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Manufacturers think outside the box to build brands


From Hollywood films to sponsorships, companies seek broader audience

Story by Larry Avila, New North B2B editor

There are times when a telephone call can lead to a unique opportunity.

Oshkosh Corp. can attest to that. The Oshkosh-based maker of military and rescue vehicles as well as an assortment of heavy duty trucks, has some of its unique rolling behemoths appear in major Hollywood films, including a pair released in 2012 – Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of a trilogy of movies, staring Christian Bale as comic book superhero Batman, and Total Recall, starring Colin Farrell in a remake of the 1990 science fiction action flick featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

About 40 minutes into Dark Knight Rises, an Oshkosh Defense Tactical Protector Vehicle rolls into the scene during a police emergency. During a sequence near the end of the Total Recall remake, the company’s Striker fire truck clearly is visible in the scene as rescue workers battle a blaze in the background.

Those sequences provided just a few seconds of screen time, but with both films being seen by millions of people worldwide, it introduced Oshkosh Corp. to an audience outside its traditional marketplace as well as to people who may not be familiar with the company.

Both movies included everything from the latest filming technology to today’s best known action stars, but for Oshkosh Corp., both showcased its vehicles in situations how they would be used in real life and it was a chance too good to pass up, company representatives said.

“We look at (opportunities to appear in films) as a way to generate visibility with different audiences,” said John Daggett, spokesman for Oshkosh Corp. “We’re especially trying to take advantage of the huge audiences that are drawn to certain kinds of movies.”

Action films more than likely will have opportunities to put a vehicle through its paces, even in a make believe environment, he said.

“These kinds of product placements mostly are positive for us,” Daggett said. “It does generate visibility that’s just a little bit out of the ordinary.”

Part of branding strategy

Product placement is big business worldwide. Connecticut-based PQ Media reported that global product placement spending totaled $8.25 billion in 2012, up nearly 12 percent from 2011. The company said product placement in movies totaled $1.66 billion in 2012, an 8 percent increase from the previous year.

Today’s mobile society and widespread use of social media are among the reasons why companies are devoting resources to get in front of people outside traditional advertising, PQ Media reported. Businesses feel compelled to spend money on ways to engage multi-tasking audiences, who may have a TV on in the background, while using digital technology to consume content.

So that’s why companies including tech giant Apple Inc. will pay to have its gear used by actors on a TV show or movie.

“If you see someone (in a TV show) using a Mac, it’s essentially similar to buying air time for an ad,” said Diane Penzenstadler, president and owner of 44(degrees) North Advertising & Design, an Oshkosh-based marketing company. “But in addition to that, it adds legitimacy to the brand because it shows a product in use.”

When a product is used or seen for a few seconds on air, it can leave a lasting impression, she said.

“A viewer could think, ‘Hey, I use a Mac too,’” Penzenstadler said. Or if they don’t use one, it could spur them to research Apple computers and possibly make a purchase.

Generating interest to drive sales ultimately is why companies spend money on elaborate marketing campaigns, but there also is strategy involved with product placement, said Dave Willems, president and owner of Appleton-based Willems Marketing.

“It’s typically related to brand relevance,” Willems said. “I think when a consumer goods company places a beverage into a movie, clearly they want to make a lifestyle association with whatever the premise is, whether the film is a romantic comedy or action, we tend to see different kinds of products associated with those situations.”

The idea is to connect a brand with a type of activity. Williams said products such as the soft drink Mountain Dew generally are associated with extreme sporting events, including dirt biking and motocross.

“The company is trying to make a connection with a particular audience,” he said. “They want to make a deeper connection to that crowd and with social media, people who associate with a particular brand or product can then share that brand with their connections, so things can spread exponentially.”

Pondering the implications

Being seen on the big screen by millions of people can leave a variety of impressions.

Fond du Lac-based Mercury Marine, recognized for its boat engines, also has been approached in the past about having its engines used in movies, said Steve Fleming, company spokesman.

Fleming said Mercury doesn’t actively seek that type of exposure.

“In nearly all of these situations, a boat engine may have a prominent role, but it may be a scene where the boat blows up or it’s used to run someone down, and we’d rather not have our brand or logo in that kind of situation,” he said. “In the movie opportunities we’ve had, it had some negative aspect in it one way or another, even if it’s not the engine’s fault.”

This is why Mercury Marine tends to steer its product and branding toward its target market, including sports fishing, outdoor enthusiasts and tournaments.

“When you have a captured audience, they are watching a tournament because either they like to fish or they aspire to be a professional,” Fleming said.

Sponsoring a tournament or a well-known pro fisherman is another way to connect with that market, Fleming said.

“That type of celebrity endorsement is another strategy,” he said.

If a professional sponsored by Mercury wins a major tournament the impression it can make could influence sales, not just to the casual outdoorsman, but to other competitive professionals.

“If someone (we sponsor) wins a major tournament, they’ll typically bring their boat up on a trailer on stage with them and on that boat will be a Mercury engine,” Fleming said. “It could influence other professionals if they’re not using a Mercury engine, maybe they should be.”

Oshkosh Corp. also ventured down another non-traditional route to showcase its products. In 2010, the company took part in the Baja 1000, a globally recognized off road race, which takes place annually in Mexico’s California Peninsula.

At that time, it gave the company the opportunity to test a newly developed independent suspension system in a high-profile racing event.

“That was a means for us to showcase our concept vehicle and test some things we could use down the road,” Daggett said.

He said the company no longer participates in the Baja 1000 but “it was a good proving ground for the company.”

Opportunity knocks

Daggett said his company doesn’t actively seek participation in Hollywood movies but is contacted from time to time, particularly when a film requires vehicles not normally seen or driven by the general public.

He said production companies involved with the movie either contact a product’s manufacturer directly or it hires representatives to scout out businesses that have products that would be a good fit for a film.

Deciding to get involved with a major Hollywood film has some restrictions, Daggett said.

“In nearly all cases, we’re under strict confidence to not discuss the film with anyone outside the company,” he said. “Sometimes we receive copies of screenplays of films still in production.”

In the case of Dark Knight Rises, Oshkosh Corp. did not pay to have its vehicles used in the film, Daggett said. The only cost to the company was shipping vehicles from Oshkosh to Hollywood and back.

Fleming said there also was no cost to Mercury when its engines were used in films. In some cases, film makers simply seek donations of products, he said.

Another benefit of product placement is potential for sales of equipment as well as clothing or other company-branded memorabilia outside traditional avenues. Appleton-based Miller Electric Mfg., a maker of welding equipment, has been featured on many popular TV shows, including Orange County Chopper and American Restoration, which introduced its products to the do-it-yourself crowd, driving sales outside its commercial base to that market.

Daggett said Oshkosh Corp. also sells clothing and other accessories branded with the company’s assorted lines of products but hasn’t noticed a significant impact on sales of those items because of vehicles appearing in movies.