MKTG Insights: Best Practices for Brands - Fictional Character Endorsers
Valued at over $25 billion, the product placement industry in television and movies has become a staple in modern-day marketing. From "The Voice" judges sipping on Starbucks coffee, to the news that the most recent James Bond movie "SkyFall" covered a third of its budget through product placement, brands hold an undeniable presence on-screen. While product placement is a popular choice amongst brands, many companies have elected instead to partner with entertainment properties to gain access to fictional characters that can be leveraged as brand ambassadors. Rather than leap into the fictional worlds of movies and TV, brands are extrapolating fictional characters into the real world, where are they are used to promote products to the public. From Bart Simpson and Butterfinger to Flinstone's vitamins, it is a tactic that has been used by brands for ages.
Most recently, the tactic was leveraged by TSN through their partnership with Ron Burgundy, the main character in the Anchorman films. TSN used Burgundy's character (portrayed by Will Ferrell) as part of their broadcast team for the 2013 Roar of the Rings Canadian Olympic Curling Trials. A cross-promotional endeavor between Paramount Studios and TSN, the partnership was a win-win for both sides. Looking to boost curling ratings and attract casual fans to the sport, the network turned to a partnership with the fictional character. The appeal and contemporary relevance that Burgundy holds with the coveted 18-24 year old demographic was stronger than what could be offered by curlers themselves. Further, TSN had a concrete case-study to learn from: Burgandy's endorsement of the Dodge Durango. Burgundy was featured in an ad campaign for the 2014 Durango and helped boost sales for the car by 59% in the first month of the campaign; glaring proof that fiction was resonating with fans:
From the perspective of Paramount (Anchorman studio Producer), the TSN partnership was a unique content play, offering the character significant exposure to the Canadian market, and a demographic it's typical promotion likely wasn't targeted towards: the generally older curling market. Also, as a stunt alone, this tactic seemed like an appropriate yet unexpected scenario for Burgundy to play out. The result was extraordinary: Bell Media reported that audiences increased by 38% from the last Olympic trials in 2009, peaking at around 900,000 viewers (Marketing Magazine).
What can brands learn from TSN's use of the Burgundy character? When and how should corporate sponsors leverage fictional characters over actual celebrities in their marketing initiatives?
From a sponsorship marketing perspective, there are unique benefits to brands who choose to go the route of a fictional character endorsement:
1. Scripted stars protect brands from potential scandals: The traditional approach of hiring athletes or other celebrities endorsers can be a powerful approach for brands, however uncertainty is baked into the investment. Whether it be a trade, a career-threatening injury, or a moral indiscretion, athletes and actors are human, living unscripted lives. By using fictional characters as endorsers, brands can hedge against this concept in many respects. Fictional characters are scripted. The uncertainty is removed because brands can now control the elements.
2. Opportunity for lower direct financial investment: The financial investment has the potential to be significantly lower for fictional character partnerships versus athlete or celebrity deals due to the fact that fictional character endorsements are often cross-promotional in nature versus transactional, with two parties reaping benefits. Investment can be offset by a brand's ability to leverage marketing in-kind. Companies looking to contextualize their brand through endorsement, without shelving out top dollar, can build cost-effective narratives through these types of deals.
3. Attractive opportunities to capture content: According to the Content Marketing Institute, 90% of B2C marketers are employing a content strategy. The demand for content is higher than ever and cross-promotional initiatives can be an important source of content capture for brands.
While there are unique elements to a fictional character deal, the principles that brands must consider when evaluating a potential property remain the same. MKTG looks at 5 main pieces of criteria when evaluating a potential athlete endorsement deal on behalf of our clients. These same criteria can also be applied to the assessment of a fictional character to ensure a strategic fit.
1. Proven Performance - does the character resonate with the brand's target market? Does the character resonate with a market previously unreachable by the brand?
2. Life cycle - Is the relevance of the character sustainable (ie: Bart Simpson - Butterfinger), empowering the option to incorporate that character into the permanent creative expression of the brand? Or is the brand looking to capitalize on a moment in time when the character is extremely popular? Brands must ensure that the life cycle of the character and their projected length of relevance aligns with the brand's intended use of that character (ie: for one campaign, indefinite use, etc.)
3. Strength as a Brand/Channel - what attributes does the character embody? What is their personal brand? Are they an effective channel - eg. do they have brand extensions, social media prowess, other ventures that will contribute to their potential impact as a partner? These factors are becoming more and more important in an increasingly digital age.
4. Maturity & Morality - is the character mature and stable in their on-screen role (if the brand calls for it)? How distinct is the character from the actor / actress? Should the actor or actress experience a personal scandal, is the brand of the character impacted?
5. Sponsor Roster - Who else is the character working with? When dealing with an athlete, large sponsor rosters can be signal that the individual makes a good partner and that they are aligning themselves with companies successfully. However, the downside of large sponsor rosters (diluted message in the marketplace) is further amplified when dealing with a fictional character. The uniqueness of these deals means that brands should stay away from opportunities where they must "share" the equity of the character.
Here are MKTG's Top 3 Favourite Brand-Fictional Character partnerships of all-time.
1. Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers) - Pepsi
The NBA all-star was transformed into a fictional endorser for Pepsi Max. The edgier brand of the "Max" product line lends itself to the use of an unconventional character. The character has been leveraged for meaningful, engaging content (Mashable says 80% of viewers are still watching four minutes in to the 6 minute YouTube spot) and has helped further position Pepsi as the youthful choice in the Cola wars.
2. Kenny Powers - K-Swiss
Kenny Powers, the main character in the HBO show, "Eastbound and Down", played the newly-appointed CEO of K-Swiss in a campaign launching the brand's training shoe. K-Swiss can't compete on spend with the Nike's and Adidas' of the world; in order to break through the clutter, they needed an unconventional character to be the face of an unconventional campaign.
3. Peanuts Characters - MetLife Insurance
An iconic partnership since 1985, the MetLife association with Peanuts helped put a face to a company in an industry that is often formal, straight-laced, and unapproachable. If the Peanuts characters are one thing, they are loyal - a highly sought after brand attribute in the insurance / financial services category. MetLife's attempt to humanizetheir brand by aligning with the values of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, etc. has been working for decades. In particular to the world of sports sponsorship, MetLife's Snoopy-branded blimps supply aerial coverage at MetLife-sponsored sporting events, helping to differentiate MetLife from other event sponsors through a unique and iconic program.