“The goal, of course, is to get consumers buying a brand because they know it means they’ll get a top product. Sell the brand and you don’t need to sell every individual product quite as forcefully,” Avalon said.
The goal of branding initiatives is to associate a company name, service, product line or star performer with a consistent, potent image or concept in the public mind. A successful branding campaign is one in which a targeted audience gets that image or concept burned into its collective psyche with a hot poker — that’s right, a branding iron. Although it’s best not to think of one’s customers as cattle, the metaphor is instructive.
Several firms that have seared their brands on the porn audience’s brains quite successfully over the years, crossing over to new territory at times, are Playboy, Hustler and Vivid. The Playboy rabbit adorns socks and condom wrappers, and Hustler recently spoofed James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar, to link its X-rated take-off (and 3D goggles) to a potent Hollywood image. For its part, Vivid has crafted focused co-op deals with book publishers and comic book companies, with branding moves that have included cigars, herbal health products, sports equipment and t-shirts.
YOUTH APPEAL IS REAL
Non-porn companies that team up with a Vivid or a Wicked Pictures do so because of the cachet that attaches to porn, porn stars and the liberated lifestyle they represent to the young and adventurous of all [legal] ages (but primarily those with time on their hands and disposable funds). So where do you find these people? On the Web, of course.
“Twitter and Facebook [are] great branding resources,” said Wicked publicist Hethalein Mares, “allowing us to connect to consumers on a personal level and get from them firsthand what they like, what’s working and what’s not working. The feedback is instantaneous through those outlets and greatly valued.”
Of course, porn sells in all age groups, so just observing that Dolce & Gabanna ads are now R-rated (sometimes X) and populated by young pretties is missing part of the message. Old duffers want to be, or be with, young pretties, too, which is why D&G calls itself “the Dream: a luxury brand of unapproachable desirability distinguished for its high sartorial content and original styling” — and, now, for its soft porn. It’s this breakdown in barriers, which used to be called “mainstream crossover,” that April Storm, a top adult industry publicist, points to. “Companies are having to do more than ever with mainstream crossover stars,” she said, which means, “anything they can do to get their stars and, therefore, their company name out in the public eye.”
DEFINING THE BRAND
For a disinterested, no-favorites perspective one can talk to such industry veterans as Avalon, a director who should need no introduction to XBIZ readers. “I don’t know if the number of customers is dropping,” Avalon mused, “but the number of paying customers definitely is.”
Avalon specifically mentions the “parody craze,” which “has always been popular in adult movies” and is enjoying a renaissance. “The first few [new ones] were well done and hilarious. Generic and copycat product, be it porn or mainstream, definitely doesn’t do as well.” Jeff Mullen of X-Play/All Media Play, who revivified the parody genre in porn, would not disagree, as he has successfully defined his films to mean “high quality parodies” to buyers. Right now, Mullen doesn’t expect to be “doing any partnerships or sponsoring deals with NASCAR for ‘Not Danica Patrick XXX’ but we will tap into that enormous fan base with various electronic marketing methods and some fan events to stir interest.”
THE LADY POLITELY DISAGREES
Belladonna, an example of a living brand, has a very admirable quality of speaking truth to bullshit. “I do everything in house with my husband Aiden. ‘Keep it tight,’ that’s my motto for 2010.” She is not flooding the market and “diluting” her brand with great numbers of high-profile partnerships. She does an Internet radio show with musical guests, and has a line of sex toys with Doc Johnson, but visitors to her site are not bombarded with pitches — and she gives away some product for free, too. One note that Belladonna sounds, that resounds throughout all the interviews that went into the present article, is that she and Aiden are “probably paying even more attention to the quality of our movies.”
What about the publicity events, premieres and porn parties? “I think PR events are a bunch of bullshit,” Belladonna said. “Porn parties, movie premieres, they’re all just excuses for people to go out and get drunk. Who ends up profiting from those things? Alcohol companies.” Once again, Mullen would pretty much agree, although his companies still hold events and try other outreach. “We always incorporate multiple methods of marketing but over the past few years we’ve found that good old-fashioned effort and high-quality movies are our best marketing tools,” said Mullen.
Wicked has really “been hitting the adult convention circuit in the U.S. and abroad to raise brand awareness with consumers firsthand,” said Mares. The company also recently debuted a program with certain retail outlets, to “educate them on our titles and Wicked as a brand [and] help Wicked build stronger affiliations with the stores, but also positively affect how the stores represent and up-sell our product to the consumer.” Wicked has also had great success with live feeds from its events and movie shoots, “which the consumers really seem to like,” added Mares, “because it brings them into the action, while it’s happening.” Being the brand that invites viewers onto the set is, clearly, a smooth move.
Breaking Down the Walls
Erica McLean has a few decades of experience and products under her own banner and also makes co-op and distribution deals when they are win-win situations. “I recently teamed up with Metro,” she reported, “on my new feature, ‘Alice,’ and we are doing all the branding inhouse, with my team getting a lot of input on how the movie will be positioned.” She uses a “highly targeted combination of PR in the right places, Web exposure [and] special events,” adding that the value ultimately depends not on quantity or noise level, but being “deployed the right way.”
The “right way” also means expanding beyond the previously well-guarded borders between what’s “adult” and what’s “mass market.” Publicist Storm points to high-profile hookups that are working well today after having been tried, unsuccessfully, before porn was hip and commercial. “Anything that ties a client in with something already getting coverage is great,” she said. “Tera Patrick has done tie-ins with video games like Saints Row and TITS brand t-shirts. Nikki Benz is doing really well with a regular gig on FoxSports.com, and Aurora Snow has a great-tie in with Pornstar Skateboards. Things like this create a great buzz and reach markets beyond our traditional adult industry borders.”
Helping some companies, like Wicked, are outside consultants. “Daniel Metcalf of Roads to Moscow is our outside PR rep,” said Wicked’s Mares, and he has “helped us secure branding opportunities for Wicked through mainstream events such as San Diego ComiCon [and] Fashion Meets Music.” However, Mares noted, the company’s “biggest branding venture this year was our collaboration with the Palms Casino.” The firm shot its 2010 Wicked campaign throughout the resort, while its 2010 promo ran on the Palms outdoor marquees, a Wicked Girls banner hung over the main casino entrance, blackjack table felts featured ‘2040’ and the Wicked Girls [were] featured in artwork throughout the casino.” It was their biggest porn-casino co-op consciousness raising ever.
The PR, publicity and marketing mix is different for every company’s branding strategy. What works for Wicked may not work for Erica McLean. Even director Avalon, who has watched the industry do its rollercoaster ride since the ‘80s, still sees some value in what Belladonna and some others eschew. “Anything that brings in the fans and makes the project personal or different is always a big plus,” he said, and solidifies the brand “definition.”
When done right, Avalon continued, “PR events, award shows or release parties always help,” but brand value relates directly to product. If a new porn production “isn’t up to a certain standard,” he added, it weakens the brand. This is no mystery to Avalon. “Ultimately,” said the longtime director, “the fans want to be entertained and impressed, and that’s the bottom line. And it’s how well we creators do that, that will determine our success.”
Mullen, the reigning “King of Parodies,” who intends to keep his crown by maintaining top quality in every facet of production agreed. “You can stick all of the 3D glasses and partnership deals you want into the mix,” stated Mullen, who took time out from writing the script for “Not Charley’s Angels XXX“ to contribute his input to this article. “Nothing can substitute for high quality, entertaining movies.” Once again for emphasis: High quality, entertaining movies. If you want to succeed, that’s what your brand has to mean to consumers.