan agreed that unlike other more direct marketing approach, brands cannot always measure the ROI of their spending in films.

“As a whole, the main function of content marketing is to create brand awareness among the audience. Brands are smart enough to know that film is just one of the channels available,” he said.

“However, films could also help brands to reach their segmented audience effectively. Luxury brands would do well to market with art house films, for example, rather than putting themselves on a mass platform,” he said.

Still, Jiji Huang, general manager of Fantasy Film, stressed that filmmakers have to put their foot down and say ‘no’ to brands if their demands go against the very concept of the film.

“When Red Bull wanted the actors in The Lost Tomb (online Chinese drama) to open cans of their drink after a tomb-raiding scene, we felt that it was just not possible to accommodate their demand in the script, because we felt that tomb raiding was a heart-stopping action," Huang said. "It didn’t feel right to have the characters enjoying a cool drink in the darkness of the cemetery after their adventure. The colours of the cans would also stand out glaringly in the overall colour scheme of the set.”

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