Oscars Not just about movies

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire has been in news for long, primarily because of its wins in eight categories at the Oscars. Yes, it’s been the toast of tinsel town and considering the fact that this was the very film that had no one to give it a theatrical release makes its victory even more interesting. However, there is more to an Oscar win than meets the eye.

The recession seems to have shaken everyone and show business seems to be affected too. Big movie studios are facing the heat and are closing down. Consider this; Warner Independent Pictures was supposed to be the original distributor of Slumdog Millionaire, but Warner Bros. closed down this division along with another of its specialty film divisions – Picture house. It was not the only one closing down divisions. Paramount Studios closed down their Paramount Vantage unit. Add to this “Think film”, a leading distributor of non-fiction films – which packed its bag-n-baggage and disappeared totally. With so much of upheaval all around, Slumdog Millionaire was practically left with nowhere to go. Then a tiny cog from Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate News Corp, named Fox Searchlight, picked up the film, marketed it well and “Slumdog”, which was faced with the prospect of going for a DVD release rather than a big screen, landed up marking thirteen times the amount its makers had invested in the film. Slumdog Millionaire reached places it never expected to go, a sentiment very aptly described by its screenplay writer Simon Beaufoy during his Oscar acceptance speech. He said he never expected to be in certain places – “The moon, the south pole, the Miss World podium and here – at the Oscars.”

Now that’s not the “happy ending” of a story. In fact, it’s the beginning. Yes, traditionally, Oscars have been the places for final coronation of a film after its successful victory run at the box-office, and after it has won the praise and accolades of audiences and critics alike. Think of movies like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, et al. They created box-office records before the “Golden Lady” came their way. Today, the rules of the game have changed. The Oscars are now a part of the marketing plan for most production houses. Production houses are making movies especially for the Oscars. They are purposely timing the release around the Oscars, because its not so much about the wining; even a nomination at the Oscars is enough to increase the sales of the movie.

Oscars Not very different from Oprah

It’s said that anything Oprah touches turns to gold – look at what she did to Barack Obama! In places where he had no hold; a word from Oprah and people came in the droves to support Obama. Many say the Oscars are like “Oprah’s Book Club”. Any book featured on it becomes a best seller. Similarly, any movie which gets nominated or wins at the Oscars gets a lot of financial success after the accolades that the “award season” bestows on them. Look at Slumdog Millionaire. It didn’t generate much interest in India, yet, after its Oscar victory, there was an increased demand from multiplexes. In US, it became the top grosser after the Oscars. In Argentina, Australia, Mexico, Chile; everywhere its box-office revenues increased tremendously and Fox Searchlight sure must have seen itself smiling right till the bank!

This is not the first time that a movie has seen its fortunes change after wining the Oscars. Twin Sister was a small Dutch film that attracted little attention and then in 2004, it got nominated for the Oscars and within days, it won itself two new distribution deals and was re-released in its home country. Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby was a small film, which did not create much impact when it was released and was shown in just 125 screens earning about $8.3 million. The Oscar nomination changed it all. It jumped to 2000 screens. And after the win, it went on to make $100 million. Nowhere in Africa had been screened at various festivals and done decent business, but a year later, when it got its Oscar nomination; it was sold in various European markets within minutes. In Germany, where the movie had been showing for a year, box-office receipts were dismal, but after the award, they shot up to $100,000 a week and stayed that way for five weeks!

Yes, Oscars means ticket sales today. Earlier, ticket sales decided if a movie will reach the Oscars. Today, Oscars decide if a movie will get ticket sales. This year, each of the Best Film nominees at the Oscars saw a large percentage increase in box-office sales. After nomination, Slumdog Millionaire increased its collections from $15 million (approx.) to $25 millions, a 65% increase. The Reader saw a 72% increase, Frost/Nixon a 67% increase and Milk an 18% increase. That’s just ticket sales. Think about the DVD sales. Once the DVD cover reads “Oscar nominated”, sales shoot up and they turn out to be large money makers for the producers. The Oscar is the golden ticket everyone wants. No wonder intelligent marketers nowadays time the release of the film for a week in December just to build critical acclaim and some good word of mouth. Then in January, when the nominations start, that’s when they start full-fledged marketing of their films. For an Oscar nomination or win ensures a longer stint at the theaters, better box-office business and eventually better DVD sales. Oscars no more coronate blockbusters; now they create blockbusters.

