Film branding on social media: stairways to heaven or highway to hell?

Written by  Egle Arlauskaite


Rapid changes in technologies and emergence of internet era forced marketers to shift their attention from offline to online marketing and branding. Impact of these alterations on commodities’ and services’ markets is widely discussed among academics and practitioners. However there is still very little research about internet caused changes on experiential products’ branding. The purpose of this paper is to discuss upcoming films’ branding on social media and its’ impact to films’ success after releasing them to movie theaters.

Relevant theories

Some people might argue that films cannot be treated as other tangible commodities. However O’Reilly & Kerrigan (2013) argue that films are the same as other “commercial products which: have a symbolic dimension; are the subject of capital and technological investment; are offered for sale; carry intellectual property rights; differentiate themselves from other films; and are strategic assets for their production studios’ brand portfolios” (O’Reilly & Kerrigan, 2013, p.3). However, authors have not mentioned that films as any other brand strongly influence overall consumer culture, creating new consumption patterns and fashion trends. A good example could be Harry Potter saga. Successful movies grew up to computer games, theme parks, glow-in-the-dark glasses etc. Harry Potter phenomenon goes beyond simple merchandizing. Augmented number of applications to boarding schools, increased sales of owls, popularity of film sites - everything was influenced by the movie success (Brown, 2005). People buy branded products because in this way they create their image and status in the society, for the same reason people attempt to adapt lifestyle showed in the movies to their own way of living.

If movies can be treated as any other brand, it means that changes brought by the internet era to products’ branding are applicable to movie industry as well. The major alteration was in communication between marketers and consumers. Traditional communication model (firm – content – medium – customer) was replaced by modified mass communication model in which one way broadcasting was replaced by interaction (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009) between all parties involved (Winer, 2009). So if several decades ago, marketers as well as film makers were creating brands behind closed doors and later communicating their values through traditional mass media, now consumers have ability to interact with each other and with the company from the early days of brand creation. In this way power balance moved to consumers’ side, marketers lost full control not only on information transmission but on brand itself as well.

The main interaction among consumers takes place firstly on digital user generated media such as blogs, or rating sites (Winer, 2009). The content in this media is created by users themselves and companies here have the least influence. Take for example movie rankings and reviews on IMDB page. Kerrigan & Yalkin (2009) made the research trying to determine consumer generated reviews influence on films’ consumption. Result let researchers to divide consumers into two groups: “independents”, people who visit discussion forums and provide reviews about the film. Discussion forums for independents are also the source of ideas to extend their consumption with other films with the same actors or director. The second group is “cautious”. These are people who read reviews before choosing movie in this way trying to reduce cognitive dissonance. The same authors came to the conclusion that consumer generated reviews have more influence on which movies consumers choose to watch at home. This might be true with some online sources like IMDB but as we will see later other online sources have a huge influence on the movies that are not yet released.

Other platforms for consumers’ interaction are social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter that could be classified as non – intrusive media. It is like a middle option where consumers create their own content, but companies may as well join those sites trying to transmit their brand values and create consumers’ engagement (Winer, 2009). After several years of experimenting, movie studios turned majority of their marketing campaigns to social media sites. They are not just seeking to promote upcoming movies, but also to generate word of mouth buzz and attract audience way before movie is released (Dodes, 2012). The main point that marketers must bear in mind is that social media sites were created for people to interact between each other and it is not additional space for the advertising. Marketers must accept consumers’ rules if they want to be accepted and heard. Otherwise their brands will remain unnoticed no matter how much they will be advertised (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Storytelling is one of the ways for marketers to enter social media sites. For the film industry it is especially applicable because brand itself is nothing else but a story. So the task for film marketers is to find the right angle from which they want to introduce the story to social media. Singh & Sonnenburg (2012) suggest that conflict or paradox could perfectly set storytelling into process. A good example is comedy’s “Ted” marketing campaign. First time movie marketers appeared online with the phrase: “Hello, Twitter. Kindly, go f* yourself”. It aroused controversy but in the same time attracted many people who became interested in this new character. Later mobile apps like “My wild nights with Ted” appeared where people were able to upload Ted to their pictures or “Talking Ted” app which allowed users to control bear’s movements and statements. Facebook page of this movie had 2.7 mln fans and “Talking Ted” app became most popular entertainment app on iTunes and was downloaded 3.5 mln times. No wonder that film itself reached a huge success (Dodes, 2012). Creating unusual at some point even unacceptable character for teddy bear and each time offering fun activities movie marketers built the road for movie success. 

