Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, the Geico gecko, Mr. Clean — brand icons so embedded in the global mind-set that babies can recognize them before they can even speak, writes Tony Case for Adweek. And then there’s Oscar, that distinguished little gold man honoring achievement in film, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1929.
So why would the Academy, of all things, find it necessary to mess with such a well-established image, and undertake a marketing and branding overhaul?
Surely no member-based organization (with the possible exception of the United Nations) gets more exposure than the Academy, writes Case. The annual Oscar ceremony endures as one of the most popular televised events in the world and that rare thing for advertisers: a chance to reach tens of millions of people in one shot. And yet, the nearly 7,000-member Academy has remained a largely inscrutable body, steeped in secrecy much like those sealed envelopes it’s famous for—and it’s been a mystery not only to the public at large but even within the Hollywood community. As Craig Zadan — a producer of the Academy Awards show who has belonged to the organization since 1991, and producer of films like Chicago and Hairspray — says, “All those years, I didn’t know anything about the Academy other than the Oscars — and I was a member.”
Enter Christina Kounelias, a veteran movie marketer who, three years ago, was recruited to be the first chief marketing officer in the Academy’s history and to, as Kounelias explains, “tell the Academy’s story and put a human face on the organization.”
Kounelias, who, before stints at New Line Cinema and later Warner Bros., cut her teeth in movie marketing at Miramax in New York during its ’80s heyday, working on films like Cinema Paradiso, My Left Foot and sex, lies and videotape. (“I was the twenty-first employee, when their office was in a barely renovated two-bedroom apartment at 48th and Madison,” she notes.)
At New Line, where she was responsible for domestic publicity and promotions, supervising Academy Award campaigns, and overseeing the successful launch of hits like Austin Powers, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber, Kounelias made The Hollywood Reporter’s first “Next Generation” list. (Looking back at the changes she’s seen since then, Kounelias told the Hollywood Reporter last year, “I remember when Jim Carrey got offered $20 million in 1994 — it felt like it was a benchmark. New Line had only paid him $7 million for The Mask or Dumb and Dumber, so it made us seem smart.”)
A graduate of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, Kounelias began her career in publicity at Rogers & Cowan in New York.
At their initial meeting [Academy CEO Dawn Hudson] remembers Kounelias speaking frankly about the Academy being “too impersonal and unapproachable” and the need for the organization to embody the same passion as the films its members produce. “Three years later, it’s mission accomplished,” Hudson told Adweek. “She has elevated the Academy.”
Back at the association’s fortress-like headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard (where you are required not merely to show your government-issued ID but to leave it with a stern-faced guard), Kounelias takes a seat at a large conference table to lay out her game plan. The Academy is, she explains, “this thing everybody knows. You’re sitting there, watching the Oscars: ‘I’d like to thank the Academy.’ And it all sounds very important and official and fantastic, but it also feels faceless.”
Kounelias — a second-generation Greek-American who grew up in Parsippany, N.J., and whose first job, by either chance or destiny, was behind the candy counter of the local Loews movie theater — adds, “We used to have something here that internally we jokingly called ‘Academy 364.’ Like, OK, yes, we know we pop up on that one, big day, Oscar Sunday, once a year, but what are we doing the rest of the year? And it’s a lot.”
That it is. The marketing and rebranding push led by Kounelias encompasses everything from a reimagined, video-rich website and sleek new brand identity (a new, golden logo, which for the first time ties the Academy to the Oscar, features the statuette housed within an imposing “A” shape) to a hit cultural event (the current Hollywood Costume Exhibit, presented by Swarovski, where iconic wardrobe pieces from the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and Titanic are featured in an engaging interactive display), a major civic project (the forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, designed by Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali and located on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and the Oscar ceremony itself. All of it is meant to underscore not just the Academy’s rich history, considerable assets, and numerous programs and events, but also its new openness.
The Academy’s site, Oscars.org, is now as cinematic as a studio release, packed with elements like a series of short films under the header “Academy Originals,” wherein members talk about their love of and work in cinema. There’s director Brett Ratner, relating how he convinced his high school history teacher to let him out of taking a test and instead show the class a movie he’d made with his Super 8 camera. Casting director Marci Liroff recounts how Henry Thomas came to be cast as the lead in E.T. (basically, he cried on cue for director Steven Spielberg — and here, we bear witness to that magic moment). Videos and still photos from the Academy’s vast library — including everything from Audrey Hepburn’s screen test for Roman Holiday to the home movies of Ginger Rogers and George and Ira Gershwin — are housed here, too. For even the most casual student of film, culture and history, wading through this trove becomes a delightful time suck, no matter where in the world you happen to be. (Before, the Academy’s materials could be accessed only if you paid a visit to its Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.)
Social media is, naturally, an important tool of the newly approachable Academy. Kounelias points out that just two years ago, before she recruited managing director of digital media and marketing Josh Spector, a former head of content and marketing at Comedy.com who is central to the organization’s social media strategy, the Academy’s followers via all social channels was a combined 400,000. Today, it’s 6 million. Kounelias projects that figure to grow even more after next year’s Oscar telecast, noting that both the show and the promotional campaign in support of it will have a heavy social component.
As much as the Academy is working to promote its cool website, social media presence and state-of-the-art museum (for which ground will be broken next spring), the annual Oscars show remains by far its most important project, and best promotional opportunity.
That emphasis on social media was behind one of her team’s early successes — the “epic selfie” that resulted from host Ellen DeGeneres handing her Galaxy Note 3 smartphone to Bradley Cooper, whose star-studded shot, posted to Twitter, promptly broke the Internet and would come to be seen by 37 million people. Samsung’s media agency, Starcom MediaVest Group, got credit for negotiating a product placement that Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy estimated was worth up to $1 billion in publicity for the brand. (That show, the 86th Academy Awards, was the most watched entertainment telecast in a decade, attracting 43 million viewers in the U.S. and earning a 12.9 rating among adults 18-49 — the third straight year the program enjoyed a surge in ratings.)
Such moments are not mere stunts but integral to the show’s vibrancy, and success.
“All these things that were dreams for the social media kingdom are also part of marketing the show — and as a result, we started building an audience that was not only bigger but much younger,” says [a member of the team behind the 2015 Oscars telecast].
“It all relates back to marketing and what Christina has done in terms of moving the Academy forward in social media… There’s an energy Christina brings that reflects the whole makeup of the Academy.”
The team go back several years with Kounelias, to when she was a marketer at New Line and the duo was working on the 2007 film Hairspray, starring John Travolta. Kounelias works hand-in-hand with the producers on every aspect of marketing the Oscars.
Previously, the shows were promoted in a “generic way,” they say. “What we did with Christina was, we decided that had to change.”
One idea that stuck was “Only on the Oscars,” a tagline that would be used in promotions featuring legendary moments from past shows — be it Barbra Streisand appearing at the event for the first time in 36 years or a performance by the cast of Les Misérables.
The result: the creation of “an entire identity system” for the Academy that includes not only the Academy’s brand identity but also short-form videos, design, strategy, advertising and, for the Oscars in particular, oversight of all marketing communications and even elements of the legendary red carpet.
“For many years,” says a member of her team, “this was an organization that was very protective — they held it tight and didn’t expose much of this brand beyond that one night of the year. What Christina and her team did was open up the curtain and share it.”
Inside the Academy’s Quest to Be Known as More Than Just the Oscars: The First CMO is lifting the veil on a famed but faceless organization
Christina Kounelias, a veteran movie marketer was recruited to be the first chief marketing officer in the association’s history and to, as Kounelias explains, “tell the Academy’s story and put a human face on the organization.” Read more at: adweek.com