Inside Ford's Branded Entertainment Engine

Ford may be scrambling to recover its footing in the U.S. car and light truck market, but it's got great traction in Hollywood.

Three brands in Ford's Premier Automotive Group--Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Land Rover--plus many other Ford divisional vehicles, are appearing in a slew of shows this fall. Ford's forthcoming Edge crossover will be the centerpiece of a major studio release in 2007.

The Aston Martin DB 9, Land Rover Range Rover, and a Jaguar S TYPE have roles in NBC's new "Studio 60." This season's "The OC" features Jaguar XK, Range Rover, and the Ford Escape Hybrid.

Ford Global Brand Entertainment is handling the deals. The practice, based in Ford's Dearborn headquarters, with an office in Hollywood, is focused on extending what used to be mere product placement into something more: making Ford vehicles as much a part of the story and limelight as a movie or TV show's flesh-and-blood (or digital) star.

Bob Witter, Ford Global Brand Entertainment Manager, joined Ford from Disney six years ago. "I consider myself and the rest of our team to be Hollywood agents, but our clients are cars, not actors," he said.

"We are so busy that we now have just about every Jaguar and Land Rover out. We are now seeing our largest [product placement] volume ever," he added.

Witter works out of the Hollywood, Calif., office of Ford Global Brand Entertainment (FGBE), which launched two and a half years ago. The rest of the team there includes Ford family member Al Uzielli, who has a movie production background and serves as a senior consultant; Brian Daly, an industry veteran and senior partner at J. Walter Thompson, Ford's agency of record; Ross Mackenzie, also of JWT, who reviews all scripts and consults with the team, and Myles Romero, who manages the entire FGBE from Ford Headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.

Witter, who used to represent PAG exclusively, said that FGBE's status as a one-stop shop for vehicle placement means he and the team can now pitch any of Ford's vehicles to a given project, from ultra luxury to pickups to sub-compact economy cars. "There isn't much we can't supply a production," he said.

Edge, he said, will have a "massive" role in a major release next year. He would not name the film, but said the deal--Ford's largest integrated placement deal for a single vehicle in a movie next year--is planned to include cross-promotional activity. Edge goes on sale later this year.

In another instance, Witter said, by getting a Range Rover Sport SUV in the opening episode of Fox's new "Standoff", FGBE was also able to secure recurring appearances of a blue Mustang GT convertible.

Hank Kim, director of entertainment at Havas-owned media agency MPG, said that branded entertainment has exploded over the past five years because of clutter and media fragmentation. But he warned that the effectiveness of such ventures rests on execution.

"[Branded entertainment] is not just the flavor of the month, and it isn't just media hype; there's real value in it," he said. "But it has to be done in a collaborative manner between advertiser, network, producer and marketing partner--it's a byzantine relationship with lots of moving parts."

As an example of good placement, Kim points to the integration of Buick's LaCrosse in ABC's "Desperate Housewives"--in which Eva Longoria's character is forced to work as a pitch woman at a car show, and ends up touting the LaCrosse. "It was a five-minute plug for the brand that totally served the story line," he said.

Witter characterizes the current placement business model as "win-win" for the productions and for his company. Producers get to enhance the characters' personality and plot with the support of the cars, and Ford benefits from the association that comes from the "roles" the cars play.

Witter confirmed that a number of PAG vehicles will appear in the forthcoming Sony Pictures' James Bond movie, "Casino Royale," starring Daniel Craig, who drives an Aston Martin in the film.

Witter said that FGBE created the deal with Sony through Ford of Europe. FGBE was involved because placement for the movie uses all PAG vehicles. Ford of Europe is handling marketing support, including promotional activity, Witter said. Ford has a relationship with Sony "on a case by case basis," he said. "We have great partnerships with all the major studios in Hollywood."

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