Picture of social media’s campaign for comedy film “Ted”

Picture of social media’s campaign for comedy film “Ted”

Sharing videos, images, discussing in forums, tweeting news and opinions means that consumers participate in shaping brand, creating its values and awareness. Another example of it is movie “Hangover”. Its marketing team created Facebook app that allowed people to upload photos that put themselves into the movie. Campaign was successful and already one month after opening page had 1.8 mln fans. Before the release of “Hangover 2” film already had 12 mln fans which became corner stone for marketing campaign for upcoming movie. Marketers were updating news and uploading movie related material to Facebook page. By the movie release to the theaters it already had 13.3 mln fans (Ives, 2011). Huge numbers of Facebook fans already could be called online brand communities. Members of those communities feel strong connection to the brand and towards each other (so called consciousness of the mind). Brand community members also have their own rituals and traditions and feel moral responsibility to the whole community (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001). Community members usually are the most active brand builders, shapers showing their loyalty to chosen brand. Smart film marketers can use already existing brand communities related to upcoming film in order to create buzz about new movie. The good example of this is marketing campaign created by the film “The Hunger Games” marketing team. The initial aim of the team was to take fans of the book and to make them fans of the movie. The campaign started with the launch of website Visitors had to register their citizenship using Facebook of Twitter accounts and soon after they were assigned to one of the districts. Right after that they became part of the community and the role game started. Every month there were new fans upcoming, campaign itself spread to 13 Facebook pages (one for each district), Twitter account and to Tumblr blog (Capitol Couture). The campaign created an interactive content and enabled fans to contribute to upcoming movie brand creation and brought huge success for the movie even before its release to movie theaters (Warren, 2012).

Picture of “The Hunger Game” movie’s interactive website

Picture of “The Hunger Game” movie’s interactive website

In some sense social media could be like trial for any new brand in the sense that marketers can get feedback from consumers. The big difference from focus groups is that internet allows people to be faceless commentators and they don’t feel obligation to say what company expects to hear from them. Fournier & Avery (2011) describes this as age of criticism and parody, which means consumers are willing to engage in offered activities and not afraid to share their negative opinions about brands on digital world and companies must be aware of that. In other words social media sites could be very useful tool for marketers only it has to be handled carefully.


Emergence of social media created medium environment where consumer and marketers would be able to meet. However, opposite from other medias in this platforms all power belongs to consumers. By sharing their opinions and experiences, consumers support each other and become more powerful than companies. But if one thinks better, this is the way it should be. Consumers are the ones to whom the brands are created, they are the ones that paying and using the brands. That is why it is very important for marketers to hear consumers’ voices. Moreover social media enabled marketers include consumers into brands’ creation process in this way growing brand awareness and loyalty gradually.

In experiential consumption and industries such as film industry social media could have even more power. The main goal of experiential products is to create experience. And social media sites enable to extend those experiences outside movie theaters. By engaging target audiences in interactive games, picture/ video sharing or simply discussions film marketers begin to create emotions and experiences way before movie comes to the theaters. In this way ensuring fan base which will attend movie premieres and increase possibility for high box – office revenues.

Even if film marketers decide not to use social media, it will anyway affect the success of upcoming film. According to Dode (2012) 72% of social media users post their opinion about movie straight after watching it and even 8% social media users post comment while watching the movie. It is often argued that online word – of – mouth information (WOM) no matter positive or negative increases interest in the brand. However Liu (2012) made the research about impact of Twitter to films box – office. The results showed that quality of the tweets was more important to the consumers while choosing movie than quantity of tweets. In other words positive tweets about upcoming movie created higher movie visiting rate than overall quantity of tweets. It denies assumption that any online WOM creates interest in the brand enough that it would be consumed (Liu, 2012). This statement was also proven by another research made by Crimson Hexagon company. By looking at positive tweets expressing intention to see one of the seven movies (such as “The Hunger Games” or “The Dictator”) company found 98% correlation with actual gross revenue per theater. Moreover 70% or more positive comments on upcoming movie’s trailer highly signify its success during opening weekend (Dodes, 2012). The conclusion could be drawn that consumers themselves are the major force that creates and drives traffic to the movie theaters.


In the age of transparency, film makers cannot anymore hide behind closed doors and from the moment movie gets green light, news begin to spread all around internet. Buzz created by internet users will definitely influence success of the movie. There are only two ways that film marketers can go. One way is to be active and try to use social media to engage target audience, create awareness and experience way before move goes to the theaters. In this way film marketers can highly increase film success rate, because film would be long waited dose of experience, something that fans were waiting for. Another way is to remain passive and hope that film itself will be accepted positive and, experiences created by it only will generate positive reviews creating bigger fan base. Both ways are risky and neither can guarantee 100% success. Even though examples provided above indicate that active way works more in favor of film success further research in this field is needed.

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