A sofa workshop, a yogurt brand and a property developer may not be the kind of companies usually associated with the bright lights of movie marketing, but it’s the very obscurity of DFS, Yeo Valley and Landsec that led Aardman to choose them as partners for its latest release, Early Man.
Aardman, famously, wasn’t born in the shadow of the Hollywood sign; it set down roots in Bristol, where it’s still based more than 30 years later.
As the studio progressed from creating five-minute shorts for Channel 4 to crafting box office smashes such as Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Aardman found itself teamed with the likes of DreamWorks, Sony and StudioCanal – working with the latter for the second time on 2018’s Early Man.
Yet Aardman’s independent spirit remains, and it’s partly what drives head of rights and brands development, Sean Clarke, to pick partner brands that “don’t have many filmmakers knocking on their door”. This, he believes, “helps us get to the front of the queue”.
Clarke’s knack of going after smaller, less obvious brand partners also comes from commercial necessity. Despite Aardman’s devoted fan base and unmistakable aesthetic (stop-motion, colourful and so painstakingly handmade that the animators’ fingerprints can often be seen fresh on the clay), the market for comedy-driven family movies is currently very crowded, “both in terms of animated family fare as well as huge family films such as Jumanji”.
Clarke's solution? Start early and plan ahead. While animation’s long development timeframes may prove painful for distributors, they work in the in the favour of marketing departments – partnership deals don’t have to be rushed through, and a comprehensive brand identity bible for the film can be built as scenes are still being shot.
“We don’t just go into a [potential] partner and go, ‘We’re making a film, do you want to work with us?’," said Clarke. "We try and help them make the leap from their brand to our brand. A lot of that will involve researching the company, its brands, what its objectives are, where it spends its money. You now have to work a lot harder to hook these people in. You can’t sit on your laurels.”
That said, Aardman and StudioCanal had a slightly harder task than usual in finding Early Man’s partnership brands. Unlike the ubiquitous faces of Wallace, Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, the film comes with a raft of new handcrafted faces that audiences have yet to connect with.
“Early Man is a new concept, and obviously when you’re introducing new characters that’s a key consideration,” said Stuart Henderson, head of UK marketing at StudioCanal. “But with Aardman there are certain qualities that audiences associate with, [such as] great comedy and character animations. All of those things are present in Early Man.”
Henderson’s solution to driving the Early Man cast’s star credentials was to partner with brands that could take its marketing beyond the standard pre-release advertising and into the UK’s February school half-term.
“It’s often the case that you front-weight all of your activity so that 80% of it runs prior to opening weekend,” he explained. “But with family films – and certainly in the case of Early Man – when you’re playing into a school holiday you want to make sure you’re retaining awareness throughout.”
This strategy led Aardman and StudioCanal to devise AR trails and master model making workshops at Landsec shopping centres, digs and coin hunts at The Eden Project in Cornwall, and a series of prehistoric quests in association with English Heritage. Additionally, above the line advertising with DFS and Yeo Valley Yogurt will keep the Early Man presence alive on TV screens throughout the week, complementing the week of bespoke Channel 4 programme intros that aired in January.
“A fair amount of Aardman’s business is making commercials for other people and that’s a good string to our bow when we are making a pitch to any third party,” said Clarke. “We can go into a pitch, storyboard an idea and make it live a bit more because we have those creatives and producers in house that are used to fulfilling briefs for all these third-party brands.
“[The commercials department] can work on the film as well, rather than the people concentrating on the feature going, ‘I’m making a feature-length film, I’m not going to be able to turn my head to make a story of 30 seconds’.”
Yeo Valley’s West Country roots tie nicely with Aardman’s own, however even Clarke drolly admits “there isn’t an obvious link with sofas and cavemen” (in the end, they went with the idea of a ‘Mammoth’ sale). But thanks to a long-standing relationship with DFS through Aardman’s advertising production business, the partnership prevailed.
“[DFS] love the handmade appeal of our characters as it fits with the way they make their sofas, so that door was always open,” said Clarke, adding: “I’m really proud of the DFS campaign because it’s really different, really creative.
“It’s something out of the ordinary that makes people sit up.”