Universal finds easy market for toon goons

Minions are already attracting millions for Universal.

The overall-wearing Twinkie-shaped creatures, who dance to “Boogie Fever” and work for Gru, a supervillain voiced by Steve Carell, have won over a slew of high-profile marketers, including Best Buy, IHOP, American Express and Kodak, who have ponied up more than $75 million in the photos/featuredstories/Despicable-Amex-300.jpg” vspace=”3″ hspace=”3″ align=”left”>U.S. to help promote the 3D family toon “Despicable Me,” which bows July 9.

Marketing dollars have been tough enough for studios to raise from brands to push sequels and films based on popular properties since the recession pared back advertising budgets. But they’re even harder to come by these days for completely original projects not based on anything at all.

Yet “Despicable Me,” the first from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment since the toon studio set up shop at Universal in 2007, has proved a rare exception.

“Those Minions certainly didn’t make it difficult for us,” said Stephanie Sperber, president, Universal Partnerships and Licensing, the group that brokered the promo deals. Partners gravitated to the “sheer charm of the content. The Minions are so cute you can’t help but embrace them.”

As part of IHOP’s first major movie tie-in since Fox’s “Horton Hears a Who!” in 2008, the restaurant chain will launch new products, including a specialty lemonade, pancakes, fully loaded Tater Tots and dough bites themed around the Minions. The characters also will run rampant via signage inside the company’s 1,400 restaurants and across menus, and emerge from the pockets of servers’ aprons. They will be prominently featured in the company’s TV spots, as well.

“We lean more toward properties that help create different products that can bring the characters to life within the restaurants,” said Joe Adney, executive director of marketing for IHOP Restaurants. “We want to have fun with the characters that come out of the movie and develop fun, interesting and colorful products that evoke memories from watching the movie.”

A “Mayor’s Breakfast” plate of green eggs and ham proved a big seller for IHOP when it tied in with “Horton Hears a Who!” The restaurant’s “Despicable” menu items roll out June 21 and are available through the end of August.

Best Buy is being a little more secretive about its plans. The electronics giant is readying to roll out a themed technology tie-in over the next two weeks designed to “revolutionize the movie-going experience,” while promoting the Best Buy brand as more than a place that “sells devices or packaged content” but “entertainment experiences,” said Chris Homeister, senior VP and general manager of Best Buy’s entertainment business group.

The plans around “Despicable Me” represents its largest partnership with a studio and a film unspooling in theaters. It typically has launched promos around DVD or Blu-ray releases.

“We look at this as a natural extension of what we want to stand for when it comes to entertainment experiences,” Homeister said. “It’s about extending our strengths.”

Meanwhile, American Express has already spent the past year using the Minions and the pic’s supervillain’s penchant for stealing the world’s landmarks and monuments to build awareness across the company’s Consumer Travel Network, Travel Impressions, Vacation.com and other outlets. Meanwhile, Kodak has paired up with General Growth Properties to have the Minions take over 70 shopping malls in 25 markets through murals, decals, banners and other signage.

AirHeads and Color Me Mine are also among the 20 promo partners ponying up coin to support the marketing of the film across print, TV and online, as well as in-theater, through live events and sweepstakes.

Outside of the U.S., Church’s Chicken will promote the film via kid’s meals in Puerto Rico, while Hungry Jack’s will do the same in Australia, and Hesburger and Carrols Restaurants in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Bimbo/Barcel will feature the film across various food packaging and traditional ads in Mexico, while BrandFusion and Maple Lodge Farms, in addition to GlaxoSmithKline, will do the same in Canada, Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus. In-theater efforts are also taking place across Europe, Russia and Thailand from partners.

Brands have typically been more instrumental for studios in launching new pics, as their ad dollars can help a pic’s marketing budget go further.

Licensed apparel, videogames, books and other products are also rolling out to support the pic.

Brands said “Despicable Me” had various selling points that helped lure Madison Avenue’s marketing muscle back to Hollywood.

Marketers often require a longer lead time to build campaigns themed around movies — especially when they want to develop new products the way IHOP is doing. That often means toons are more appealing because it takes longer to produce them. Universal began developing its pact with IHOP and Best Buy a year ago.

Since the pic was animated, it also meant custom art could be drawn up for promo partners for campaigns.

Then there are those Minions. Animated characters are often voiced by recognizable thesps who normally don’t agree to help promote partners’ products. But the Minions don’t boast any big names behind them and speak their own language, meaning it’s easier to exploit them worldwide.

“You can use them however you want because of that,” Sperber said.

Best Buy, however, also was attracted to the chance to work closely with the pic’s filmmakers, with Meledandri working with Best Buy on its super secret plans over the past year.

“Chris had a passion around what we could do together,” Homeister said. “He looked at it as a true partnership to try some new things that haven’t been done before.”

Of course, the color of the Minions also worked well with Best Buy’s corporate colors. “That was lucky,” Homeister said.

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