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Monday, November 13, 2006

Brand idea failures: Sony’s Godzilla

A monster flop

If one word saturates the brand consultant’s vocabulary more than any other, it is ‘synergy’. When big companies formulate a brand strategy they increasingly try to synergize their marketing efforts. In other words, the aim is to extend the brand into other relevant product categories.

In recent times, cross-promotional tie-ins have become all the rage and have proven, if indeed proof was needed, that brands have become larger than the specific products they represent. This trend is particularly obvious within the entertainment industry.

Take pop music. Gone are the days when all that mattered was what a pop group sounded like. Now, it is all about branding. As Michael J Wolf tells us in The Entertainment Economy, ‘brands and stars have become the same thing’. Ever since the Spice Girls phenomenon, record executives have been spending as much time thinking of ways to strike deals with toy manufacturers, television executives and fast-food chains as they have about pushing singles and albums. In the case of a band like SClub7, the brand extensions were planned right from the start, with the SClub’s debut single and TV show appearing simultaneously. TV series such as the UK’s Popstars and the US series American Idol, where popstars are created through the show itself, also exemplify this new way to cross-publicize an entertainment brand via different media.

Nowhere, however, is brand synergy more apparent than in the world of movies. George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise was the first to exploit the full possibilities of brand extension. As well as through movies, consumers have been able to interact with the Star Wars brand in numerous other ways. They have bought Star Wars action figures, read Star Wars novels, played the Star Wars computer game and worn Star Wars pyjamas.

Now of course, we are used to the ‘movie as brand’ concept. Men in Black, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and numerous others have replicated Star Wars’ cross-branded success. While this means the Hollywood studios can make potentially more money than ever before from a movie, it also means they have more to lose if things don’t go to plan. Just ask Sony.

With the 1998 release of Godzilla, Sony believed it had created a monster movie hit. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a movie that looked more likely to become a blockbuster. Sony had spent US $60 million implementing the teaser campaign. They had Puff Daddy rapping his way through one of the most expensive promo videos ever made for the Godzilla theme tune.

Furthermore, a replica of the star of the movie – a skyscraper-high green monster – was guaranteed to make a fantastic toy.

Most significantly, owing to Sony’s newly consolidated cinema holdings, the film was shown on more screens in its opening weekend than any other in movie history. On the day of its launch, one in five cinema screens were playing Godzilla.

The only trouble was that for all the money spent on a slick ad campaign, the word of mouth publicity surrounding the film was pretty bad. Even before the movie launched, news was spreading on the Internet of just how terrible it was. However, Sony was determined to get the online reviewers on side. The company even paid for Harry Knowles, the owner of the highly

influential site AintItCoolNews, to fly out for the premiere in New York. But nothing could stop the growing number of terrible reviews. Here is an extract from James Berardinelli’s one star review which appeared on the moviereviews.net site on the day the film opened:

Godzilla is the ultimate culmination of the ‘who cares about plot’ summer movie. A loose remake of the 1954 ‘classic’ Japanese monster movie, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s big-budget lizard-stomps-Manhattan disaster flick has been

written with the brain dead in mind. The script isn’t ‘dumbed down’, it’s lobotomised. [. . .] Worst of all, Godzilla isn’t even exciting. With the possible exception of a mildly enjoyable car chase near the end, there isn’t a sequence in this film that raises the pulse. Even the scenes with

dozens of aircraft attacking the monster are so devoid of tension and suspense that they are yawn-provoking. Independence Day may have been dumb, but it was full of ‘adrenaline moments’ capable of getting the audience involved in the action. In this aspect of its production, as in so many others, Godzilla is lacking. Actually, part of the problem is that we’re never sure who we’re supposed to be rooting for: the green monster with an attitude or the paper-thin humans trying to stop him.

Towards the end of the review, Berardinelli emphasized the insignificance of his opinion:

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what I (or any other critic, for that matter) have to say about the movie. Sony’s TriStar has assumed that Godzilla, like all self-proclaimed summer event motion pictures, is pretty much critic-proof. It may also be word-of-mouth-proof. Those who want to see the movie will see it no matter what I write or their friends say. So, when I go on record to assert that Godzilla is one of the most idiotic blockbuster movies of all time, it’s like spitting into the wind.

Maybe if Berardinelli’s had been the only bad review he would have had a point. But when there were thousands of other everyday moviegoers – not high-minded newspaper critics – venting their negative opinions, the Godzilla brand was soon losing its bite. One online discussion group even included a list of 63 fundamental flaws within the movie (typical example: ‘Godzilla can outrun helicopters but he can’t keep up with a taxicab’).

1998 was the year the movie industry finally realized the influential power of the Internet had over the movie-going public. Not only did it play a fundamental role in making sure Godzilla’s excessive marketing budget had been a waste of money, but it was also proving (through the example of the Blair Witch Project and its cult online following) that large marketing budgets weren’t always necessary in the first place.

Given the critical mauling Godzilla received, it is interesting to note that three years later Sony was receiving much more positive reviews for its summer blockbusters. Quotes from David Manning, the reviewer from the Ridgefield Press, were included on posters promoting the comedies A Knight’s Tale and The Animal. Manning referred to Heath Ledger, star of A Knight’s Tale, as ‘this year’s hottest new star’, and claimed The Animal was ‘another winner’.

However, in June 2001 Newsweek magazine revealed that David Manning didn’t exist, and had been invented by an unidentified Sony marketing executive the summer before to put a bit of positive spin on the hit-starved studio’s films. Manning’s ‘reviews’ had also made their way onto posters promoting Sony’s Hollow Man and Vertical Limit movies. ‘It was an incredibly foolish decision, and we’re horrified,’ a Sony spokeswoman said at the time. Sadly, David Manning’s opinion of Godzilla will remain unknown.


Lessons from Godzilla

  • Remember that bigger isn’t always better. Everything about the movie had been big – the star, the special effects, the marketing budget, the brand tieins – but it hadn’t been enough. Ironically, the slogan for the film was ‘Size matters’. In this case, it clearly didn’t.
  • Don’t over-market your brand. The excessive amount of hype and brand extensions Sony had created for Godzilla ended up working against it. As branding guru Tom Peters has put it, ‘leverage is good, too much leverage is bad’. This view is supported and expanded by anti-brand guru Naomi Klein who predicts in No Logo that ‘the current mania for synergy will collapse under the weight of its unfulfilled promises.’
  • Concentrate on the end product. It is true that branding is often more about perception than reality, but if your end product is truly awful the brand perception will always be negative.

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