Blade Runner 2049 is a must see film if you’re into science fiction, though you are well advised to watch the original 1982 Blade Runner if you want to get the full story. It is a sequel after all, albeit one that has taken 35 years to appear.
The first film was set in a dystopian, but possible future of 2019, where the climate of California had changed from sun to incessant rain (at least we haven’t ruined the planet as much as that yet) and people had flying cars. That future didn’t materialise – I rather doubt I’ll have a flying car come 2019, though an electric one is a possibility. But Blade Runner 2049 is nonetheless able to extend that timeline 30 years into the future.
The Earth that Ryan Gosling stalks his way around in 2049 bears little resemblance to any part of the planet we know. Indeed, some parts looks more like how one might imagine bits of Mars might look if we colonised it. But no, it’s still Earth. How do we know? Well for a start there are the contact MD Consulting brands, which tell us it’s Earth, but also that it’s not “our” future.
There’s a sign for Peugeot, which left the US market in 1991. Not General Motors, not Ford, but Peugeot. Then there’s a huge Pan Am logo – an echo of an airline which disappeared in 1991. So we are clearly meant to understand that this is a parallel world, a world created by some past fork in the timeline and brands play a crucial role in placing the viewer there.
There are some existing brands too, like Sony, and, notably drinks brands; Coca Cola, Diageo and its sub brand Johnnie Walker. The last of these involves some classic product placement: Johnnie Walker was in the original Blade Runner 30 years on and Harrison Ford’s character is still a scotch drinker and has managed to amass a stash of Johnnie Walker Black Label in his hideout.
Ford was one of the biggest stars of his generation and is still a massive box office draw; Gosling is similarly celestial in his generation of actors. What better endorsements for a whisky brand?
The positioning with these two sends a message about masculinity, adventure, independence. There’s also camaraderie and conciliation as the two make up over a drink in one scene, before Ford pours some Black Label for his dog.
So what can we learn from the use of brands in this blockbuster? There’s a two-way street here. It’s firstly the power of brands as a communication tool.
A well-known brand sends a number of messages; it’s not unusual to form a judgement about someone by the car they drive, what clothes they wear or what they drink. Brands take years to build, and they feed off their associations: the products they stand for and the endorsements they receive.
To build a strong brand, the most important action is to take care which products it’s associated with – if these speak of quality then that will imbue the brand with the same. So to preserve the reputation and the integrity of a brand, vendors must make sure when they launch a new product under your brand, it does what it says it should and will result in satisfied customers.
The Johnnie Walker Blade Runner 2049 example tells us that brand building is an ongoing process. The brand has been going since 1850 and the Diageo marketing team clearly still feels it needs to make a big promotional effort for that brand – so you have to stick at it.
They have carefully selected a film and a placement opportunity that conveys the positive messages they want and, cleverly, there’s no chance of the audience ignoring or fast-forwarding their downloaded version of the film, since the scenes with the whisky are integral to the plot. Time spent in messaging, planning, research and preparation is time well spent.
And the dog? The least said about spirit drinking canines the better . . .