Monday, August 18, 2008

Clean Trucks, Authenticity, and Navistar's $5 Million Brandertainment Play

Hollywood meets flyover country with a Navistar International-funded documentary about trucking and drivers. The company invested $2 million in the 45-minute documentary and will spend another $3 million promoting the movie, called "Drive and Deliver." The movie will get a red carpet premiere at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas this week. You can see the trailer and learn about the "stars" of the documentary on the International Trucks site.

According to the New York Times, the documentary includes both candid discussions with truckers as well as beauty shots of the LoneStar. The soundtrack includes music by Merle Haggard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band and Hank Williams. The movie was directed by Brett Morgen, whose credits include “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” a documentary about Hollywood producer Robert Evans.

Is Navistar International Corporation getting into the film business? No, but they are looking to raise awareness of their $120,000+ LoneStar truck and to make a statement to their target audience of hard-working, long-hauling truckers.

Why finance an expensive documentary--an effort that will require a third of Navistar International's annual marketing budget? “This is about generating word of mouth, positive word of mouth” says a company exec. Added an exec from Fathom Communications, the agency that produced "Drive and Deliver," "The film is a platform to create indelible interactions between the long-haul trucking community and the brand and elevate the conversation beyond products and product specs."

Is this a smart strategy? Time will tell, but already Navistar International and LoneStar are getting more media attention than a truck company and its new model typically receive. And their plan to roll out the documentary to their core audience is right on target: Following the premiere at the truck show, the movie will be screened at more than 50 truck stops around the country and will then be released on DVD.

The biggest challenge may be to prevent this marketing program from seeming like a marketing program. Like all branded entertainment programs, the key is make sure the content and execution is focused on the needs of the audience and not on the needs of the brand.

Already, it seems "Drive and Deliver" may be falling on the wrong side of this gray line: The trailer features many glorious shots of a sparkling clean LoneStar. While one can't blame the brand for wanting some beauty shots of the product, even the hint of spin or hype will destroy the authenticity of the documentary and thus ruin the intended connection with the grounded audience. Spending $5 million to connect with your trucker audience and then leaving them shaking their heads and laughing over the unrealistically antiseptic trucks could reduce the brand's return on their marketing investment.

Navistar International seems to recognize this. The Times notes that a rough cut of “Drive and Deliver” contained "perhaps a few too many shots of the behemoth LoneStars, their chrome and oversize grilles gleaming brightly." Fathom reports that "some of those shots will probably be edited out before next week."

That "probably" worries me--if the brand is looking at the movie and questions if there's too many beauty shots of immaculate trucks, then I'm sure the intended audience will feel there's far too many of those shots. With brandertainment, an ounce of restraint is worth a pound of embarrassment, ridicule, and diminished results.


Anonymous said...

There are only a handful of owner-operators and small-fleet owners in America with the cash and credit rating to swing a deal for a $140,000 tractor. I doubt they read the New York Times and I don't think they're going to be swayed by a movie.

Perhaps Navistar is trying to make an impression on shareholders now that they've re-listed their stock.

I think their money would be better spent in traditional B2B channels: trade pubs, demo events, dealer initiatives, etc. A couple million bucks directed to where the buyers actually are could go a long way to driving acceptance of this truck...

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Anonymous,

I am not (obviously) familiar with the trucking industry. That said, it seems to me that creating buzz and connecting with the truckers cannot hurt the demand and attention for the product.

As for the NYTimes, I'll bet more truckers read it than you know, plus I don't think the Time was really the primary media target--it's just a nice bit of attention to raise awareness to (as you point out) shareholders and investment bankers.

But, even before launch, it is getting the sort of attention Navistar wants such as on trucking blogs, AOL, and in the heartland (such as in Fort Wayne).

Let's give it some time and see what impact "Stand and Deliver" has on both sales and Navistar International's reputation.

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