How brand integrations changed since we put the Nokia 'banana' phone in the Matrix

How brand integrations have changed since we put the Nokia banana phone in the Matrix

Anders Granath, co-founder of Propaganda GEM, remembers the memorable brand deal that placed the Nokia 8110 in The Matrix just 20 years ago.

I remember the moment the script landed on my desk. The Matrix was different to other scripts I’d seen. It was so mind-bogglingly crazy it intrigued me, combined with its low budget and odd actor combination of Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.

At my company, Propaganda GEM, our job is to create authentic and meaningful brand integrations, we believe we pioneered this form of ‘entertainment marketing.’ But did we have a brand brave enough to take a risk with an unknown ‘out-of-this-world’ script, and were we prepared to push it?

It was a colleague who immediately understood the directors’ vision and he took it upon himself to show us the opportunity of this low-budget production. His enthusiasm meant we started to share the vision that this could be brought to life in a way that would captivate audiences - and had great branding opportunities.

We needed a brand that would work in the world of The Matrix where humanity and technology blended and AI, augmented reality and human consciousness entwined in ways both inspirational and terrifying. We knew just who to bring on board.

Nokia was one of our first clients at Propaganda and stayed with us for over two decades (most recently integrating Nokia into DC's Man of Steel). Back in 1998, the telecoms giant had a device that could be used convincingly to allow the Matrix story to evolve: the Nokia 8110 ‘banana phone’ with its curved handset and pad-covering slider. It is now an example of early groundbreaking brand integration that seamlessly blended product placement and narrative, creating instant memory touchstones of the phone inextricably linked to the movie.

We quickly saw that the Nokia 8110 could be the phone that allowed passage between The Matrix and reality. As a cellular leader at the time, it was the brand connecting people and would obviously be the right brand to connect two alternate universes. We all developed visions for how we wanted the now-nicknamed ‘banana phone’ to appear. This vision included displaying the curved slider feature which eventually became iconic in the movie. Nokia was a brand willing to take risks, push boundaries and trust in the strategy of this placement. So much so, that it launched this model to coincide with the release of the film. The belief of all concerned in the placement was validated as Neo’s phone became an instant hit and Nokia saw sky-rocketing sales. The impact has lingered on in the collective memory and the model was relaunched with modern features last year.

The deal worked so well because the brand had an innovative vision, creativity and risk-taking bravery. Entertainment marketing goes far beyond the simplistic term ‘product placement.’ It’s the crucial process of embedding products and brands into popular culture. As our Managing Director Marina Wollheim Araoz explains, “The magic is when a product is seamlessly fused into a film to the point where it’s indivisible and remembered by the audience as a key part of the movie.”

Another example of a partnership we led that ensured a brand received natural visibility in a star-studded cast film was that of Bvlgari and the film Casino, starring Sharon Stone and Robert De Niro and it became so synonymous with the brand that Bvlgari still use the images today. We worked to ensure the luxury jewellery brand received recognisable brand visibility, seamlessly integrated into key movie scenes - it ultimately led to it being cemented as THE Hollywood glamour brand.

We’re now wired to see interesting content multiple times a day that quickly becomes forgotten and the images from Casino and The Matrix have stood the test of time leaving a true mark on popular culture. While consumers are being bombarded with messaging, it is quintessential for brands to create organic and emotional connections with their audiences. Crafting how your brand is adapted and perceived by popular culture, ensuring that your product is desirable, inevitably goes through the content we all choose to consume — entertainment. Simply being around content is no longer enough.

Being part of the content, being part of the stories, being part of consumers natural interests, is essential.

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