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How Show Business Invents (and Reinvents) Media

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With digital recording devices making it easier than ever for television watchers to avoid advertising, companies have to find new and interesting ways to reach customers with their message. This chapter highlights some of the more innovative ways that companies can get their message out.
This chapter is from the book

Anything can become a medium for show business. In some cases, show business invents new media out of ordinary objects (swimming pools, sandals, and splash guards). In other cases, by giving ordinary communication tools (documentary films, web sites, annual reports, novels) an unexpected and creative new use, media are reinvented to engage customers in their day-to-day lives.

One of the most successful independent films of 2002 was a sleeper hit called Dogtown and Z-Boys. This 90-minute documentary details the origins of skateboarding among a small group of California misfits in the 1970s who eventually became celebrities in this new alternative sport. The film was directed by Stacey Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys, and won several prestigious awards at major independent film festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival. What started as a limited initial release in three U.S. cities spread into a major phenomenon with the help of heavy and doting coverage in mainstream press like MTV and National Public Radio.

But except for one article in the business section of The New York Times, no one seemed to notice that this film was entirely financed (to the tune of $650,000) by Vans, the sneaker company whose shoes are the footwear of choice for the skateboarding subculture. This may sound like a lot to throw behind sponsorship of an independent artistic product, but Vans knew Mr. Peralta was a hero to their customers and saw his film as an opportunity to connect to them and their lifestyle by doing something less direct, less suspect, and much more valuable than a traditional media campaign.

In fact, Vans keeps a suitably low profile in Dogtown, which avoids making it seem crassly commercial. Their role as producers (Vans Off The Wall Productions) is mentioned only in the credits, and the product name appears only once in the film's dialogue. Instead, the camera does the talking, showing Vans on the feet of almost everyone onscreen in the entire movie. As a result, the film has been able to avoid the kind of criticism that overt product placement would likely bring in the alternative culture of independent film. But the real audience for the brand, the avid skateboarders whose culture it documents, noticed who had made it possible for their story to reach the silver screen.

Where does a shoe company get the idea to enter movie making? "It wasn't that hard an idea," according to Jay Wilson, executive producer of the movie and Vice President of Global Marketing for Vans. "Teens go to movies, go to skateboarding events. It was a pretty obvious connection." The concept started with a long profile of Mr. Peralta in Spin magazine called "Lords of Dogtown." When Peralta couldn't sell the idea to film his story to Warner Brothers, Vans stepped in. Wilson convinced his CEO to put up $400,000 to start, and then $250,000 to finish and promote it as their excitement over the film grew. Peralta directed the project, which remained his baby, and Vans got 80 percent ownership. With box-office totals at $1.4 million by year's end, the film has grown from a marketing coup for Vans to a big profit-maker, with more revenue to come from overseas distribution, DVD, and television.

Wilson calls this an example of self-liquidating marketing. "A friend in J. Walter Thompson asked me how I thought of it, and I said, 'You guys invented it!' Thompson's clients used to own their own shows, like the Burma Shave hours, the Gillette hours." Vans has been so pleased with the results of its first movie that they have already filmed a reality TV show with the WB network, leased out their Pipemaster's surf competition for the film Blue Crush, and invested heavily in a cross-promotion of an action film whose superhero also does a lot of skateboarding in Vans shoes. Meanwhile, Vans's profits have grown 66% between 1999 and 2002, driven by steep increases in U.S. sales.

Show Business in Entertainment Media

In this chapter, we look at how show business invents and reinvents media. Show business can turn anything into a medium for communication: shoes, coins, even bicycle seats. Show business can also take familiar forms of communication and adapt them to powerfully communicate brand experiences.

The first place where show business reinvents familiar communications is our entertainment media: movies, TV, theater, novels. When brands become an integrated part of the entertainment that customers embrace and share with peers (i.e., a favorite TV show, not the 30-second advertisement that interrupts it) they can provide an experience that entertains and engages customers in the brand.

The boldest entertainment-media show businesses are producing content of their own—like Vans's film with Stacey Peralta, which celebrated and was celebrated by their core audience, the sports enthusiasts who use their products and serve as trendsetters for other customers.

In 2002, DaimlerChrysler's Dodge division teamed up with MTV to create a reality show called the Fast Enuff Challenge. The show began with casting calls and test drives in the summer to find 15 real-life drivers for a Dodge racing competition. The contestants were filmed as they trained in professional racing, lived together, learned together, and finally competed against each other and celebrities from MTV's other programs in a climactic racing showdown. The whole Dodge-centered story was then turned into a 1-hour reality TV show that aired at the end of the year.

BMW turned heads when it went into the movie-making business in 2001, producing The Hire, a series of short films with leading international directors—John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guy Ritchie, John Woo, and more. Each movie showed off the signature style of the director and featured major Hollywood stars (Gary Oldman, Don Cheadle, Madonna) and the recurring character of a driver behind the wheel of a BMW (played by Clive Owen). The movies were also unusual in that they could only be seen on BMW's website: a new form of advertising—and entertainment—for affluent target customers who weren't easily reached by television spots. Visitors online can watch the films, download the movies or wallpaper images to their desktop, order a DVD, read credits and plot synopses, or view trailers and shorts on the making of the films. This bold investment in online creative content has paid off in avid customer interest. More than 10 million films have been watched from BMW's website. More importantly, 2 million visitors have registered at the site, with 60 percent of those opting-in for continuing communication from BMW, and an amazing 94 percent making an online recommendation to a friend.[9]

In Dogtown, the Fast Enuff Challenge, and The Hire, Vans, Dodge and BMW took the lead to help create and produce original content that told a story with their brand in a central role. They were careful to partner with others with the knowledge or experience to help tell the story (Peralta, MTV, BMW's stable of Hollywood directors). Vans and Dodge also took the step of including the customers they were trying to reach in the process of making the story: Dogtown was a film for, of, and by the skateboarding community; Fast Enuff Challenge was a TV show made with and about the customers Dodge was trying to reach. This kind of show business collaboration brings close communication and bonding with customers.

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