June 12th, 2009

In China, Brands Come With Plots

By Mei Fong
The Wall Street Journal

The line between advertisers and entertainment producers is rapidly blurring in China, as many brands go online with their own films and Web series, taking advantage of the shortage of popular shows on China’s state-controlled TV.

Increasingly, advertisers are moving from being mere sponsors of online entertainment to building plots around their products. Among the latest to jump on the bandwagon is French liquor company Pernod Ricard SA. In late April, Pernod launched an interactive online movie to promote one of its cognac brands, Martell Noblige.

Called “Style, Experience,” the film plays like a watered-down homage to James Bond and “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” The plot centers around a crucial day in the life of Ken, a dashing Shanghai native who tools around in a BMW, lives in a gunmetal-gray bachelor pad and has plenty of rich-boy toys.

Viewers determine the plot and length of the movie, which can last from eight to 18 minutes, as they “help” the hero make choices that could ultimately result in him getting promoted and winning the girl, or ending up dateless and jobless. (The movie airs on Martell’s local Web site http://www.martellnoblige.com.cn.)

Product placement, while hardly subtle, isn’t intrusive, with cognac bottles lurking in the background as Ken—played by talk-show host Bai Xuxu—dates and otherwise disports himself, backed by a sophisticated soundtrack.

The movie marks the culmination of a yearlong digital-ad campaign by Pernod, in which the company, among other things, sent bloggers to various Chinese cities to review trends.

Pernod won’t disclose the cost of the campaign, which is intended to help establish Martell Noblige in China’s $37 billion-a-year spirits market. China is the world’s second-largest cognac market in terms of volumes consumed, behind the U.S., according to researcher Euromonitor International.

Pernod has established a strong foothold in the Chinese market, overtaking Rémy Cointreau Group for second place, with 26% market share, compared with Rémy’s 20%, as of 2007, the latest data available from Euromonitor. Both companies still lag behind leader LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which holds a 44% market share.

Pernod’s Martell Noblige is relatively new to China’s cognac consumers, who are more familiar with Martell VSOP and XO. Noblige is typically served in mixed drinks, and is intended for a much younger audience, says Yann Lombard-Platet, managing director at ad agency Nurun, which created the campaign. “The way to engage this audience is to provide entertainment and content,” he says.

It’s something Chinese audiences don’t seem to mind. “People in China have fewer options for entertainment. They think, ‘So long as you give me something interesting, I don’t mind if your brand somehow shows up,’ which is something that viewers in the U.S. or Europe would be less receptive to,” said Chris Reitermann, president of OgilvyOne China, a unit of ad holding company WPP.

Last year, Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods maker Unilever launched a Chinese version of ABC-TV’s comedy “Ugly Betty,” called “Ugly Wudi,” with plotlines that plug Dove soap. Earlier this year, Sony Corp.’s Sony Pictures Television International kicked off “Sufei’s Diary,” a Chinese twist on “Sofia’s Diary,” a Web series that originated in Portugal; the Chinese version touts Sony and Clinique products in three-minute daily episodes.

The Martell ad campaign attempts to engage this online audience longer. “A movie of 15 minutes allows an audience to sit and think what it is they are doing, rather than passively looking. In a two-minute miniseries, there’s hardly any time,” says Mr. Lombard-Platet.

The difficulty is assessing the effectiveness of these new digital initiatives. So far, the Martell Noblige Web site has received 1.2 million visitors, as measured by Google Analytics, a modest number by China standards.

However, a quarter of the audience spent more than 25 minutes on the site, and 40% of those viewers returned to watch the movie again, which suggests a relatively strong level of engagement.

Nurun, a division of Canada’s Quebecor Media Group, said Web chatter about Martell Noblige has increased threefold since the campaign started. But Nurun is still assessing the quality of the buzz to determine how much of the chatter is positive, and if the campaign has made viewers more predisposed to buy the product.


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