Samsung, selfies, Oscars and product placement

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The Twitter world was abuzz today with live updates on the Oscars and the Ellen DeGeneres selfie (which at the time of writing, has clocked 2.4mn RTs and 1.1mn favourites). Samsung was the official sponsor of the event and product placement with Ellen wielding the phone (a Note 3, I guess) was prominent. Even before the event it was announced that Samsung would be sponsoring a special selfies segment and that seemed to be the crowning glory of the sponsorship. Samsung S5 debuts in April and that too got its share of visibility through paid ads. The investment seems to have paid off with millions of dollars worth of publicity for it and the sponsoring brand.

Lets pull back a little and look at the reasons-why for such a sponsorship and the benefits thereof for the brand.

Forget the millions of phones sold and the market share gains, if I were to credit Samsung for one thing, it would be the fact that within a short span, it is seen as an equal or superior to Apple’s iPhone by many. This includes global media, tech pundits and ordinary folk. It is a phenomenal achievement and the perception has come about thanks to a combination of product and marketing victories. Samsung has made no secrets of wanting equal status as the iPhone and spares no effort in dissing its competitor. However, I think Samsung still feels the need to up its cool quotient among the elite, the opinion-makers, especially in the US market. It is almost as if there is desperate need to be part of a club and angst at being left out. Ad campaigns featuring celebrities like Lebron and ‘white glove programs’ bear testimony to that. According to a Fast Company article on the White Glove program:

It’s a marketing effort designed to convert Apple-slinging celebrities and business influencers into Samsung evangelists. When Beyoncé whips out her phone on the street in Brooklyn, Korea’s largest business conglomerate wants the paparazzi to see that she’s playing Words With Friends on a Samsung.

Samsung’s product-placement & sponsorship strategy is similar to their overall strategy: it is a kitchen sink approach. Samsung is associated with soccer, photography (for Galaxy cameras) and films. The common factor with all of these is that those are the activities followed by ‘cool people’, the opinion makers. The underlying message:

I hang out with cool people.

While that is the intended message, in my view, it becomes an awkward and even counterproductive when the effort shows. The key to such activities is to come across as being effortless, even if you have to engineer that. It is the good old, stimulus-response theory of advertising in action. In order to evoke a particular response in the consumer’s head, a brand has to provide a stimulus. The stimulus and the response cannot be then same. Stand up comedians don’t wear placards saying, ‘I am funny’ – they crack jokes (stimulus) which evoke laughter (response). In my view, the in-your-face product placements, which make people wonder how much a brand paid for it are only effective to an extent. It may get visibility but may suffer on credibility.

Apple, on the other hand has cool quotient through a combination of strategies over the years. At the centre of it is a great product. Product placements have played a role too and going by reports, all of it is free. To me that approach can work for brands who already have a cult following and the brand is loved and respected. There, the approach is:

Cool people hang out with me.

To me, that sounds more subtle yet memorable.

The other issue which needs to be considered is: what benefit accrue to Samsung through the Oscar & selfie efforts? Saliency and ‘hip brand’ associations are the likely answers. But at this stage when Samsung is known to and loved by so many people, salience is really not an issue. The answer is in the cool quotient and one more thing: creating and strengthening preference. In my view, such activities strengthen the affinity Samsung already enjoys with its fans and potential fans in the Android community. But I don’t think it will cut ice when it comes to getting a majority of iPhone users to switch over. Sure, there could be a bunch of fence-sitters who get swayed but the core iPhone user is unlikely to be shaken by such. News reports of celebrities using an iPhone to tweet about a Samsung product suggest that celebrities see it as a contractual obligation and not a straight from the heart brand choice, when it comes to Samsung.


 In-your-face product placements which clearly suggest that ‘an activity has been bought’ have its limitations. Samsung has made obvious efforts to outwit Apple – the Gear launch was purely to be ahead of Apple, everything else be damned. I said this in an earlier post:

So the need to (a) out-innovate Apple (b) be seen as superior to Apple (c) be cooler than Apple and (d) beat Apple to be first in the market are perhaps the reasons behind Samsung’s product launches and marketing efforts of late. Every phone is packed with a laundry list of features, the marketing & advertising is nothing short of bombardment and celebrities like LeBron have been roped to give the brand both credibility and cool quotient. The need to beat Apple is perhaps what drove them to launch Samsung Gear. Ever since the ‘iWatch’ rumours have been floating since early last year, there was speculation about when Apple will launch a wearable device. Samsung simply had to beat them to it. As Ars Technica said, The Samsung Galaxy Gear says “First!” in hardware form, like the internet trolls.

I don’t know how much Samsung paid out for the Oscar sponsorship. Whatever the amount, the results have paid dividends, purely in terms of visibility. But in the crucial ‘has it created preference among the non-users?’ question, I think the jury is still out. I would say, no.