There’s no business like show business

The lure of the red carpet is difficult for almost anyone to ignore and marketers are no exception. Be it inflation or recession or depression, the Oscars have always attracted a lot of attention. It is one of the few TV events that viewers still prefer to watch each year. Not surprising then that a lot of people have always found it profitable to include it in their marketing plans. As some executives argue – Oscars means a lot of people are watching the best films of the year and the best stories, so it’s but logical that the best brands be advertised. After the Super Bowl, this is the post popular show. Many call it the “Super Bowl for women”. It has a large female viewership, so it appeals to brands like Diet Coke, Dove, L’Oreal et al. Also, the show attracts a lot of affluent viewers. At a time when the TV audience is fragmenting, Oscars were watched by 36.8 million people this year (4 million more than last year). This makes Oscars a premier media property and advertisers were willing to pay an estimated average of $1.4 million for a 30-second spot. The Academy knows that advertising revenues are its largest source of income, so this time, when a lot of top advertisers backed out (due to the slowdown), the academy relaxed its 50-year-ban on movie studios advertising their films during the show. After all, ABC, The Walt Disney Co. owned television network had raised $81 million in revenues last year. This year it raised about $68 million – a drop of 16%. A drop yes, which has made the event a little less golden, but golden it still is.

Oscars and interesting developments

Its no fun watching a cricket match alone. With a roomful of friends, the magic of the event is totally different. The Oscars, as we very well know, trigger movie sales, they trigger advertising spends, however this time round they triggered something else too – the internet usage. People assume that internet usage would cannibalise live television, but this time, a lot of people watched the Oscars logged on to the internet. Those who did so watched the programme longer on an average than average viewers. People interacted longer with their friends on Facebook and chatted with people all over the world as they expressed their feelings while watching the Oscars. It was a drawing room full of friends – virtual of course. As social networking becomes more popular, advertises & marketers can use these “telecommunities” to promote live viewing of programmes & also increase their viewership!

Yes, Oscars are an interesting event for marketers world over and you thought they were just about movies! There is so much that happens on that one night – blockbusters are created, brands are launched and promoted and now the internet too gets a boost from it. Well you agree then that Oscars – they are not just about movies.

This game ain’t for the weak hearted!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Comparative advertising has irresistible appeal for marketers, especially when it is backed by a genuinely better product. But there are definite risks as well, so this strategic tool has to be used very carefully

“Don’t Dew it” is the aggressive advertising campaign that Coca-Cola is running in US these days. What Coca-Cola is doing is completely unthinkable and probably something no one has ever done before. Anyone who buys PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew would get a free sample of Coca-Cola, “Vault”. How many times has this happened to you, when you have purchased a product and got its competitor’s brand for free? Probably never. But Coca-Cola thinks it’s hit the right spot. According to it, once consumers get to taste “Vault”, they will convert, for they would like it more than Mountain Dew. Considering that Mountain Dew holds 80% of the market share for citrus drinks while Vault holds just 4%, not many have actually tasted Vault! With the slowdown taking its toll, marketers are being driven to extremes. Coca-Cola feels this is its golden chance. It’s hit on Pepsi’s hottest property. In the past, the only carbonated drink that’s managed to do well and even increase its market share by 0.2% has been Mountain Dew. But then Pepsi is unfazed. It’s not surprised by such moves. It was in the 1970’s that it invented the “Blind Taste Test”. Consumers were given two glasses of drinks – one with Pepsi & the other with Coke. They were asked to taste both and then select which one they preferred. A lot of people chose the glass which had Pepsi. The outcome of the Pepsi Challenge was that Americans preferred Pepsi. So Pepsi would probably soon come out with a better trick and outdo Coke. After all, it’s not new to this “Attack” game!

Rise of comparative advts .
The markets have slowed down. Getting to the consumer has got even more difficult. A number of marketers the world over are openly declaring war. Love it or hate it, but the fact is comparative advertising does grab eyeballs. Dunkin’ Donuts has been using this strategy time and again against its rival Starbucks. Like Pepsi, it too did a taste test and concluded that “hard working” people prefer Dunkin’ Donuts coffee while the “elitist” preferred Starbucks. In fact, in 2005, Dunkin’ gave away $100 to dozens of its faithful consumers in Chicago to go and buy Starbucks and discovered that a loyal Dunkin’ Donuts customer couldn’t understand why anyone would pay as much as $4 for a cup of coffee. Moreover, they felt that drinking coffee at Starbucks was like celebrating Christmas with strangers. Talking of “taste-tests”, Burger King took the challenge to a different level - literally. Its tests did not involve shopping malls or department stores; rather they involved 13 planes, two dog sleds and one helicopter. The fast food chain sought out farmers in far flung places like rural Romania, Thai villagers and even people of Greenland. They did this for they wanted the results to be totally unbiased. As one of their advert claims, “What happens if you take Transylvanian farmers who’ve never eaten a burger and ask them to compare Whopper versus Big Mac in the world’s purest taste test?” As expected, each of them preferred Whopper to McDonald’s Big Mac. Today, advertisers are going to any length to convince consumers that they’re the best.

