05 Mar 2018 20:10 IST

Product placement, a subtle marketing strategy

A screenshot from the Hindi film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander

A brand can ride on a film’s popularity without paying the costs such endorsement would entail

Let me start with a story. Over 25 years ago, I was the regional head of a large advertising agency. One day, we got a call from one of our clients, a large cycle brand in Madras, as Chennai was known in those days. They wanted us to evaluate a proposal for an in-film placement. There were a couple of bright young MBAs from Bombay and they were recounting their story; quite effectively too, I must add.

They had obviously done their homework; they said that their film was about the competition between two schools — one, an elite, snobbish private school; and the other, a government school where the hero was studying. The annual face-off involved high drama and the deciding event was to be the cycle race. The young men said the ‘hero’ would use our client’s brand of cycle, an ordinary roadster, and beat the geared cycle of the ‘villain’ from the private school!

There was to be enough opportunity to show the brand in all its glory and it was slated to be an incredible part of the film’s climax. While it seemed interesting, we hummed and hawed as we were not sure, it was beyond our ad budget and so we told the client that maybe it wasn’t a great idea. How wrong we were! The film was Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar and the hero, Aamir Khan, who in later years went on to become a legend. In hindsight, it was a great opportunity for in-film product placement that would have made our brand recognisable across the length and breadth of this country. But, boy had we goofed up!

Things have moved on …

Over the years, there has been a major improvement on this front as more brands have jumped on to the product placement bandwagon. Younger, savvier film producers continued to make interesting films and TV commercials, and wove brands into them by way of engaging story lines so that they didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

Some older readers would remember the successful movie Taal featuring Aishwarya Rai, who was at the top of her career; along with her was the bottle of Coke that she kept sipping intermittently. If she was happy, she sipped Coke; if she was in love, she sipped Coke, and the message being subtly reinforced to a gullible audience was that Coke was for the great moments in your life. Here was a ‘commercial’ that you couldn’t skip or move on to a different channel!

There’s no greater value than naming a movie after your brand, as we saw in Mere Dad ki Maruti, that acted as an effective product placement for the Ertiga.

Yes, in-film placement is here to stay, even in television serials that are often more popular than films for a section of the target audience.

Enter the brand manager

Over the years, there has been a subtle and yet, significant change in the world of marketing and that is the increasing importance of the brand manager. Today, the brand manager calls the shots. He looks at opportunities for the brand without worrying about what the ad agency will say or do. He looks at the costs and benefits of options presented to him.

He knows that people can blank out advertising — they skip channels with impunity. Brands have to be subtle in their selling and that is where a strategy like product placement may be considered. Today, rather than ‘in your face’ product placement, or merely having the hero and heroine dancing in front of the brand logo, subtle possibilities exist.

A brand’s essence can be seamlessly woven into the plot of a film. A brand can easily ride on a hero’s or a film’s popularity without paying the phenomenal celebrity costs that endorsements would entail.

Time to be different

Branding is all about being different and standing out from the competition. Today, in this media cluttered world, one must constantly look for new opportunities to be distinctive.

Often, we may think the solution is a high-decibel TV commercial shot in New Zealand and costing a bomb. But it need not be. It can be an in-film placement that is strategic, relevant and subtle. So it’s important to scan the environment and keep an open mind to spot the right opportunity. This could provide the extra push your brand needs!