Blockbuster marketing: How thinking like Hollywood can dramatically increase brand engagement

Avocados from Mexico "First Draft Ever" by GSD&M.
Avocados from Mexico "First Draft Ever" by GSD&M.

GSD&M strategy director Michael Deszo considers how cinema and the second screen can converge to create intrigue

A voice whispers, "The shadow of shame never falls on our name, if you tell ’em true…" as the scene reveals a remade Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger talking to a FBI agent.  He continues, "I do not consider this ratting or informing …" into a recorder. "It’s an alliance," soothes the FBI agent. An "Unholy Union," suggests the title card. "Whitey’s playing us," worries another agent. And boom! A pistol-whipping, shotgun blasting cascade of violence rains down on Boston. Bulger muses, "If nobody sees … It didn’t happen."


It’s easy to get caught up in movie trailers — the emotion, the drama, the unanswered questions. They’re designed so differently from typical ads, built to evoke, not explain.  And it’s clear some marketers are starting to think like these producers, which in turn makes media buys more engaging and impactful, especially in the bigger media venues.

For example, Allstate has been in this game for some time with its "Mayhem" spots, which thrive on relatability and evoke fear. But during the New Year’s Day college football bowl game in 2015, there was a shift with Allstate’s approach.

The set up was an excited couple who decided to share via social media that they were headed to the Big Game, inadvertently inviting Mayhem into their home. A series of commercials followed during the game where Mayhem appeared to be selling the couple’s belongings on the home shopping network, The (effective) purpose: a call-to-action making viewers "share aware" rather than victims.

This wasn’t just another Mayhem spot. The brand took advantage of TV the way Hollywood taps the possibilities of a movie trailer: By creating an immersive brand experience that leads somewhere.

The result? According to the New York Times, traffic to reached over 30 million — 1 million of those visitors unique — just during the duration of the game.

"Well-organized absence."
Academy Award-winning director Andrew Stanton describes the action of a movie, distilled further in a trailer, as "well-organized absence." Trailers are dramatic because they leave some aspects of the story uncertain and, by nature, aren’t explicit. Marketers, however, avoid uncertainty because it’s risky.

"We can’t afford for people not to get it," Stanton said. "We have to make this execution work even harder." While this approach is reasonable enough, it’s from an outdated marketing playbook that ignores today’s bigger opportunity: the second screen.

Design for the second screen first.
If you treat your commercial like a trailer, the "movie" in a marketing sense is what happens on the second screen.

Nearly 90 % of mobile users view TV with the second screen. In a recent media study, UK television viewers checked their phones 26 times during a 30-minute program — nearly once per minute. As marketers, we need to lean into the compulsion: give people a reason to check their phone or tablet. Once there, people will watch, comment and share far beyond anything brands could buy.

The second screen is where the real value exchange needs to happen, but this has to be worth it in the mind of the viewer. From a production standpoint, this means treating the second screen like the first.

A recent example from my current agency, GSD&M, was creating a 2015 Super Bowl effort for Avocados from Mexico. We knew that it should be relevant to the game and, as importantly, we needed something that would elevate the Super Bowl work.

With that in mind, the team created the "First Draft Ever," a complete multi-round draft that existed online in the form of seven online videos, multiple social content streams and contests. This experience couldn’t be limited to a :30 or a :60 spot; rather, the TV was used as a trailer for the brand experience, causing curiosity for consumers. We made a :30 spot for on-air, and pre-released a :60 spot, which served as entry points into the online and social activations simultaneously. This strategy generated over 1 billion media impressions and nearly 1.5 million video online video views, making good enough to become the second-ranked digital campaign of the Super Bowl.

Mix anticipation with uncertainly, leave people shaken and stirred.
Shiv Singh, the global head of digital for PepsiCo, said something quite prescient at the 2012 Mobile World Congress, "In the future, no television advertisements will be just self-contained narratives. They will be trailers into deeper branded experiences." 

As we enter the planning and production season for monumental consumer events like the Golden Globes and the Super Bowl, now is the opportune time for Madison Avenue to take a note — and action — from the Sunset Strip. Marketing campaigns should stem from a place that leaves unanswered questions on the table. And rather than placing a direct and clear call to action in front of the consumer, create an emotional experience that evokes a deeper level of engagement, causing them to seek further ways to engage and a reason to check their phone 26 times in the next 30 minutes.

Michael Dezso is a strategy director at GSD&M.

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