Igniting “The Hurt Locker”: Lessons In Brand Awareness From The Little Film That Could

Last weekend, my wife and I went to our local second-run movie theater to see The Lovely Bones, one of the only films up for an Oscar (Stanley Tucci, nominated for Best Supporting Actor) that we had not seen previously.  On approaching the theater, we were both shocked to see a long ticket line.  On the many occasions that we have been to that theater, it has never had a line.  We both wondered what movie could be drawing such a crowd?  The box office juggernaut that is Avatar wasn’t playing there, neither was Alice in Wonderland.  When we asked the ticket-taker, we found out that the movie people were lining up for was The Hurt Locker.  In fact, The Hurt Locker is currently playing at close to 300 theaters nationwide and is enjoying a moderately strong box office 9 months after its initial release.

Given that The Hurt Locker just won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it makes sense that people are going to see it.  After all, the film was able to beat out Avatar for the top award against what initially seemed like insurmountable odds. The Hurt Locker came out during the Summer of 2009, whereas Avatar was released in December (prime Oscar season).  Very few people saw The Hurt Locker during its initial release and, perhaps more importantly, almost no one had even heard of the movie before awards season. Oscar handicappers and talking heads all predicted early on that Avatar had Best Picture in the bag.  So how did The Hurt Locker pull it off?


First and foremost, The Hurt Locker had quality on its side.  The Hurt Locker was fundamentally a better film (apologies to the legion of Avatar fans – you’ll just have to settle with knowing that it has made 100 times as much money).  But that doesn’t explain the movie’s success at the Oscars; plenty of good, even great, movies get overlooked during awards season (just ask the folks at Pixar).  The Hurt Locker’s Cinderella story can really be attributed to the efforts of the movie’s marketing team in creating strong brand awareness, both in and outside of Hollywood.

It has been observed that, during awards season, the most successful nominees have a strong “narrative” – a plotline not so much about the film itself but instead about the story behind the film.  For example, some have argued that Jeff Bridges won Best Actor because the narrative circulating in Hollywood was that, after having been nominated six times, “it was his ‘turn.’”  According to the pundits, a strong narrative can carry a movie to and through the Oscars.

The Hurt Locker had several of these narratives working in its favor.  The “apolitical Iraq movie.”  The underdog.  The movie directed by James Cameron’s ex-wife.  And, above all, the chance to make history – by crowning a woman (Kathryn Bigelow) Best Director (political positioning aside, she deserved it).  That these narratives were not only compelling but also widespread in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards was no accident.  The marketing forces behind the film were instrumental in making these storylines known to both Academy voters and to the public in general. 

In short, the marketing people behind The Hurt Locker accomplished an amazing feat.  A movie that had almost no name recognition prior to December 2009 is now being seen by millions, both in theaters and on home video. 

Businesses can perhaps benefit from following The Hurt Locker’s example.  Having a great quality product or service is an essential starting point, but it’s the rare product indeed that speaks loudly enough for itself to be heard over the dull roar of a crowded marketplace.  Marketing is essential, but marketing that is focused can be more compelling to consumers and, as a result, provide more bang for the buck.  Creating a narrative for your product can raise public awareness and heighten interest.

Consider the recent campaign of Domino’s Pizza.  The commercials featured a company executive admitting that its pizza was lacking compared to its competitors.  “The crust tastes like cardboard,” declared one customer whose complaint letter was read on the air; “the sauce tastes like ketchup,” said another.  Having owned up to the product’s shortcomings, the company then introduced its new, improved pizza, urging customers to give Domino’s another chance.  And they did: the campaign resulted in a significant increase in the number of pizzas sold.  This narrative – of the humbled company admitting to its past failings – worked, because it got people’s attention.

Given that people are constantly bombarded with advertising messages, companies are constantly looking for a way to make their message stand out.  Following the example of The Hurt Locker by creating a compelling narrative for your product or service could help you do just that.

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