Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Saturday, February 2, 2008


OVERVIEW, Inc., entered the retail marketplace as a pioneering online bookseller in 1995, and though it had been steadily diversifying its product offerings all along, by 2004 most consumers still thought of the website only in connection with books and music. Having recently made the transition, thanks to years of capital-intensive investment, from dot-com trendsetter to actual profit maker, Amazon wanted its customers to begin thinking of its site whenever they needed anything. Unconvinced that television and other traditional forms of advertising could translate into online sales, Amazon and its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, enlisted Fallon Worldwide’s Minneapolis office, a leader in online branded entertainment, to spread the message about Amazon’s breadth of products via itself.
The result was ‘‘Amazon Theater,’’ a series of five short films starring well-known Hollywood actors and integrating products available for purchase on The films, sponsored by JP Morgan Chase & Co., cost approximately $2.5 million to produce. Timed to coincide with peak holiday traffic, they premiered on each Tuesday between November 9 and December 7, 2004, and were packaged as a free ‘‘holiday gift’’ to customers. Though the featured Amazon products were folded into the stories without fanfare, they were listed as starring players in an interactive credit roll at the end of each movie, allowing viewers to click and go to linked Amazon pages to make immediate purchases.
This innovative integration of entertainment and shopping attracted industry and media attention and pointed the way to future explorations of interactive advertising. Amazon continued to experiment with the inclusion of entertainment on its website by partnering with the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005 to stage a shortfilm competition. Candidate films were available for free viewing on the website, and Amazon customers selected the winner.

Inspired by a statistic claiming that Internet usage was growing at a rate of 2,300 percent a year, entrepreneur Bezos launched Amazon in July 1995 as an online bookseller. By doing away with the costs associated with the building and operation of traditional retail stores, the pioneering Web business was able to offer consumers lower prices than its physical-world counterparts while still delivering a high level of customer service. As the Web population grew exponentially in the late 1990s, so did Amazon. It went public in 1997; extended its product range to music, videos, toys, and electronics in 1998; began a concerted effort to buy up other dot-coms and to offer a wider range of online services; and increasingly established an international presence by 2000, with websites serving England, Germany, France, and Japan. In 2002 Amazon partnered with hundreds of clothing retailers. In 2003, after years of steady investment aimed at allowing it to boast ‘‘Earth’s biggest selection’’ and to claim to be ‘‘Earth’s most customer-centric company,’’ Amazon posted its first yearly profit.
By 2004, despite the fact that Amazon’s product selection rivaled that of Wal-Mart, most consumers still thought of the online retail powerhouse as a site strictly for buying books and music. Amazon wanted to change this perception, but it had almost entirely quit investing in traditional media advertising, choosing instead to keep prices low and offer free shipping. The company had, however, already experimented with branded entertainment on its site. During the 2003 holiday season Amazon had enlisted celebrities Jack Black, Bruce Springsteen, Hillary Clinton, and Tom Brokaw, among others, to offer exclusive content and gift recommendations on its site. Because Amazon represented ‘‘a hybrid between stores and a media outlet,’’ according to branding consultant Allen Adamson, the promotion also served the interests of the celebrities, who contributed their content and recommendations free of charge.
Amazon’s interest in continuing to experiment with online branded entertainment made it a logical match for Fallon Worldwide, the agency widely credited with inventing the category. In 2002 Fallon’s Minneapolis office had teamed up with successful feature-film directors, including Ang Lee, John Frankenheimer, and Guy Ritchie, to create short, online action films starring BMW cars. The BMW films won several major awards and helped boost the carmaker’s sales by 8 percent in 2003. Though the BMW films seemed to herald the arrival of a dynamic new outlet for marketers, the dotcom slump, together with the fact that a majority of Web surfers still did not have the high-speed Internet connections required to watch video footage efficiently, kept the category from becoming viable for most companies.

Because it could air the ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ films in a prominent place on its own site, Amazon had a built-in audience that was available to few other Web advertisers. ‘‘Amazon enjoys real critical mass,’’ Fallon’s Rob Buchner told Adweek. ‘‘They are a network unto themselves.’’ At the time of the campaign’s launch, more than 30 million Americans were visiting each month, and the site had more than 44 million registered members. During the holiday season Amazon, like most retailers, saw its traffic spike significantly, so Fallon chose the 2004 holidays as the ideal time to undertake a branding effort.
The majority of Amazon’s customers were affluent and college educated, and they generally felt comfortable with new technologies and media. They were accustomed to having their shopping experience include free entertainment and informational content, such as the previous holiday season’s celebrity contributions, customer reviews of Amazon’s products, and recommendations based on previous purchases.
The ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ films did not try to push products or the Amazon brand in a traditionally aggressive way; rather, they were intended to be a natural extension of the ongoing effort to improve the overall customer experience, which the company viewed as an important way of promoting loyalty. Though the films integrated products for sale on and offered links for purchasing those products in their credit sequences, there was no mention of or reference to Amazon at all. Amazon received no product-placement fees and did not make product names or logos easy to spot. Instead, the films were offered as a gift to customers. As founder and CEO Bezos said, ‘‘It’s a great example of Amazon’s relentless commitment to finding new and innovative ways to surprise and delight customers and deliver an unparalleled online experience.’’

