Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Thursday, July 31, 2008


In June 2003 the DirecTV Group, Inc., provider of satellite television, launched a new marketing campaign featuring commercials with A-list Hollywood actors giving dramatic readings of actual fan letters received by the client. The use of celebrities was intended to help elevate DirecTV above its competition: cable television providers and direct-broadcast satellite rival Dish Network, both of which had begun imitating DirecTV’s successful commercials featuring Dan the installer.
Developed by ad agency Deutsch/LA, the new $100 million-plus campaign consisted primarily of TV spots, which included such actors as Joan Cusack, Danny DeVito, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, and Andy Garcia. Comedian Dennis Miller anchored radio spots, and a print ad was introduced featuring a picture of actor Dennis Hopper. The TV spots were shot against a bare background with nothing more than a stool. What made them powerful was the enthusiasm of the customers’ letters and the ability of veteran actors to read the letters with equal conviction. The atmosphere was kept lighthearted, resulting in impromptu remarks that found their way into the commercials. In one, for example, DeVito, following his rant called ‘‘Lies,’’ asked the crew in a joking manner, ‘‘Did I capture the guy’s anger?’’ ‘‘Celebrities Read Fan Mail to DirecTV (Become a DirecTV Fan Now)’’ lasted little more than a year, ending in July 2004. While it proved a boon to DirecTV, which enjoyed four straight quarters of increased subscribers, the same could not be said of Deutsch. Despite its good work and excellent relationship with DirecTV’s marketing people, the agency lost the account even before the campaign closed.

Deutsch/LA established its relationship with DirecTV in 2000 when it won a creative project for Sunday Ticket, the exclusive National Football League package of Sunday games. Deutsch won the entire creative account later in the year when DirecTV put up its business for review. With just under 9 million subscribers, DirecTV was the dominant player in its category but, after a solid run of several years, it had become engaged in a fight for survival, threatened on one side by rival satellite providers and on the other by digital cable. In the fall of 2000 DirecTV ran the first television commercials developed by Deutsch. Centered around Dan the DirecTV installer, these commercials became the focal point of DirecTV’s marketing campaign for the next year and a half. While successful, the installer campaign led some viewers to mistake DirecTV for a hardware company. The installer concept grew even less attractive when Dish Network and cable companies began using installers in their own ads.
With the installer becoming everybody’s spokesperson of the moment, DirecTV felt that the waters had been muddied and its brand diminished in the process. The company believed it was imperative that DirecTV launch a new marketing campaign that would not only reinforce its position as an entertainment company but also reassert its leadership position and restore some luster to the brand.

In the campaign that would succeed Dan the installer, DirecTV targeted existing customers, hoping to keep them on board. The company also wanted to appeal to potential new subscribers, especially ones with higher levels of disposable income, people who were not only attracted to premium brands but also likely to purchase DirecTV’s higher-end programming combinations, payper-view events, and high-margin sports packages. To achieve that end DirecTV asked Deutsch/LA to create a campaign that leveraged the influence of celebrities.

DirecTV faced entrenched competition from cable television systems (whether mom-and-pop operations or larger systems) around the country, but none could match the number of channels and digital picture and sound quality that DirecTV had to offer. Early on DirecTV faced satellite competition from PrimeStar, but after DirecTV swallowed PrimeStar’s 2.2 million subscribers in 1999, that left only Echostar’s Dish Network. Because the satellite dish and receivers were manufactured by Echostar, Dish Network was able to offer lower programming costs as well as lower equipment prices, making it a formidable foe.
By 2000 DirecTV and Dish Network battled each other but also received stiffer competition from cable operators, who began rolling out their own digital packages that not only rivaled the quantity of channels found on direct broadcast satellite systems but also offered movies on demand, high-speed Internet access, and Internet phone service as well. And on the horizon was another satellite provider, VOOM (owned by a subsidiary of Cablevision Systems Corporation), slated for a 2004 launch. VOOM eventually positioned itself as a high-definition television service, but it never caught on and ceased operations in April 2005. Nevertheless, in the early 2000s VOOM, backed by Cablevision’s deep pockets, was not a venture DirecTV could afford to take lightly.

