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How choosing “Birdman” hurts the Oscars brand

The recent Oscar choice of “Birdman” as the best movie of 2014 not only defied moviegoers’ preferences, but it is also a lesson on how a strong brand can lose credibility and hence trust when it becomes so self-obsessed. One of the cardinal rules of good branding is to consider the interests of the target audience before making decisions that may be inconsistent with what you want your brand to stand for in the eyes (and hearts) of your main customers. For example, was “Birdman” indeed the “best” movie, or simply the “favorite” of the Motion Picture Academy?

The process of determining the “best” movie is surely nebulous, as it assumes different criteria and individual tastes. Blockbuster movies with colossal visual effects are often the biggest revenue producers for Hollywood. However, despite widespread public appeal, these usually do not become classic films that stand the test of time. On the other extreme, an original movie with superb acting, creative cinematography, and an unusual story (e.g. “Birdman”) may be considered an impressive artistic achievement, but lacks that popular “wow” reaction from most viewers.

Moviegoers clearly preferred the other best movie candidates over “Birdman”, especially “American Sniper,” “The Imitation Game,” and the “Theory of Everything.” “Birdman” attracted only about 5 million viewers and $11 million in ticket sales, compared to 40 million viewers and $320 million in sales for “American Sniper,” and “The Imitation Game” with 10 million viewers and $84 million in domestic revenues.

A further disparity between the Academy’s favoritism and the public interest in the Oscars brand is the significant 15% drop in broadcast ratings for the 4-hour Oscars show, from 43 million viewers last year to 36.6 viewers, its lowest rating since 2009.

News media site several causes for this growing detachment by the Academy from movie viewers. The most common is that its 6,000+ members have a natural bias for films that involve their own movie industry. Phillip Hallman, the film studies librarian at the U. of Michigan, said “It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become elitist, and not in step with anything that is actually popular” (source: NY Times 2/24/15 article – “Moviegoers and Academy Move Further Apart”).

As an avid movie fan, I must admit that I was confused and very disappointed at “Birdman.” It was supposed to be a comedy, but I never even broke a smile. I belong to a film critics group that gave it only a 5.8 rating (on a scale of 1-10), versus 8.6 for the “Theory of Everything”, 8.0 for “American Sniper” and 7.5 for “the Imitation Game.” A few liked “Birdman” because it was so different, but similar to the rest of American movie fans, most found it distasteful and just too weird.

It may not be obvious, but the Oscar is a powerful brand. This year, however, the selection of “Birdman” over more popular, highly respected movies violated three basic rules of smart branding:

1. Recognizing and responding to the desires/interests of your target customer (moviegoers) is fundamental for sustaining a trustful relationship with them, especially when their preferences have already been demonstrated at the box office.

2. Like any brand, the Oscars promise a predictable experience, an expectation that clearly was not delivered to very many movie fans.

3. The disconnect for this brand experience, especially compared to other popular films, undermined the credibility a brand needs to build brand trust, especially since word-of-mouth has a significant influence on future movie selection and viewing.

This is the big risk for the Oscars. With such a schism between the thoughts of Academy members on what accounts for the “best” movie, and the public expecting and feeling very differently, the impact of the Oscars will be diminished in the future unless they start acknowledging the interests of all moviegoers. It’s not about the idiosyncrasies and whims of professionals in the movie industry; it’s more about recognizing the inherent desires and judgment of the populous for a memorable, emotion-packed movie classic (e.g. recent winners like “Argo” and “The King’s Speech”) where most moviegoers remain in their seats after the movie, and honestly say “WOW!”

Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is an experienced business development and branding professional with a successful track record introducing new products and services, expanding into foreign markets, re-positioning products, and facilitating ideation sessions. Jay has effectively applied proven marketing and branding principles from his background in the consumer goods industry to other industry sectors, including B2B situations. Jay’s career began in consumer packaged goods and then expanded into household products, beverages and publishing. His first company was Richardson-Vicks (now part of Proctor & Gamble), where he held new product positions in New York and in London. He continued his new product responsibilities for Arm & Hammer products at Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer), then VP Marketing of the wine/champagne division of Seagram, and finally VP, Director of Marketing at Newsweek. Gronlund started The Pathfinder Group in New York in 1990, an international business development and brand consulting firm. Related to this, much of his work today involves re-positioning brands, ideation sessions and marketing workshops, with a primary focus on emotional branding, especially building brand trust for clients. Jay has also been teaching a marketing course at NYU since 1999, “Positioning and Brand Development". Jay recently wrote a new book, “Basics of Branding," reflecting his NYU branding course and professional experience. He has also published several articles on diverse marketing topics: “5 Steps to a Successful Ideation Session," “What B2B Marketers can Learn from B2C," “Employer Branding," “Customized Marketing for Tomorrow’s Leaders," “Sharing and Implementing New Ideas Across Borders," and “Working with the New Russians”, “Word-of-Mouth Marketing for B2B Situations," “The Future of m-Health” and “How to Build ‘Value’ for Healthcare Brands in Emerging Markets." Jay Gronlund is a graduate of Colby College and has an MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth College.

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