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  1. How many single event promotions would you consider for answering the question, ‘has it created preference among the non-users’? Assuming Samsung advertises during Superbowl, would you consider a single spot (TVC) to help with ‘preference among the non-users’?

    The purpose of a broad and expensive exercise like this is, as you yourself mention, visibility. This promotional exercise, in itself, cannot be expected to either create or change preference among non-users IMO. Even if it just sows the seeds of merely considering Samsung, which could be a result of a series of such visibility creating efforts, instead of an iPhone, that’s job well done for Samsung.

    Post that consideration, it is up to people to decide based on product’s merits vis-a-vis their use case.

    As for in-your-face tactics. It was a groufie and someone needs some phone to take that groufie. Would Ellen have used her iPhone for that groufie if Samsung hadn’t paid her? I don’t know – for all you know she may not have taken that groufie at all. Who knows the idea didn’t come out of Samsung’s marketing team which Ellen, as a paid celebrity, merely executed?

    Also, why should we assume that every person seeing the pic will behave with, ‘Oh so in-your-face’ and ‘Oh she used iPhone backstage; so fake’? Like in classic advertising, a Rs.2 pen free with a bar of soap may sound stupid to me, but it changes sales numbers dramatically for the soap brand. Because TG.

    So, I think you may be seeing the following exclusively from your perspective and possibly missing the larger set of people out there with a less discerning eye.

    “In-your-face product placements which clearly suggest that ‘an activity has been bought’ have its limitations”

    “I don’t think it will cut ice when it comes to getting a majority of iPhone users to switch over”

    “in-your-face product placements, which make people wonder how much a brand paid for it are only effective to an extent. It may get visibility but may suffer on credibility”

    … that is not wrong at all since you can only air your personal views in your blog. But extrapolating it as a larger trend may be a tad over the top 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment. No arguments about visibility – it is a big win. My point is about a pattern the brand has shown – of throwing everything at the wall, hoping something sticks. And desperately trying to be cool. Such desperation shows and may not appeal to everybody. It is like Ghatkopar (I have nothing against that suburb) trying to fit into the Malabar Hill crowd. It takes finesse and a ‘effortless ease’. Yes, these are personal views and is my bias against Samsung showing? Wonder how – I was so careful not to show that.

      • I did write a line to allege that your bias against Samsung is showing, but erased it because you’ve done a pretty good job of not making it evident at all and balanced out things 🙂

        On that ‘fit’ part, I see a host of reactions from non-biased, confused and middle-of-the-road folks (who I’d assume are majority, against a small set of highly opinionated people),
        – Whoa, what quality of pic inside an auditorium. May be I should try out that phone
        – Woo, Ellen is using a Samsung S5 that was announced just a few days ago. Let me check when it will be available in US
        – So many celebrities using S5? Wow – I think I need to check it out
        – This iPhone’s tiny screen is bugging me. That S5 seems good, amongst other models from LG and HTC, lemme check them out
        – Boy this Samsung is all over the place including Oscar ceremony. Do they have a new phone on the anvil? Lemme chec it out
        – Not sure when this Apple is gonna upgrade the iPhone 5S; all I see is random leaks. Need to look for a change. Samsung seems to be everywhere. So…
        – Post-Jobs Apple doesn’t give me enough confidence. This Samsung campaign is tacky, but they do have some feature packed phone. Need to see what’s in them.

        This, against,
        – Woohoo – shiny Apple, my prrrrecioussss

        – Apple sucks, Samsung is value for money

        … seems a bit more feasible. The above 2 polar opposite reactions may seem more prevalent on comment platforms, but in real life, I’d assume the 7 other stereotypes may be more common, with larger numbers.

        • Fair enough. As I said, there will be fence sitters who get swayed by all this buzz. Samsung Galaxy is already a brand kept on a pedestal by many and such activities will strengthen their affinity. But the larger motive of ‘mein bhi Madonna’ from the brand will not work with a certain audience who expect some finesse in such activities.

  2. To be fair to SS, doing what they do,consistently,has got them so far and will maybe take them even further. There is a bit of AVIS in them – ” We are second, so we try Harder ” kind of appeal, which does attract quite a few. The question is – Can a Brand act cool before they really are? Will that make them cool – don’t think so. We’ve seen what SS has done to Sony, even LG in the Flat TV space – they are #1 and their advertising there is markedly different. So, the way I see it – SS acknowledges that they lead in numbers , not in image and are trying their best to get there . Will the Kitchen sink approach work for them ? They do not die wondering :-), for sure !

    • hi Vivek, I agree that they have been consistent, as I said in the blog post. In my view, ‘we are underdogs so we try harder’ is not the position they come from. It is more of ‘we are equally good, if not better. Why aren’t we given special treatment?’ kind of inward-looking grouse-driven approach. It can get aggressive and usually does. I agree that they have demolished Sony & LG in the TV business and are trying the same with iPhone. They have been hugely successful; they will get a certain kind of mindset swayed. But this attempt to buy cool quotient has its downsides – that’s all.

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