Fleeing to fantasy

  • To learn more about the phenomenon which combines a fusion of live theatre and cinema – Secret Cinema, click here
  • “People are looking for travel where their BlackBerry won’t work and you won’t be able to get a 360-degree virtual tour of the house you’re staying in before you get there”, click here to read more
  • Find out how Courvoisier have successfully communicated with a different and forward-thinking 28+ demographic, click here


Escaping from reality has long been a reason to go to the cinema, but could these austere times be driving consumers to seek out even more exciting and immersive experiences? Finding ways to help forget about everyday realities is on the rise.

The top 10 fantasy films took almost £500m at the UK box office in 2009 and 2010, with movies such as Alice in Wonderland, Avatar and Harry Potter pushing Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire down the list.

And it’s not just cinema that is benefiting from this depressed climate – a tribe of brands are flourishing at a time when retailers are expecting no sales growth (May’s sales forecast is the gloomiest since last June). These are fantasy brands – products that offer surreal or immersive experiences to people who want to be taken out of the everyday or have a bit of magic injected into their lives.

Examples of these include Secret Cinema’s film screenings (see A Secret Film Fantasy, below), the Twilight film franchise and Disney designing Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White-inspired wedding dresses.

Fantasy brands span a range of sectors, from companies that offer extreme, experiential travel, such as internet travel company Black Tomato (see case study, below) to ones that organise participatory events or ’pop-up’ drinking and dining experiences such as Courvoisier’s series of collaborations (see case study, below).


And this is a growing trend, according to Vanessa Smith, consumer sponsorship and events manager at Guardian News & Media. Most recently it sponsored Secret Cinema’s screening of controversial 1966 film Battle of Algiers in tunnels beneath London’s Waterloo station. The venue was transformed into 1950s Algiers complete with art installations, a prison and a cast playing the film’s characters. The audience were asked to dress accordingly, the film only being revealed as the opening credits rolled.

“There is a growing appetite for immersive experiences. Fantasy brands fire your imagination, make you feel like part of an exclusive club and give you special access to unique events. They interact with you in creative ways, which transforms consumers into fans,” says Smith.

Fantasy has always been popular, but the recession and the resulting economic gloom has sparked a boom in such escapism, particularly in the film and publishing industries.

Vampire-themed book series Twilight has taken more than £48m from 2008 to date, according to Nielsen BookScan. Film versions of the series have been released at a rate of one every year since the recession hit (and there’s another one on the way in November), enjoying phenomenal success, which in turn has spread to brands such as Volvo, Burger King and Mattel that have partnered with it.


Volvo cars have featured in all three of the Twilight films – the C30 in the first film and the XC60 in the following two. For the XC60 launch campaign, an ad featuring protagonists from the series ran in cinemas and Twilight’s huge online fan community was targeted with competitions to win a car.

Volvo reported increased interest in the XC60 model after the release of the second film New Moon. Customers came to showrooms to photograph their children in the ’Twilight car’ and Volvo, once the ’safe’ family car, is now perceived as ’cool’ by young people.

In the grown-up world of Ann Summers, fantasy wear is a major part of its business and one that demands continual regeneration. It is seeing 10-12% growth year on year for its ’fantasy’ range, such as uniforms, and a 40% year on year uplift on its erotic lingerie line. The company is also moving into club wear inspired by celebrities such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga, catering to those looking for fancy dress costumes to go out in.

“Things are pretty gloomy out there and I think they have been for a while now and everyone’s a bit bored of it. People are looking for fun. They are also becoming more aware of the things in life that really matter to them – their families – and as part of that, we believe people are investing more in their relationships and nurturing them,” says Becki Rowe, marketing general manager for the brand.


Disney has been selling magic and fairytales to audiences since the Twenties, and has partnered with brands such as MAC cosmetics and Dolce & Gabbana, to create fantasy-inspired products.

In March, the company launched a collection of wedding dresses in the UK, inspired by the style and personality of seven Disney princess characters, with designer Alfred Angelo.

“Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Disney blogs exploded with messages from brides eagerly awaiting a chance to try on these styles,” says Denise Wash, vice-president of marketing for Alfred Angelo.

The premiere video on YouTube’s Disney Living channel, which gave a behind-the-scenes look at the collection and photo shoot, had 80,000 views within the first hour of being posted.

