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  Brands Go Beyond Product Placement   Brands Go Beyond Product Placement  Edwin Colyer  
Brands Go Beyond Product Placement Perhaps BMW is best associated with film for its product placement coups. (Remember when James Bond traded in his Aston Martin for a BMW Z3 in "GoldenEye"?) But the carmaker has a long-standing relationship with the film industry in Hollywood and around the world.

"BMW AG works very closely with the film industry," confirms Jörg Schweizer, manager for product placement and AV media of BMW Group. "For 20 years we have had specialists in our company to work in this area. This is not just press relations, but more and more time is being spent on forming direct relationships with the entertainment business."

BMW's involvement goes far beyond simple sponsorship packages—it is working right at the grassroots of the film industry. At the Munich International Film Festival, for instance, BMW, a long-term festival partner, is heading up a short film award. In the in the Annual Multimedia 2004 Yearbook, Dr. Wolfgang Armbrecht, BMW marketing director for Germany, explained the company’s reasoning behind supporting short films: "Because they are forced to focus and free to experiment, short films strike us as especially innovative and worthy of support." That is hardly the kind of ROI calculation that most boards call for to justify €100,000 of prize money (US$ 125K).

Indeed, serious involvement in the film world is undoubtedly an expensive proposition. It is unlikely to provide much in terms of "free advertising" opportunities, nor directly translate into increased sales. For instance, BMW supported the release of the Germany-produced epic "Luther" (a portrayal of the life of Martin Luther). Set in 1517, there was no chance of any sort of product placement. Instead, BMW provided a fleet of VIP cars for the premiere; it’s possible no one even noticed.

Perhaps BMW's most innovative foray into the film world was its short film project called "The Hire." This effort was not just supporting the film industry; it was actually about making films. "The idea for this offensive..." explains Schweizer, "stems from BMW's American subsidiary, which until then had had only experience with advertising films and traditional production placement. The aim was not simply to create conventional advertising films, but entertaining short films of high artistic value containing subtle information."

The first season of five films was released on the Internet in 2001, followed by three thrillers in 2002. "The number of viewers attracted by this project took everybody by surprise," says Schweizer. "To date, more than 50 million people have watched the films."

The success of "The Hire" was undoubtedly helped by BMW signing up some of Hollywood's biggest directors including John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie (with Madonna taking the starring role). The fact that these directors were willing to take BMW's commission indicates how the carmaker is viewed in film circles (or alternatively, how desperate directors are).

These films were not about getting sales but building up the brand. "BMW is a leader in terms of quality and innovations and this film project forms part of this tradition," explained Steve Golin, who acted as BMW's Hollywood intermediary, in the 2004 Yearbook. Tom Purves, the president of BMW of North America, quoted in the same article also recognized that "The Hire" was about BMW behaving "on brand," perfectly embodying the spirit of BMW (Annual Multimedia, 2004 Yearbook, Metropolitan Press).

Of course, BMW isn't the only company to have a passion for cinema. In Europe and the UK, Stella Artois is arguably the champion of film. The brand first got involved in cinema ten years ago and its relationship has blossomed from there.

"Ten years ago film was an undervalued medium," explains Kevin McQuillan, sponsorship manager for Interbrew UK (Stella’s parent company), referring to the advertising potential of the medium, presumably not the customer experience. "Cinema advertising wasn't really used to its full potential and the majority of ads you would get would be for local businesses. Today, however, you find that the ads on TV are often edited down versions of feature length ads produced for cinema.

"In the 1990s we made a series of ads in a cinematic style," McQuillan continues. "At the time, it was not a conscious decision to get involved in the film industry, but we wanted to portray our brand in a different light. We took a higher moral ground. Our ads had a plot and storyline. We wanted to get across quality cues of the Stella Artois brand, so we made advertising that has a quality film feel; these were viewed by consumers as short films, which set the ads apart from other beer brands."

Following the success of these ads, Stella Artois in the UK realized that film was a good fit with its brand. In 1995 it developed a wider reaching film strategy. First, it signed a groundbreaking sponsorship deal with British television network Channel 4. "This wasn't sponsorship of particular films, or the evening film slot," explains McQuillan. "It was the sponsorship of an entire genre. Other sponsored TV programs are generally short-lived, but we didn't want the Stella brand to be fly-by-name. Sponsoring all films on Channel 4 positioned us as a premium brand and showed we had commitment."

Stella also inaugurated its Stella Artois Screen Tour. The original idea was to give as many people as possible the opportunity to come and watch films in outside locations, such as Brighton Beach. Over the years the tour has developed to include a mix of mass screenings and smaller more intimate events stage in appropriate locations. For instance "To Kill a Mocking Bird" screened in Nottingham's Galleries of Justice, "The Truman Show" in Belfast’s UTV Studios, and "Interview with a Vampire" in a church in Scotland.

Other initiatives of Stella Artois including a short film competition, called Certificate 18, are set up as a platform to showcase new talent. While After Dark is described as "an eclectic evening inspired by future cinema, bringing together cutting edge film, music and art to deliver a unique multi-media experience."

In most of these initiatives the ROI is extremely difficult to measure. Still Stella has no qualms about its investment. "We are not doing this to purely to sell more beer, but to build up the brand and the association between our brand and film," explains McQuillan. "The return for us is recognition by consumers of what Stella does for cinema. In this day and age, it is important to show that we do sponsorship and events like these not just for commercial reasons."

If recognition is what McQuillan wants, then he should be pleased with the company's latest consumer research findings. "We continue to have the highest unprompted recall in the UK of any brand associated with film," he says.

But perhaps there may be an indirect return too. Over the ten years that Stella has been involved with film, volume and value sales have increased dramatically. "Stella is now the Number One take-home beer in the UK, and we are currently Number Three in on-trade sales," reports McQuillan. "For a premium brand, that is astonishing."

Premium brands partner neatly with film. They both share similar characteristics: high quality, challenging and crafted. Yet the advantage of associating with film is that you get your premium brand in front of a mass market. Everyone loves a good film, and the chances are they'll love a brand that shares their passion.    



Edwin Colyer is a science and technology writer based in Manchester, UK.

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