Although all of the ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ films had interactive credits, ‘‘Do Geese See God,’’ directed by David Slade and starring Blair Underwood, took even further advantage of its medium of distribution by making the story itself interactive. The movie’s title, a palindrome, mirrored the structure of the story, which circled back on itself endlessly unless viewers participated by choosing one of several alternate endings, thereby freeing Underwood’s character from the story’s otherwise infinite loop.

As an online book and music vendor, Amazon was far ahead of its competitors during this time. Its nearest bookselling competitor was, the online complement to the category-leading bookstore Barnes and Noble. Like Barnes and Noble, barnesandnoble. com used features such as magazine subscriptions and author events to attract customers. Although Amazon had a larger selection of book titles, had a larger inventory on hand at any given time. The online auction site eBay, with nearly 50 million visitors per month in the fall of 2004, generated more monthly traffic than any other Internet commerce site. Although its business model differed from Amazon’s—it allowed individuals to buy and sell their own items and derived income from user fees and advertising—it rivaled Amazon as an online stop for purchasing almost anything at all. After a two-year advertising campaign that promoted its range of products and featured average people singing show tunes, eBay shifted to a ‘‘People Are Good’’ message in 2004. The campaign ran on TV, in magazines, and online, and, in conjunction with a newly established buyer-protection program, it endeavored to reassure consumers about the merits of doing business with strangers.
As a superstore Amazon fell far short, in sales, of the behemoth bricks-and-mortar retailer Wal-Mart, which was the world’s largest company of its kind. With about 75 percent of its 5,700 stores located in the United States, Wal-Mart was, during this time, expanding its international presence while projecting sustained U.S. growth for the coming decade. Criticized for its employment practices and battling dozens of lawsuits, Wal-Mart undertook a national newspaper campaign to repair its image.

Although Bezos and Amazon wanted the emphasis to be on entertainment—the presiding idea being that the ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ films weremeant as a gift to customers—
Fallon was charged with the goal of making customers aware that the website was more than just a place to shop for books and CDs; it was a one-stop online destination for virtually any product imaginable. Fallon’s creative team thus devised five film scripts loosely organized around the theme of karmic balance, each of which showcased a particular segment of products that consumers did not necessarily associate with Amazon. The agency hired the bicoastal production company RSA USA, run by Hollywood filmmaker brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, to collaborate on the project. RSA USA matched the five scripts with directors from its diverse roster, and actors Minnie Driver, Blair Underwood, Darryl Hannah, and Chris Noth were enlisted to star in the films. Each Tuesday for the five weeks between November 9 and December 7, 2004, a new film, ranging from 5 to 10 minutes, premiered on The films, the budgets of which were estimated at roughly $500,000 apiece, were sponsored by JP Morgan Chase & Co. The Chase brand appeared throughout the ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ experience, and Chase’s platinum Visa card was featured.
‘‘Portrait,’’ featuring Driver as an envious boss and focusing mainly on fashion products, told the story of an overweight female employee whose inner beauty was uncovered when a magical portraitist photographed her. ‘‘Agent Orange,’’ directed by Tony Scott, also featured fashion products and was billed as a suspenseful, psychedelic love story in which strangers were brought together on a subway by a goldfish. ‘‘Do Geese See God,’’ starring Underwood as a man caught in a futile race against time, highlighted home electronics, while ‘‘Tooth Fairy’’ integrated housewares and appliances into the story of a father (Noth) searching for a tooth hidden by his daughter. The ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ series concluded with ‘‘Careful What You Wish For,’’ a tale of comeuppance featuring Hannah and a wide array of jewelry. So that the product placement did not interfere with the stories, special care was taken to integrate the products seamlessly into each film. Instead of playing up the products’ appearances in the narratives themselves, after the manner of traditional product-placement agreements, Fallon and Amazon listed products as though they were actors in the closing credits. The credits, moreover, were interactive. Viewers could click on an actor’s or a director’s name and go to an ‘‘artist boutique’’ offering gift and philanthropic recommendations and showcasing that artist’s other movies, books, and CDs available for sale. Likewise, viewers of ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ films could click on any starring product in the credit roll and go to the appropriate Amazon page for purchasing it. After premiering on and running through the 2004 holiday season, the ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ films ran in theaters prior to featured movies.

Adweek credited the campaign with offering ‘‘a glimpse at what the merger of the PC and the TV could mean: a shopping portal within programming,’’ and Advertising Age placed the films at the top of their ‘‘10 Best Web Series or Films’’ list for 2004. But Bezos downplayed the potential of ‘‘Amazon Theater’’ to generate sales, maintaining that the films were meant primarily as entertainment and telling the Wall Street Journal that, if the films were advertising for Amazon, ‘‘they’re the worst advertising in the world.’’ Amazon was able, of course, to track traffic and purchasing activity related to ‘‘Amazon Theater,’’ but the company was unwilling to release any numbers. Both Amazon and Fallon spokespersons claimed that the campaign was a success on all fronts, and Amazon indicated that it would continue looking for new ways to provide interactive entertainment and to incorporate short films on its website.
In March 2005 Amazon partnered with the Tribeca Film Festival and its sponsor, American Express, to announce the ‘‘Amazon Theater’’/Tribeca Film Festival Short-Film Competition. Amazon invited filmmakers to submit short films of up to seven minutes, and Amazon customers could view them for free on and vote on their favorites. The five that received the most votes were screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, which ran from April 19 to May 1, 2005. The top-rated filmmaker, after another round of customer voting, was given a $50,000 grant for a future film in the form of a prepaid American Express card.

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