ThinkPad Edge Plus laptop featured in 'Transformers'

In Paramount’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” one of the more striking characters is Brains, an Autobot that camouflages in plain sight. Brains is a Lenovo ThinkPad Edge Plus laptop, and its acts of metamorphosis put China’s most high-profile brand at the heart of the battle with the Decepticons and into the minds of millions of potential consumers worldwide.

Chinese brands are looking to product placement as a way to amplify their brand awareness and influence, and Lenovo is leading the pack in using this approach.

In November, Lenovo reported figures that showed that it beat out Dell to become the world’s second-largest PC vendor in the second fiscal quarter through the end of September, with record market share of 13.5% and quarterly sales of $7.8 billion.

It has its eyes firmly fixed on the biggest of the big four PCvendors, HP, which globally now maintains just a 2% lead over Lenovo, after its quarterly PC sales fell nearly 16% to Lenovo’s 23% sales gain in the fourth quarter, according to research group Gartner.

With this kind of impact, it is no surprise that Lenovo has such a huge presence at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, where it is launching a huge stash of new laptops, PCs, smartphones and tablets — and is hosting three back-to-back parties with partners Intel, Microsoft and Qualcomm (the most by any company at CES) — reflecting the company’s aggressive efforts to reach the top spot.

“This marks the third year in a row Lenovo has used CES as a worldwide platform to showcase the breadth and innovation of our products spanning four screens,” said David Roman, senior VP and chief marketing officer for Lenovo. “Our huge success at CES has set the tone for the rest of the year. We’re growing at an incredible pace and will continue to strengthen our brand globally, as we set our sights on becoming the world’s leading personal technology company.”

In the U.S., Lenovo recently launched a flashy $100 million ad campaign under the slogan, “For Those Who Do.” Unfortunately, that’s bowing at a time when PC sales fell 5% to 71.3 million in the U.S. in 2011.

But the choice to embrace “Transformers” is clever as it fits with the double strategy of generating awareness of Lenovo internationally but also of raising its profile in the increasingly important Chinese market.

“Dark of the Moon” earned a boffo 1.1 billion yuan ($170 million) in China, making it the biggest movie of the year last year — and $1.1 billion worldwide guarantees the brand some serious exposure.

Although there are an amazing number of Chinese brands in the pic, including Shuhua milk, it is far and away the most noticeable, particularly as the character of Brains is woven into the plot and its sleek, bright white all-in-one PC, the A300 (announced at last year’s CES) prominently appear on the desks of several office sets in the film.

Brains is Autobot Wheelie’s sidekick, and you see him help protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) using all the functionality of the laptop.

Song Qi, senior marketing communication manager of the Lenovo commercial business unit, described the “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” placement as an important part of the company’s global branding strategy and a big step towards further international expansion.

Didi Zhang, the entertainment marketing director of Ogilvy Beijing, which collaborated on the 360-degree integrated marketing effort by OgilvyEntertainment and Lenovo ThinkPad, in collaboration with helmer Michael Bay, said the aim was to make the ThinkPad Edge Plus relevant to the movie so that it would be memorable to auds.

“Successful cases of branded content and product placements go beyond a simple display of a product or logo. They bring the brand or product to life and integrate it into the film or story in a meaningful way,” she said.

Product placement is a relatively new concept in China, but it is growing fast. There have been some complaints about overuse of product placement — many complained at Chairman Mao Zedong being given an Omega wristwatch in the propaganda pic, “Founding of a Great Party.” But in general, auds are receptive.

As well as getting the product into movies, Lenovo leverages its product integration in the pics to create suites of commercials, ads on the radio, online and outdoors as well as ads in stores and in theaters.

“Seamlessly integrating products into films in ways that will really connect with consumers requires creativity and skill. It requires professional expertise to successfully integrate branded content into not only the movie itself but also into everything from trailers to bloopers, posters and billboards to branded merchandise,” said Zhang.

A major placement deal for Lenovo was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

With 51 medals, China had the biggest medal haul at the Games, but the country’s success was matched by the way Lenovo’s sponsorship of the event brought the company to international attention.

It was a top sponsor, which meant it had strong association with the Games generally, but every television presenter on CCTV also used a laptop rebranded with an outsized Lenovo logo — switched around to read the right way up on TV.

The company provided IT services at the Olympics, and it even designed the Olympic torch which went on a controversial relay around the world before lighting the Olympic flame in the Bird’s Nest stadium.

Lenovo provided an array of hardware and personnel for the world’s biggest sporting event, consisting of more than 30,000 pieces of equipment and nearly 600 engineers. It has decided not to continue this sponsorship at the London summer Olympics in 2012.

Lenovo has legendary status in China as the country’s most important international company and it is still its only major global brand. It was co-founded by Liu Chuanzhi, known as the “godfather of the Chinese IT industry” and his story is a marketing success in itself.

Liu’s formal education was cut short by the Cultural Revolution, the period of communist ideological frenzy that swept the country in the late 1960s and 1970s, but the then-40-year old engineer at the Computer Sciences Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing embraced capitalism with real verve.

Originally called Legend, the engineers used hand-held fans to cool the mainframe machines, but the company rose quickly and in late 2004 it bought IBM’s PC business for $1.25 billion, even though the IBM unit was four times bigger, a daring move that broke the mold for a Chinese company. It’s still the most audacious overseas purchase by a Chinese company.

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