“Storytelling, especially fairytales, is at the heart of Disney’s heritage and the products we develop with these stories in mind have proven to be popular among consumers of all ages,” explains Marc Low, vice-president of fashion and home at The Walt Disney Company EMEA. “By looking to the Disney Princess characters as inspiration for the designs, we’re tapping into nostalgic memories about characters that have long been cherished by consumers.”


Video and computer gaming is another area that is capitalising on the growing need by consumers to escape, with games becoming more and more realistic and immersive. Consumers can’t be a professional footballer, singer, film star or superhero, but they can pretend to be, as a study by agency Canvas8 points out. The skills required to play are closer to the ones needed in real life – as with Rockband or Singstar – and brands are tapping into narcissism and giving people starring roles.

Growth in the gaming market over the past three years has been aided by iPhone and Android games, which dramatically increased the number of buyers. Indeed, casual games are now bigger than the traditional market in both numbers and value.

Brands that have recognised this growing consumer desire for escapism are reaping the rewards. Rebel Bingo started in 2009 as a clandestine bingo game between friends, in the basement of a church hall. The company now holds regular ’secret’ bingo parties for an audience aged 18 to 28, where people attend undercover to play rowdy versions of bingo with audience participation, dancing on tables and drawing on each other with marker pens. The brand now operates in 12 UK cities and has recently expanded to the US and Spain. And at £3 a ticket, it’s a cheap escape for consumers. The brand has partnered with Red Stag, a black cherry flavoured Jim Beam whiskey for its UK tour next month.


At the more extreme end of the fantasy genre is adult website and monthly erotic party organiser Killing Kittens, a fantasy brand that founder Emma Sayle claims has grown in direct response to the recession. “In the space of two months, we went from averaging 150 people per party, to 250-300 people. We pretty much doubled our online membership in the three months following the downturn and since then it’s just been rising exponentially. We’ve now got 15,000 online members,” she says.

The company’s adult parties take place in old mansions in London and various countryside locations. Guests arrive masked for a champagne reception before letting loose amid the candlelit rooms and sweeping staircases. Sayle believes guests like the idea of escaping into an unknown world for a night and forgetting about reality.

Similarly, The Box, a risqué Manhattan ’theatre of varieties’, featuring sexually explicit cabaret and burlesque shows and stage acts opened a branch in London in February. Tales of debauchery and all manner of oddities abound, but no real information is ever given about what goes on inside. Acts are described as surreal and extreme and apparently include men wearing pig masks chasing half-naked girls with fire.


But pushing the boundaries too far carries a financial risk for brands. The Box in New York lost one of its financial backers, singer-songwriter Moby, when its cabaret acts became more extreme. He reportedly complained: “I like degeneracy, but for The Box you really need to be in the right frame of mind. The things that go on there don’t make sense to me.”

Similarly, Sayle has found that the adult nature of her brand has put off potential brand partners. “Those that fit with us are high end, luxury lifestyle brands, but given the nature of what we do, they can’t be seen to be associated with us, even though our database represents their ideal demographic – 15,000 18- to 45-year-old high flyers,” she says. In spite of this the company continues to grow and its website is soon to take a more conventional approach, relaunching in June in a style more akin to an online dating site, while retaining an exclusive area for vetted members that receive party invites. Sayle hopes this more mainstream side will allow the company more access to brand partners.

So jump on the fantasy bandwagon to capture the imagination of your consumers. Just don’t push it too far, or it might not be happily ever after for your bottom line.


Tell no one: A secret film fantasy

Secret Cinema is a bi-monthly screening event that fuses film with performance, design, theatre and music. Attendees dress up to fit the theme of the show, held in a secret location, but they do not know what the film is until the opening credits roll.

Organised by Future Shorts, it has 133,000 ’likes’ on Facebook and more than 100,000 YouTube subscribers. The company is working with Stella Artois and the Cannes Film Festival to produce Future Shorts ONE, the largest simultaneous short-film event in the world.

Last November, more than 15,000 cinema goers bought tickets for a screening of Laurence of Arabia at Alexandra Palace in London, complete with sand and camels, which put Secret Cinema in the top 10 box office sales for films in the UK that month.

“The fusion of live theatre and cinema is intoxicating; suddenly you’ve stepped into another world where you can interact with live actors who look identical to those you see on celluloid,” says Guardian News & Media consumer sponsorship and events manager Vanessa Smith. “It’s not just about escapism; it’s about imagination, passion and the chance to engage with the world of film.”


The brand has attracted high profile partners, such as Windows Phone and The Guardian, which uses it to target 20- to 30-year-olds, who are “intellectually curious and highly engaged with cult movies,” says Smith.

