When Marty McFly put on those self-lacing Nikes in Back to the Future Part II, he created a whole new category of brand integrations.
Robert Zemeckis updated a familiar, tangible product to blur the line between the known and the imagined. The 1989 film presented a vision of life in 2015 with technology at the core, from hoverboards to fingerprint-enabled payment. While not all of the aspects of Back to the Future Part II have come to fruition, there are valuable lessons for both filmmakers and brands: not only can art imitate life, but it can also directly influence product innovations which impact our reality. The leaps and bounds in technological advancement have created a virtuous cycle of storytelling which brands can use to their advantage.
Brands can play a critical role in futuristic content. Evergreen brands and products can use future settings to tout their longevity and heritage, implying that they will withstand the test of time. Johnnie Walker appeared in both the original 1982 Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel, for example. Science fiction content often carries an undertone of exploration, offering brands the opportunity to tap into that spirit of wonder and adventure. Omega watches received a great deal of exposure by watch enthusiasts and casual fans on the internet, for example, when George Clooney wears a Speedmaster model into space in Gravity.
Perhaps the most impactful opportunity for brands is creating something one-of-a-kind to fit a project’s time and place, similar to the Back to the Future example. Scarlett Johansson rides a concept motorcycle forged by Honda in Ghost in the Shell. Colin Farrell pulls a futuristic Heineken bottle out of his fridge in Total Recall. Will Smith receives a shipment from an animatronic FedEx droid in 2012’s I, Robot, a concept which is not far from today’s Amazon drones.
This custom approach requires collaboration between the brand and producers but can have a memorable impact onscreen and beyond. In storytelling, the sky is the limit, yet even the kernel of an idea from a story could positively impact a brand's innovation. Producers across all genres often rely on real-world products to lend authenticity to their stories; future-set content need not be any different, and the creative prowess of Hollywood talent can build familiarity for brands, with a futuristic twist.
One needs to look no further than the announcements at CES to know that technology continues to develop for seemingly every aspect of modern life rapidly. Digital assistants can control everything from the temperature of bathwater to the scent in a home. Autonomous bodegas will deliver produce on demand, and hands-free luggage will follow its owner at the airport. A tiny wearable chip helps users avoid excess UV exposure, and e-skin pajamas grant more independence to dementia patients by passively collecting heart rate data. Even home entertainment systems are getting upgraded; interactive light displays can pulse with one’s soundtrack, and large format televisions can roll up like a poster when not in use.
These advancements and, more importantly, the possible improvements in real life they might inspire down the line, provide ample fodder for storytelling. Filmmakers including Beau Willimon and Brad Pitt are already harnessing that power; viewers can expect space colonization tales The First (Hulu) and Ad Astra (Plan B Entertainment) over the next 18 months.
Time travel is at the heart of Hulu’s Future Man, YouTube Red’s Lifeline, and Netflix’s Travelers. Other titles like Netflix’s Black Mirror and AMC’s Humans present a slightly altered view of the (parallel) present which may leave viewers with more questions than answers. Each of these properties invites brands to participate in the journey and help shape what that reality can be.
Entertainment can inspire, and when done right, brands can capitalize on that halo effect both from a pure consumer play to those that have a positive impact on humanity.
Johnnie Walker released a limited-edition Director’s Cut scotch blend, in futuristic packaging, to coincide with Blade Runner 2049 which showed great creativity and familiarity in real-life.
It took 25 years for veteran Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield to make the Back to the Future sneaker a reality, but the consumer lottery for the 89 pairs of Mag shoes raised $6.75 million for Parkinson’s research.
With the advancements in both real-world technology and digital storytelling, the boundaries for innovative content seem to lie only at the edge of one’s imagination and, especially in the Nike example, can provide a tremendous benefit that connects to an iconic Hollywood story.
For forward-thinking brands, the possibilities are as vast as a producers’ ever-expanding creative universe.