Why Ghost in the Shell is the perfect metaphor for branded entertainment

Scarlett Johansson - Ghost in the Shell

The first layer of success is being noticed. "Oh, there's Brand X!" The second layer of success is being criticized. "Oh, my version of Brand X is better than your version of Brand X." The third layer is for a brand to just work and be so ubiquitous that it becomes integral to peoples’ lives.

In the case of entertainment, brand integration is reaching more sophisticated levels of ubiquity but without the heavy-handed tactics that scream “look at me!” When a brand is part of a good story and fits nicely within the narrative in the most seamless ways possible, it’s a massive win.

Branded Entertainment Network (BEN) has deep expertise at propelling brands to that ubiquity, through blended placement across the entertainment spectrum — be it feature film, television or emerging digital content. The best examples of BEN's work don't look or feel like ads at all because brand messaging is woven so deeply into the stories that are told on screens, big or small — and each brand placement has its own fascinating backstory.

A bit of good fortune

That's certainly true of the collaboration between BEN and Honda, shaping their NM4 motorcycle into a key character in the sci-fi mind-bender Ghost in the Shell. The film is set in a near-future world where humans have merged with technology. A cyborg detective/spy played by Scarlett Johansson bonds with her motorcycle, which somehow manages to blend the stylings of a stealth bomber with Japanese Manga and the light-cycles from Tron.

Not only is this bike the ultimate in cool, it is precisely the sort of thing you would expect to see buzzing down the rain-slick streets of Neo-Tokyo in an alternate future. The twist is that the bike doesn’t exactly exist yet — but is 100% real and on the way to be ready for action in our world in 2018.

Caressa Douglas, senior vice president of content & branded integration at Branded Entertainment Network, told the tale of how it all came together through a mix of good fortune, strong relationships and a moment of serendipity.

"The [original brand placement] opportunity [for the film] came in as an autonomous driving situation," she said, indicating that the storyline revolved around that particular scenario. "It actually came in for a different client for the automotive brands that we work with. We weren't even doing project work with Honda, but we sent it out to Dentsu in Japan — and I was surprised that they came in with interest from their motorbike division, even though the scene didn’t exist [in the film as written]. However, they were most interested in the franchise.”

The timing was perfect because Honda was seeking original pathways to connect with young, male audiences across cultures. They wanted to align their brand with powerful entertainment that matched up with the interests/tastes of the target demographic.

Additionally, in loopy logic worthy of science fiction, the engineers at Honda were working on a futuristic vehicle design inspired by the same source material as the film at the very same moment that Douglas contacted them.

"It was a new bike," said Douglas, "not just as a motorcycle, but actually the way it suggested a new form of rider positioning. The actual way that the driver sat in this bicycle was completely new, so they would be introducing that behavior change to motorcycle enthusiasts. This bike was called the NM4 and it was different looking for sure. When [Dentsu] brought it back to us, they said when they went to the team at Honda Motorbike, the engineer and creator of this NM4 based his renderings — his vision of this bike — on the graphic novel of Ghost in a Shell."

Complexity…and worth it

In Douglas’s long and storied career in brand integration, this project topped out on the scale of difficulty (“ten out of ten”), illustrating the unique challenges, yet abundant opportunities that brand partnerships can create. Though there were odd hours and intense complexity at times, it was clear that the teams were working on something different and special.

“[The writers] started drafting scenes and we really started from scratch,” said Douglas. “We’d have late night calls with the filmmakers in LA and New Zealand — then there were the engineers from Honda in all parts of Asia — Thailand and Tokyo. These were several hour sessions where they talked about the vision of the production designer, and the producers would talk about where they were going with their interpretation of the franchise. Then the creative team at Honda would try to take that information back and come back and return with renderings. So it was really very intricate. A lot of top-secret exchange of information.”

During the process as well, the skeletons of the bikes made their way to the filmmakers in New Zealand, where, along with Hong Kong, a good part of the film was shot. The teams from Honda accompanied the product to ensure that the filmmakers’ vision and Honda aesthetic matched up. In some brand/entertainment experiences, the relationship can sometimes be challenging. With Honda and Ghost in the Shell, there was not only excitement around the work, but a great deal of collaboration working both ways between the creative teams and the brand.

“Honda was very gracious in their collaboration and their approach with the filmmakers,” noted Douglas. “They were also very patient, which can be a challenge for brands. There were a lot of times that they did concede on certain things with the story that the filmmakers really wanted to happen. In the end, it looked great and they were very collaborative.”

On target for the near future

Not surprisingly, the film took the No. 1 box office spot in China and No. 2 in Japan, even though in the US the film appealed to an active niche audience.

“The brand was really thrilled with this because it did so well in their territory,” noted Douglas. “That was where it was most important to them. They certainly did have the opportunity for a global promotion, but they didn’t think it was as important to them because APAC was the market that was most important for this specific bike. Honda has always been innovative and forward-thinking, so they were looking for this opportunity to be part of that mix in creating awareness for what they were trying to do. It did really well for them out there,”

Naysayers domestically may say that the film’s performance was disappointing — but the positioning could not have been more on target with its core and the result was that the NM4 became a star on its own right in media like Car and Bike magazine, Motor Authority and an international motor show. The NM4 is now scheduled to hit US streets in 2018, riding a wave of cultural awareness among those most motivated to make it their own and the film’s subsequent life in streaming and beyond can give an evergreen boost to the brand and the product.

Additionally, the target audience may expand thanks to the film itself and the larger cultural trend of empowering women to follow their dreams, wherever that takes them.

Douglas said, "Way before Wonder Woman really blew it wide open and made it a mainstream awareness about female leads in film, Honda did a really great job of supporting Scarlett. Typically, I would hear more interest for the Tom Cruise-Ethan Hunt characters, or the Bond characters from our requests out of Japan. But in this case, they really backed a female protagonist, which I think notable. Now we're seeing more and more of it, so they were a little ahead of the curve on that too."

The Honda brand is associated with pushing the edge of the possible with the tagline "The Power of Dreams." They are looking forward, working on self-driving cars, humanoid robots like Asimo, energy-efficient jet engines and gravity-assisted exo-skeletons — and it appears that the same ethos applies to their approach to entertainment and integration.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.