She praises the marketing technique used by Secret Cinema that centres on secrecy, word of mouth and consumers being part of a special community – Secret Cinema’s tagline is ’tell no one’.

“The mystery is what makes Secret Cinema so successful and enticing,” says Smith. “Many events sell out with attendees having no idea what they are going to experience.”

Secret Cinema communicates with its followers in character, giving them hints via email about the theme of the next film. “Word of mouth is its most powerful marketing tool, says Smith. “Audiences can’t wait to tell their friends they must go and book themselves a ticket, even though they can’t tell them what they’ve experienced.”


Case study: Fantasy escapes with Black Tomato

Selling travel experiences that allow customers to forget everyday life has proved lucrative for internet travel company Black Tomato in recent years. Since 2006 sales have grown 75% a year, from £1.3m in 2006 to £6.8m in 2009 and in 2010 it was ranked 47th in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 of Britain’s fastest growing private companies.

Trips on the site are classified under categories such as ’to disappear’ and ’to get lost’ and offer trips such as Ninja training in Tokyo and ice climbing in Chamonix, fulfilling a need for imaginative and fantastic travel.

The company has been quick to capitalise on its recent growth, launching sister sites Epic Tomato in February, which focuses on extreme, experience-led adventures, and Beach Tomato in March.

So how is Black Tomato bucking the trend for consumers cutting back on non-essentials such as holidays? Co-founder Tom Marchant says its customers won’t give up their holidays. “We are fortunate in that the type of travel we built the brand around is experiential led. It’s about new, immersive experiences.

“Things that people haven’t done before or ways of seeing a place that they hadn’t thought was possible. What that did is gain us an audience to whom travel is extremely important, and through the recession one of the last things they wanted to give up. They allocate spend to it and pull money away from other areas,” he claims.


Marchant believes that pressured working environments and a culture of immediacy have caused people to search for ways to escape. “The focus on the utter sense of removal from the day to day has continued in requests and bookings we’re receiving. People are looking for travel where their BlackBerry won’t work and you won’t be able to get a 360-degree virtual tour of the house you’re staying in before you get there,” he says.

Despite the perception of experiential travel as confined to those with the money and the time, Marchant insists that advocates of this type of holiday are diverse. “You don’t have to go to Papua New Guinea to have an escape, you could be doing that in parts of Africa or South America, where you still get very strong feelings of removal from reality but without the high price. We see people in their early 30s, right through to their early 50s,” says Marchant.

Other brands have been keen to partner with a company that boasts such a passionate audience, and Black Tomato has collaborated with city guide website Daily Candy and Equinox Gyms to support its growth in the US. “We have a big audience on our website and it’s a mid to high-end audience. There are a lot of people who partner brands would like to talk to,” explains Marchant. “We’ve got the innovation and we’ve got the audience, but probably the most important thing is what we do, which is offer a service that is very desirable and all about escape and the derivation of pleasure, which is an attractive thing to be associated with.”


Case study: Courvoisier’s escapist strategy that drives sales

Cognac brand Courvoisier has staged numerous ’fantasy’ events in association with other brands, such as jelly makers Bompas & Parr and immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. This included an ’architectural punchbowl’ – Courvoisier flooded a London building with punch which visitors could float around on a fruit-shaped raft.

Often associated with the older generations or the hip hop community, the brand has been able to successfully communicate with a different and forward-thinking 28+ demographic with these events.

“We wanted to create some buzz and talkability through an experience associated with the brand,” explains marketing controller Eileen Livingston.

At last year’s Secret Garden Party festival the brand created a pedal-powered punch machine.

“Consumers are pleasantly surprised,” says Livingston. “They see a reason for trying Courvoisier and they associate it with being a creative brand.” The strategy is proving profitable. Courvoisier VSOP is now the fastest growing cognac in the UK, overtaking Remy Martin VSOP in sales at Christmas, and the company has a total value share of 63%.

“One of the things we’ve done is communicate the mixability of cognac, rather than drinking it straight,” explains Livingston. “At each of these events, we’ve tried to bring in the message of punch. That was what kicked off our affiliations, thinking of punch and serving it in a new way.”

This year, the brand is working with speakeasy (’secret bar’) White Mink to hold electro swing events across the UK, including the Brighton Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe that bring back the sounds and styles of the Twenties and Thirties. “A lot of people dress up when they go along to these events and, again, the Courvoisier punch will become an intrinsic part of the evening,” says Livingston.


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