Since taking over the DirecTV account, the Deutsch/LA creative team had become aware of the client’s unusual fan mail—mostly handwritten, usually quirky, generally humorous, and incessantly enthusiastic about DirecTV’s service, especially when compared to cable, which the writers skewered with a passion. In fact, DirecTV executives adorned their walls with their favorite letters. After DirecTV requested a campaign that featured celebrities, the Deutsch team began sampling the letters, which the agency had already used in a small way on the DirecTV website in promoting Sunday Ticket. Although the team was attempting only to get a feel for DirecTV subscribers, it soon became apparent that the fan letters were a treasure trove of material. ‘‘It was stuff you couldn’t make up,’’ Mark Musto, a Deutsch creative director, told Shoot. ‘‘We kept saying to ourselves, ‘If there is a way we can get this passion and emotion into our TV commercials, we’d be in a great place.’ So then we started kicking around the notion of getting big Hollywood actors to present these letters.’’
The creative team selected a pool of letters, all of which possessed ‘‘that special something that set the letter apart—whether it was a quirkiness or a passion or something that was real human that you could hang your hat on,’’ Musto recalled. Then the team began the laborious task of tracking down the letter writers and securing permissions. People who agreed to allow their letters to be read were given a $500 thank-you. In several cases, however, a favorite letter had to be discarded when the writer balked. While the agency secured the permissions, a director, Baker Smith of Harvest Productions, was hired.
The team had no interest in simply impressing consumers with how big a name it could buy to endorse DirecTV. Rather, the goal was to match the material to a specific actor, to deal with emotions that everyone could connect with while hopefully establishing a relationship between the audience and the celebrity. Securing the kind of A-list Hollywood talent DirecTV and Deutsch had in mind presented a challenge, however. While actors at this level might lend their voices to commercials or accept a paycheck for pitching a product in Japan, they avoided showing themselves in U.S. television commercials in the belief that overexposure might tarnish their star power. A wish list of actors was developed, and feelers were made through their agents—but only with money on the table. The first group of actors to sign on were DeVito, Fishburne, and Garcia. Another element in the campaign, a kicker, was that the actors were also DirecTV customers, although, in truth, DirecTV was ready to make them customers if necessary.
Initially the commercials were to be shot on an ornate set in the Culver Studios in Culver City, California. As the day of production neared, however, the soundstage was stripped down, finally consisting of nothing more than a glossy black floor, a blue background, a stool, and a simple spotlight. The creative team began to worry that by taking such a minimalist approach the commercials might fail to engage the audience. But as soon as the actors stepped into the spotlight and began performing the letters—quickly demonstrating to everyone assembled why they became stars in the first place—it became apparent that in terms of production value less was definitely more. The sparse set actually accentuated the power of the actor and the passion of the letter writer.
Each actor was given three letters for filming, one of which was in keeping with a familiar persona and others that might even go against type. Smith intentionally kept the atmosphere loose to make the crew into a ready audience to help draw out a performance. As a result the actors were willing to take chances and try out a number of deliveries. Smith told Boards Magazine about his experience directing Fishburne: ‘‘I didn’t know Laurence from a hole in the ground, but I’d give him simple suggestions like, ‘Try reading the letter as if you’re a 17-year-old surfer dude,’ and this 40-year-old black guy turned into a 17-year-old white surfer. I watched the transformation. Then we read like Shakespeare and Orson Welles, got way fucking serious, and again the body language changed.’’ In the end Fishburne used a Shakespearean delivery for a letter that read, ‘‘Dear DirecTV, This morning I turned on the telly and all I can say is jumpin’ ja hos se fat! Yee haw!’’ For his spot DeVito performed a letter the team called ‘‘Lies,’’ in which he delivered a passionate screed:
‘‘Dear DirecTV, Cable says reception quality is poor with satellite TV. Lies! My reception is way better with DirecTV than it ever was with cable!’’ Garcia’s spot, ‘‘Even Greater Than Greatest,’’ was intense but a shade quieter than the others: ‘‘Dear DirecTV, There’s not a word to describe how great DirecTV is. It’s not great. It’s not greater than great. It’s even greater than greatest.’’ The convivial atmosphere on the set also elicited some off-the-cuff remarks from the actors as they slipped out of character, such as DeVito quipping, ‘‘Did I capture the guy’s anger?’’; Fishburne wondering, ‘‘How was that? Was that too over the top?’’; and Garcia remarking to the letter writer, ‘‘I think I’m going to have you write my next review.’’ These comments then served as taglines to close the commercials.
The first three 30-second commercials began airing in June 2003, presented in letterbox format with the name of the actor and writer appearing in subtitles. ‘‘Celebrities Read Fan Mail to DirecTV’’ also included radio and print elements. The radio spot used Miller, who read a letter from a customer expressing her joy about calling her former cable company to say, ‘‘Please disconnect my cable.’’ The print ad showed 21 faces of DirecTV customers and fans, one of which was Hopper. Joining the campaign in September 2003, actor John Goodman cut a television commercial to promote Sunday Ticket. He read a letter from a satisfied Indianapolis Colts fan.
In March 2004 DirecTV and Deutsch launched a second phase of the campaign, which ran until July 2004. It featured television commercials by Cusack and Duvall. Cusack offered a screwball interpretation of a letter written by a fan in love with the word ‘‘great.’’ Duvall, adopting the tone of a proper Southern gentleman, pondered the qualities of a DirecTV customer service representative that he longed to see in his wife.

‘‘Celebrities Read Fan Mail to DirecTV’’ was considered a success by DirecTV, which signed up new customers at a healthy pace during the course of the campaign. But even before the second leg kicked off, DirecTV elected to sever its relationship with Deutsch/LA. The company hired a new executive vice president of marketing, Neal Tiles, who decided to consolidate the DirecTV account with agencies owned by Omnicom Group, including BBDO Worldwide, which took over the Deutsch business. BBDO had recently hired executive creative director Eric Silver, who had previously worked with Tiles. Deutsch managing partner Eric Hirshberg told Adweek, ‘‘I look back on our four years with DirecTV as a satisfying client-agency relationship . . . It was a good run.’’

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