The next time you’re watching ER, pay a little closer attention when the phone rings on the set. If you look closely enough, you might see a familiar (at least to the Canadian IT industry) logo – that of Mitel, a maker of integrated communications products. Simon Gwatkin, vice-president of strategic marketing at the Ottawa-based firm, talks to Pipeline about the value of product placement on popular shows and movies.

Pipeline: Tell me a bit about how Mitel ended up with a product placement on ER.

Simon Gwatkin: We have a relationship with Propstar. Their business is to place products on TV and movie sets. We at Mitel starting doing this about three and a half years ago and we’ve been very successful in getting our products placed on sets. It’s good fun. Do we sell stuff out of it? Yes, we have made sales, but more importantly it’s good for our employees and channel partners to see the stuff they use on the TV.

Pipeline: What else have you been on?

SG: We’re on (the Hollywood movies) Firewall with Harrison Ford, When a Stranger Calls and Pink Panther 2. On TV, apart from ER, we’re on Boston Legal and CSI.

Pipeline: But are you on 24?

SG: No, we do product placement and that’s product sponsorship. Our competitors pay quite a bit of money to do that – I think the whole thing is a product placement.

Pipeline: Describe the scene the Mitel equipment stars in on ER. I understand you don’t see the logo.

SG: It’s all over ER. We have about 40 phones on the ER set and they all work. But (in) a recent episode that took place in a hotel at a mini-trade show we had the opportunity to not only place but we also have a booth set up in the hotel and we stocked it with one of our employees.

Pipeline: The general TV viewing public might be familiar with Cisco or Nortel, but would they know anything about Mitel?

SG: We’re getting that way. That’s one of the reasons for doing this. People do recognize our sets. The difficulty I have is our logo is in silver, so we’ve taken action on that and we’ve got a different logo on the front and the back of the phone so it will be more visible to the viewer.

Pipeline: What are the costs involved?

SG: It’s a retainer I pay to Propstar. It’s in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Pipeline: What will be the return on investment? Is there any way to quantify that?

SG: It’s very difficult to quantify. We’ve made two sales, which would cover a year’s placement, but more important are the smiles I get around the office from our own internal community. There’s a complete buzz around the business, and not just here, because ER is also shown in Europe. Quantifying from a fiscal perspective is difficult, but from a morale and confidence perspective, it’s easy.

Pipeline: What input do you have into which show you get on – do you say you would like to try to get on this or do you just leave that completely in Propstar’s hands?

SG: We go through a suitability assessment. There aare some shows I wouldn’t want to be on, but generally Propstar is proactive in pitching our products to the studios. To be quite honest, we leave a lot of it to them because it’s their job.

Pipeline: Are there any potential downsides or risks?

SG: Being put on the wrong show. We have the situation where there’s a movie called Chaos. They blew up a few phones, and that’s just fun, but I wouldn’t want to see it flushed down the toilet or anything like that.

Pipeline: Do you have any control over how it’s used?

SG: Propstar takes a look at the scripts.

Pipeline: It’s interesting that IT equipment is now much more a part of the public domain than it ever was before. IT companies used to only advertise to IT buyers but now they advertise to the general public. How do you see that progressing?

SG: I think what you’re seeing is a change in technology, which has been occurring over a few years. A lot of technology now comes out of the consumer domain as opposed to coming out of the business domain to the consumer, so it’s reversed. Things like instant messaging are becoming even more popular in the business domain. We at Mitel look at it in a different way. We’re not selling to baby boomers any more, we’re selling to baby boomers’ babies, and they’re very techno-literate. You can’t say the PC is a business tool anymore.

Pipeline: Is there a point at which this would tie into your marketing efforts?

SG: It does and it doesn’t. It’s more of an internal marketing push. We don’t necessarily have the rights to photographs – when we don’t we can’t use them externally, but when we do, we do use them for marketing purposes. It gets kind of viral.

Pipeline: Are there any clips that are used for viral marketing?

SG: If you go to www.haveyoucheckedthe children.com, you’ll see in that little box where it says preview – just the trailer has become viral around our community. Then we do internal stuff as well. We make clips, so if you come into our reception area, we show clips of all the movies on a rotation basis to perspective customers – it’s just a different way of doing things.

Comment: pipeline@itbusiness.ca

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