How to craft the campaign that your brand deserves.
There’s no way Heath Ledger could make a good Joker.
That was the general consensus among fans at movie blogs and comic book shops back in 2006, when it was announced that Ledger would join the cast of the much anticipated The Dark Knight. The announcement was the fruit of a promise made at the end of Batman Begins, a film that successfully “rebooted” the Batman brand for Warner Bros. The promise was a simple one: after a smaller, darker, more personal first movie full of obscure villains, the sequel would expand this new universe to include the bigger-than-life psychopath known as The Joker, considered by many to be the greatest villain in Batman’s Rogues Gallery. In a franchise defined as much by its villains as it is by its hero, The Joker was the Holy Grail of casting decisions, arguably even more so than Batman himself. So it would only take a quick glance at the “Known For” section on Ledger’s IMDB profile to understand why soon after the casting was announced, the Internet was flooded with jokes about “Brokeback Batman” and “The Poker.”
The stage was set for failure on a massive scale. Warner Bros., after the widely pannedBatman & Robin, made a gamble by putting the most valuable asset in their DC Comics library in the hands of an interesting, but still unproven filmmaker named Christopher Nolan, and allowed him to take the franchise in the opposite direction than its film incarnations had ever been. The first film produced by the new approach was a modest success financially but, more importantly, proved appealing to the hardcore Batman fans who had long yearned for a grittier, darker representation of the character. It was this group that made Begins into a cult hit once it was released on home video. It was this group that emboldened Warner Bros. to green-light a sequel with a higher budget, almost approaching the entire gross of the first movie. And it was this group that would’ve bought the tickets for this sequel, had they been available, at the very moment that they first saw Commissioner Gordon hand Batman a playing card with a Joker’s grinning face printed on it at the end of Begins. It seemed, for a while, that the gamble was about to pay off. The studio and the filmmakers had successfully brought the core fan base back into the fold and seemingly erased all trace of past renditions of Batman that bring back memories of Bat-nipples and Cold puns. But then, before a single frame of the sequel was ever shot, the studio found themselves with a perception problem on their hands.
The casting of Ledger, at the time still fresh off of Brokeback Mountain, brought about a geek version of PTSD, in which the fanboys had flashbacks of crotch shots and homoerotic subtext. Had Christopher Nolan jumped the shark? Had he given in to studio pressure to inject some sex appeal into his gritty Gotham? In response, the studio would have to craft a marketing campaign that would erase these questions from fans’ minds and would go on to become one of the best executed, and most successful, viral social media campaigns ever.
Social media and public relations are the key to understanding the success of The Dark Knight’s marketing campaign. It is my belief that advertising, on its own, tends to be a waste of budget dollars for any company looking for results beyond brand awareness. A successful campaign requires a deep understanding of the brand’s strengths, weaknesses, and goals, and above all, its audience needs to be crafted around these. Dark Knight’s marketing team understood this, and so it set about creating a massive PR/social media campaign centered on the element that would make or break The Dark Knight’s image in the audience’s eyes: The Joker and the actor cast to play him.
In May 2007, along with the more traditional “I Believe In Harvey Dent” viral marketing campaign, the marketing team also launched a second website called “I Believe in Harvey Dent Too.” The website encouraged fans to send in emails in order to, pixel by pixel, unlock a picture that would reveal what the people behind the scenes already knew: Heath Ledger was going to make an awesome Joker. By understanding what the audience’s main concern was going into the movie, the marketing team was able to use those same concerns to engage the core fans, who were anxious about what Nolan had in mind for this version of the loveable murdering psychopath. And as the digital mosaic came to life before fans’ eyes, the perception problem instantly turned into curiosity and anticipation.
More games followed. Fans were sent on scavenger hunt to unlock a teaser trailer, further photos, websites and games. Just like the mosaic on that first website, the final record-breaking gross of the movie painted a clear picture of what a successful social media campaign looked like in the digital age.
Special thanks to our guest blogger, Carlos Basabe, who is a Market Ambassador for Windows Phone by day and a comic-book-loving, graphic-designing, photo-taking, Call of Duty-playing, self-professed geek by night. You can find him on Twitter @CBasabe if you’d like to pick his brain, share your thoughts or tell him how awesome he is.
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