Special report: Publishing - Brands sign up for book club

The product placement plot thickens as novels and short stories compete with films to deliver brand messages.

Thinking about dabbling in product placement? Before you pay through the nose to get your product into the next Hollywood blockbuster, you could do worse than peruse the shelves of your nearest bookshop.

Many brands are put off by the expense of product placement in films, while paid-product placement on UK TV, for the present time, remains illegal.

But there is another route - finding an author to write a book featuring your brand. Bulgari, BMW, Ford and Electrolux are some of the brands that have already experimented with this tactic, and others are dipping their toes into the waters of the publishing world.

These days, book deals are straying into the arena of branded content, often tying in with the brand's strengths or "personality" rather than acting as straightforward plug for the product. Some brands are using fiction to weave their product into a story - the first and most famous example being Fay Weldon's The Bulgari Connection. Published in 2001, it provoked some critical outrage in the literary world when it was announced that Weldon had written a novel commissioned by Italian jeweller Bulgari, heavily featuring the brand.

But not all product placements are as blatant as Bulgari's: Electrolux, for example, recently commissioned author Alex Mattis to write Men in Aprons, a light-hearted novel about single men grappling with housework.

Although a foreword explains the connection with Electrolux, and the cover pictures a man in an Electrolux-branded apron, the brand is not mentioned in the story.

Ulrich Gartner, Electrolux's vice-president for communications, oversaw the project and says: "We were pretty clear that the story would not work if it was perceived purely as a marketing exercise, so we were careful to give the author complete freedom to write about what she wanted in the book itself."

Gartner says Electrolux chose the book route as it needed to reach a target audience of young, single men who would not engage with traditional media such as ads or homes-related editorial in magazines. It decided instead to "create" a medium that would proactively reach out to this audience.

Men in Aprons is currently being piloted in the UK with a view to a European rollout. While the book is available for £6.99 via the Electrolux website, or can be purchased as an audio download, Gartner claims that generating sales is not the primary objective. Rather, it is to increase visibility of the brand both on a PR and brand awareness level. The deal has already gained plenty of press coverage via book reviews and interviews with the author, but importantly, has also had the desired effect of rocketing the Electrolux brand into the online space, where it has been discussed on blogging sites and book forums.

"We deliberately wanted it to create debate," says Gartner. "We knew that we had to come up with something that would provoke opinions."

Several other brands including Ford and BMW (see case studies) have experimented with promotional fiction - and some in the publishing world suspect that there have been other, non-publicised, deals with authors to mention brands in their work.

However, there are undoubtedly some drawbacks with fiction: while established authors can be reluctant to be seen to be taking the commercial shilling, there is no guarantee that an unknown writer will pen a bestseller or even secure bookshop distribution.

Clare Lawler, group sales development director at Random House, who helped engineer an audio books deal for BMW, thinks short stories might lend themselves better to the medium, because it is more difficult to persuade a known author to write a novel featuring a brand. She adds: "Adapting existing material may be an easier option."

Undoubtedly, it is still early days for fiction product placement. Although most clients who have tried it say it is a cost-efficient medium, most deals have so far been masterminded by PR, rather than marketing, departments and measuring their success in terms of brand share or sales uplift can be difficult.

Electrolux's Gartner admits that it is difficult to pinpoint the brand awareness aspect of the promotion, rather than the column inches generated by the deal, while Ford has only measured its success in terms of PR coverage.

But there is an alternative route: non-fiction book deals. Katie Walsh, business development manager at publisher Simon & Schuster, which specialises in non-fiction book deals between brands and writers, believes this can be more effective.

"In novels, product placement can look contrived; it can work if it's done in a humorous manner but clients may consider that this devalues their brand," she says.

Forthcoming Simon & Schuster tie-ups include The View from Our Place, a book on Australian wine by Jacob's Creek winemaker Philip Laffer, and the Ruddles Little Book of Pub Etiquette.

Walsh claims such non-fiction deals are a far cry from book "sponsorship" deals of the past. "If a book is put together specially for a promotion it can be more finely tuned to achieve the brand's objectives, whether that be to educate or engage consumers, or highlight the authenticity of their products."

To secure bookshop distribution, says Walsh, the book must be attractive and authoritative in its own right. A celebrity element often helps; for example, Nestle last year commissioned A Passion for Puddings, by chef Phil Vickery, to feature recipes using its Carnation Condensed Milk. Walsh says sales of the product rose by 8 per cent following the book's publication, and it is still selling well in bookshops.

But can the books really deliver the audience or value for money that a film could bring to the table? Definitely, says Walsh. "Tailormade books can be surprisingly economical to produce. Books are rarely thrown away and have high-perceived values that give a brand kudos, while the problem with product placement in films is that of recall - people can misremember which brand was featured, or not notice it at all, because it seems so everyday."

Books can also tie in well with wider marketing exercises: for example, the Ruddles Little Book of Pub Etiquette will be sold in the run-up to Christmas while the ale brand is running drinks promotions.

As Walsh emphasises: "Having a book on sale in bookshops provides valuable support to promotional activities being carried out elsewhere - it can take the brand into new markets and reinforce the value of any client promotional offers."

BMW/RANDOM HOUSE

In February, BMW linked with publisher Random House to produce four short stories, downloadable from www.bmw-audiobooks.com as free podcasts. The marque had already tried product placement in 2001-2 with a series of branded online films.

Working with agency WCRS it commissioned bespoke stories from established authors such as crime writers Karin Slaughter and Don Winslow. The request was that each had to include a BMW car in their plotline. The idea was that fans could listen to the 45-minute short stories while driving their cars.

So far, BMW research shows around about 140,000 people have downloaded the stories, 60 perc ent of whom were non-BMW owners. Three out of five people say they have recommended the books to friends; 74 per cent say they want a second series.

Random House's Clare Lawler believes consumers were keen to download the stories for two reasons: first, because they were new work from well-known authors, and second because BMW had already established a reputation for creativity with its branded films. "People don't necessarily feel they are being marketed to, if they are getting something out of it," she says.

FORD FIESTA/HEADLINE

In 2004, Ford was seeking new ways to market its Fiesta brand to women under 40, and hit upon the idea of product placement. The result was a deal with author Carole Matthews to feature the Ford Fiesta in her latest novel The Sweetest Taboo.

Ford was seeking a suitable author through agents when it discovered that Matthews had already written a book in which the heroine covets a VW Beetle. Mentions of the VW were promptly changed to Fiesta before the book went to press. Publicity included giveaways of the book at motor shows, while the novel was also sold through normal channels. Matthews also wrote a series of 12 downloadable short stories, also featuring Ford cars, which were posted on a Ford microsite.

Although the product placement aspect has not been evaluated by Ford's marketing department in terms of sales or market share, the deal generated worldwide press coverage for the Fiesta. Meanwhile, Matthews confirms the link-up raised her own profile enormously: her own website's hits increased by 70,000 overnight while The Sweetest Taboo sold around 200,000 copies.

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