Masked-no more
Recently, Horlicks took Heinz India’s health drink Complan head on. Its advertisement categorically claimed that Horlicks had better nutritional content and was cheaper than Complan. So while Complan just made you taller, Horlicks made you taller, stronger and sharper. Of course, comparative advertising is not new to India, but it used to be much more subtle. Earlier, the advertisements relied on tricky lines and ambiguity. Remember Surf and Tide, showing orange and blue-green-yellow packs of detergents in their respective ads as comparisons? Amul’s Mithai Mate commercial showed a housewife using a hammer and various other tools to open a can of condensed milk. Even though the shot was digitized, you knew it was Nestle’s Milkmaid. This was Mithai Mate’s way of showcasing its easy-open can. Britannia saw its “Good Day” turning not-so good when Unibic India launched its “Great Day” biscuits with a tag line, “Why have a good day, when you can have a great day.” Whether it was inspired by Jim Collins best selling novel “Good to Great” we don’t know, but it sure had Britannia clamouring hastily to the courts. When Subhiksha was on an aggressive expansion spree, its print ad campaign compared its own prices with that of competitors, showing how Subhiksha was much cheaper than others. The ad also saw Food Bazaar, owned by Future Group, taking Subhiksha to court on grounds of inconsistent comparisons. While Future Group took Subhiksha to court, its Big Bazaar launched aggressive campaigns against its competitors Shopper’s Stop, Lifestyle & Westside. What’s it with this advertising strategy? For one, they’re no more as subtle as they used to be - at least in India. It’s hard times and companies are making sure their advertisements are working harder for them. This year could see a rise in comparative advertising with advertisers getting more aggressive in their quest for the consumer’s moolah.

Not everybody’s cup of tea
As aggressive comparative advertising will increase, so will complaints and lawsuits. This game is not for everybody. You need to be absolutely sure of your product offering to be able to compare it with the competitor’s brand. Apple was absolutely sure of its product and used a comparative advertising strategy against Microsoft to bring out the difference in the “image” of the two brands. It worked, for it changed the viewers’ perception totally. Its commercials have shown the Mac Guy vs PC Guy. The commercial starts with the Mac guy introducing himself “Hello, I’m a MAC…”. He is young, casually dressed and smart. The other guy in formals is slightly older and boring. He introduces himself as “I’m a PC”. He comes across as too formal, stuffy and frustrated with the MAC guy’s abilities. It was a battle of cool kid vs nerd. And Apple proved its point – as was visible in the increase in MAC sales. Apple was aware of the problems of Microsoft’s Vista and brought it out through its “Mac Guy vs PC Guy” ads. For two years, Microsoft didn’t do much. Then, in August last year, it finally retaliated with its “I’m a PC” ad, thinking this would reverse the fall of image and brand value that’s been eroding fast. The strategy boomeranged, as for a layman, the line “I’m a PC” sounded familiar, but he was left wondering “where’s the Mac Guy”. The ads were so similar to Apple that Microsoft didn’t realize it had unwittingly poured all its money into promoting Apple’s computers instead of its own software. For people thought “Ok, this isn’t an Apple commercial, but it’s about the PC that is competing with Apple.” In times like these where every penny counts, this was a blunder for Microsoft; while it worked superbly for Apple, for now the young, trendy, smart and intelligent image of the brand was firmly entrenched in the minds of all who saw its ads.

Comparative advertising can be criticized, can be scrutinized, can be called “in bad taste” (remember the controversy that Burger King created when it took its “burger-taste-test” to far flung places of the world where the poor people didn’t even know what a burger is) – it can be called whatever, but it can never ever be called boring. It’s a potent weapon that needs to be used wisely. It’s like a brave warrior challenging his opponent to fight a duel. If done carefully, it can be a valuable tool in providing information, and helping consumers compare various product offerings in the market. If your product is better and your advertisements convincing, the consumer might reach out for your product and not the competitor’s.

Look how IFB Bosch showed that its washing machines used only four and a half buckets of water as compared to others who used nine buckets. This claim worked very well especially in the metros. So, if your product is indeed better than the others, then now is the time to use this potent tool. However, a word of caution - this game ain’t for the weak hearted!