May 22nd, 2009

Unilever Goes Hollywood

By Jonathan Cheng
The Wall Street Journal

Zeta-Jones Stars in Seven-Minute Film for Shampoo

Taking a page from luxury brands, Unilever’s Asian arm is using a splashy Hollywood-style minifilm starring Catherine Zeta-Jones to sell an everyday product: shampoo.

The seven-minute film, called “Alchemist,” which is airing in China and Japan, features a motorcycle chase at a high-security laboratory where a youth-enhancing elixir is being produced—an elixir that turns out to be Unilever’s Lux shampoo. Later, at a red-carpet ball, Ms. Zeta-Jones’s shimmering hair takes center stage in a rendezvous with her motorcyclist accomplice.

Unlike similar efforts in recent years to promote BMW cars and Chanel No. 5 perfume through minifilms, “Alchemist” is being produced primarily for broadcast on TV, not just the Internet and movie theaters. It is also aimed at pushing a mass-market product—in this case, a reformulated Lux shampoo with what Unilever calls “fiberactive technology” meant to heighten hair’s shimmer.

“Alchemist,” which began airing in March, was produced by the advertising agency JWT, a unit of London-based WPP, from an original screenplay by Jeffrey Caine, who also wrote the screenplay for the James Bond flick “GoldenEye” and for the thriller “The Constant Gardener.”

Unilever, which didn’t disclose the cost, has been buying five-minute blocks of time on channels like China Central Television and Fox this summer to air the minifilm, mostly during programs about movies and celebrities. More than 6.5 million people saw the minifilm via the Web in its first six weeks. An edited version will also be played in movie theaters. The ad plays in English, with Chinese or Japanese subtitles.

It comes as Lux faces entrenched market leaders in both countries. According to market-research firm Euromonitor International, Lux had a 10.2% market share in Japan last year, putting it a close second to Shiseido’s shampoo. In mainland China, its 5.1% market share puts it behind Procter & Gamble’s Rejoice, Head & Shoulders and Pantene Pro-V, which together account for nearly 40% of shampoo sales there.

The new film is part of an effort by the consumer-products giant to go beyond traditional 30-second slots in an age where ad clutter and technology are challenging the effectiveness of traditional ads.

Unilever says Japanese women are exposed to about 1,000 ads in an average week. Advertisers are finding audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated as global marketing matures, and the spread of DVRs and the use of the Internet and DVDs to watch TV shows makes it tougher to capture viewers.

“The means of interacting with consumers has dramatically changed,” says Enzo Devoto, Unilever’s vice president of hair products in North Asia and Greater China. “A film seemed the perfect solution—by getting into the world of movies, rather than just having movie stars in our ads, which our competitors do too, we can draw consumers closer to the brand.”

Unilever is already heavily involved with what is known as “branded entertainment,” which traces its lineage to the soap operas of the 1940s and ‘50s. As advertisers turned to buying traditional TV spots, and then paying TV networks to insert their products in the storyline of a show, advertisers have been on a quest to create branded content without alienating potential customers.

In 2007, Unilever created a series called “The Gamekillers” for MTV to hawk its Axe antiperspirant. The series tried to walk a fine line as its creators tried to avoid making it seem like an extended deodorant commercial while retaining its marketing power.

The risk is that longer-form commercials could test the patience of viewers fed up with traditional 30-second spots.

Mr. Devoto says “Alchemist” is less of an interruption to the programming as it is a form of entertainment in and of itself.


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