China tech giant plugs into Hollywood

Lenovo eyes worldwide push with via product placement

If you want some attention, getting your brand bandied about in Paramount’s “Transformers” franchise is one very high-profile way to do it.

It worked for Lenovo, which, after dominating the Chinese market with computers, now has its sights set on the rest of the world, especially the U.S., where it doesn’t yet have much of a presence.

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

In last summer’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” one of the new characters in the trilogy is Brains, an Autobot that shape-shifts into a Lenovo ThinkPad Edge Plus laptop — putting China’s biggest brand at the heart of the battle with the Decepticons and into the hearts and minds of millions of potential consumers worldwide.

Although there are a slew of other Chinese brands in the pic, including clothing chain Meters/bonwe and Shuhua milk, Lenovo is far and away the most noticeable, particularly as Brains is woven into the plot, and the company’s sleek, bright white all-in-one PC, the IdeaCentre A300, prominently appears on the desks of several office sets in the film.

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

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

Another is stepping up the company’s presence at confabs like last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Lenovo launched a lineup of new laptops, PCs, smartphones and tablets — and hosted three back-to-back parties(the most by any company at CES) with partners Intel, Microsoft and Qualcomm — reflecting the company’s aggressive efforts to reach the top of the computer market.

Products on show, including the IdeaPad Yoga laptop-tablet and all-in-one PC the IdeaCentre A720, clearly aim to compete with Apple’s sleek hardware.

“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,” says 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.”

CES coincides with a flashy $100 million ad campaign that Lenovo recently launched in the U.S. 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 Lenovo’s extra marketing is paying off elsewhere.

In November, the company surmounted Dell to become the world’s second-largest PC vendor, with record market share of 13.5% and quarterly sales of $7.8 billion. It now has its eyes firmly fixed on the biggest of the big four PC makers, HP, which globally now maintains just a 2% lead over Lenovo after its quarterly PC sales fell nearly 16% in the fourth quarter, according to research group Gartner. Lenovo sales gained 23% during the period.

In China, Lenovo is the country’s most important international company and is still the nation’s 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 when China instituted market reforms in the 1980s, the engineer from the Computer Sciences Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing embraced capitalism with real verve.

The company was originally called Legend, and engineers used hand-held fans to cool its first mainframe machines, but it grew quickly, and in late 2004, 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.

The choice to embrace “Transformers” fits the double strategy of generating awareness for Lenovo internationally as well as 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 the pic’s $1.1 billion worldwide guarantees the brand some serious exposure around the globe.

Didi Zhang, the entertainment marketing director of Ogilvy Beijing, which collaborated on the integrated marketing effort in collaboration with helmer Michael Bay, says 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,” she says. “They bring the brand or product to life and integrate it into the film or story in a meaningful way.”

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.

Along with getting the product into movies, Lenovo leverages its product integration in the pics to create suites of commercials, ads on radio, online and outdoors, as well as 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,” Zhang says.

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

With 51 Olympic medals, China had the biggest 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.

Every television presenter on CCTV 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.

Though it won’t continue this sponsorship at the London summer Olympics in 2012, it’s clear Lenovo is still very much in the global game.