There are two schools of thought when it comes to embarking on a major piece of brand communications.
In the first approach the marketing team do their research, segment their market, pick out the appropriate target segment and then examine the attitudes and all-important purchase funnel of the target consumers. From that analysis the marketing team are in a great position to identify what they want to communicate, who they want to talk to and what their clear objectives are for the year ahead. They brief these insights into their partner agencies who then work their creative magic to find appropriate tactical ideas to deliver the strategy.
In the other school of thought, a marketing team don’t fancy all of that hard work but do notice that there is a big event/movie/competition coming in a few months. They pay a small fortune to become the official partner of the aforementioned cultural happening. Then they focus all their communications efforts on associating their brand with their new commercial partner – irrespective of how ludicrous or pointless the ultimate output of that association might be.
Some of my all-time favourite stupid brand partnerships have included the following (and I am not making these up). Seat as the official car brand for “Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides” (above). McDonald’s as one of the official sponsors of the Beijing Olympics – because nothing says China or sporting excellence better than a Big Mac and large fries. And who can forget the marketing genius behind Double A paper – the official photocopying paper of “Transformers – Dark of the Moon” (below).
There are innumerable problems with this kind of crap marketing other than that it leads to bafflingly stupid creative executions. First, becoming an official partner allows a brand manager to default on their strategic responsibilities and skip straight to the tactical bit – thereby missing out on the all-important job of working through the who, what and why behind the brand’s current situation. Second, having spent a huge sum on the partnership the brand has to commit most, if not all, of its total annual budget to its promotion with massive opportunity costs for the other, probably more effective, communications tactics that were shelved as a result. The partner event or vehicle is also usually a very ephemeral affair which, in contrast to the stringent annual demands of the market, lasts for barely a few weeks at best.
Worst of all, either the cultural event is a huge flop – in which case your brand fades along with the failed event, or it’s a massive hit and your brand and the 100 other partners who also signed “exclusive” contracts are lost in its shadow. Your brand literally cannot win.
I say all this because we are a mere month away from the launch of the new Star Wars movie – ‘The Force Awakens’. I am lucky enough to be 44 years old, which means back in 1977 my Dad (very begrudgingly, I might add) took me to see the original Star Wars film and it is my earliest memory of cinema. Back then, the only brands featured in the film were Mos Eisley and its chain of alluring entertainment venues, and The Empire (brand purpose: “To dominate the Universe in black”).
Forty years and six movies later, the latest instalment of Star Wars promises a very different array of brand connections. Big-name companies have been climbing over each other to blow their budgets on highly specious branding arrangements with the new movie.
You can now enjoy various ridiculous Star Wars-associated paraphernalia including Star Wars nail varnish, Storm trooper-themed Dodge motor vehicles, a Star Wars-themed Google calendar app, an HP ‘dark side’ laptop and, of course, Star Wars macaroni and cheese.
Given that the events of Star Wars occur in “a galaxy far, far away” and take place during an indeterminate time period completely detached from our own reality, there will obviously not be any opportunity for any of these brands to actually feature in the movie itself. Rather than product placement, this is brand ‘partnership’.
But it’s a peculiar kind of partnership. I can certainly see the value of these movie tie-ins for Disney, the producer of Star Wars Episode VII. They generate millions in licensing fees and provide an enormous injection of marketing muscle to help promote the movie and its December opening.
But for the brands signing these deals it’s a much less persuasive arrangement. Clearly for the next three or four weeks an association with the biggest movie of the year will generate awareness and sales. But the opportunity costs of spending all the time and money on one very condensed tactical period versus a more extended, strategic campaign is a less attractive comparison.
So I appeal to all marketers out there. The force is strong in the traditional approach to marketing strategy, in which brand and research precede tactical options. Resist the dark side of brand partnerships.