06 Jul 2015
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Lights! Camera... Market!

A film, a farm, and a marketing risk that paid off in unexpected ways
Re: Anita Elberse
by Margie Kelley

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Photo by Dan Demetriad

In the 2013 independent feature film Beneath the Harvest Sky, two teenage boys struggle to find their future in a rural farming community in northern Maine. Set against the backdrop of the blue-potato farm that employs much of the town, one boy dreams of saving enough money from his harvesting job to move away, while the other rejects farm life to pursue a bigger payday smuggling drugs over the Canadian border.

It’s a tough but touching story with a very un-Hollywood ending. Yet, for Jared Simon (MBA 2008), the making—and marketing—of the film turned into a happy ending for Terra Chips, the snack his company produces from the potatoes grown on the very farm featured in the movie.

While not a single package of Terra Chips graced the screen, the company’s behind-the-scenes financial, marketing, and distribution support of the film nonetheless resulted in a steady rise in sales, along with an increased awareness of and preference for the brand immediately following the release and premiere of the film at both the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

“We believe this was the first time a brand has partnered so closely with independent filmmakers to support and market their film,” says Simon, senior director of marketing at Hain Celestial, a leading natural and organic food company based in New York and maker of Terra Chips, a brand of unique vegetable chips, including its signature Terra Blue Potato Chips.

This unique marketing partnership—between filmmakers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly and Terra Chips—wouldn’t have been possible without the help of HBS marketing students in Professor Anita Elberse’s Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries class.

Having worked with the class to market a previous film, Gaudet and Pullapilly approached Elberse again in 2012 to advise them on how to find a marketing and distribution partner for Beneath the Harvest Sky.

“Our goal was to figure out how independent filmmakers and distributors could find a mutually beneficial way to work together, to make it a win-win collaboration,” says Pullapilly.

After some research, Elberse’s students suggested the filmmakers approach Terra Chips as a potential partner, since it buys most of its blue potatoes from the LaJoie family farm in Van Buren, Maine, where the film takes place. It was sheer coincidence that Simon had also attended HBS.

“When they called me and told me about that class, I said, ‘I know that class!’ I hadn’t taken it myself, but I knew of it,” says Simon. “That led to a conversation, and afterward I thought it could really work.

“We felt that this project just fit with our brand,” Simon adds. “At Terra, we’ve always taken chances. We made sweet-potato chips when everyone was making white potato chips, and we always push the envelope on our flavoring profiles, so pushing the envelope on our marketing program was very much in line with what we do in product development.”

The plan, then, became to look at how Terra could best support the making of the film, without interfering with the creative content in any way, while still getting a message to consumers that would promote its brand.

“Our consumer happens to be well-educated, interested in learning about social and environmental issues, and interested in independent arts, including independent film. So our consumer was a great fit with their audience,” says Simon. “We saw that it was very different from anything that had been tried in the independent film world, and we wanted to give it a shot.”

Terra provided the filmmakers with a financial commitment up front, along with marketing and distribution assistance later on.

“We did not touch the story. It’s about authenticity—our consumer would have seen right through it, and so would the independent film viewer. If we tried to put a bag of Terra Chips in every actor’s hands, it would have been disingenuous.”

Instead, Simon says that he and his team hoped that featuring the real farm that provides potatoes for Terra Chips would provide “ample opportunity to talk about the farm-to-table story of our brand. We said, ‘go make a great film that audiences can connect to, and they are going to want to learn more about what goes on at this potato farm.’”

Even as the script evolved to include some violence, drugs, and strong language, the Terra team didn’t back away. “It was authentic, and highlighted some of the real social issues going on in rural communities across the US,” says Simon. “We weren’t going to shy away from that. We ended up building a marketing message about the real-life story of potato farmers, and what goes on at a potato farm, that really is a source of good in a community that is struggling. We knew our consumers would want to learn about what goes on at a farm where we get our potatoes. Consumers ask us all the time about our food sources. That’s a story we like to tell.”

Since there was no product placement in the film—aside from a short scene where a real Terra Chips truck can be seen picking up potatoes—Simon says the team devised several other ways to promote its chips along with marketing the film.

The premieres of the film at each of the independent film festivals were advertised on Terra Chips bags, along with a contest to win tickets to the Tribeca event. Then, at each premiere, Terra Chips were given to audiences as they left theaters.

“That was another way Professor Elberse’s class had helped us,” says Simon. “They had done some market testing on the film, and found that the brand connection was greatly amplified when consumers got the chips right after seeing the film. That was really neat. It wasn’t really replicable on a larger scale, but certainly with this focused film festival audience it was very effective.”

Terra also tapped its longstanding partnership with airline JetBlue, which serves Terra Chips on all of its flights. While the feature film itself was not shown on flights, a companion documentary film about Terra and the LaJoie farm that the filmmakers shot simultaneously was shown on the JetBlue channel during every flight.

“Ultimately, that documentary was the most valuable content for us,” says Simon. “That was the content we were able to share with our consumers via social media, and share with our retailers as well, to tell how our food comes to market.”

Beneath the Harvest Sky was released on DVD late last year, and because it includes the documentary as bonus content, Simon says it continues to boost sales and awareness for Terra Chips, especially on social media.

“These kinds of partnerships can really help you stand out in the marketplace,” says Simon. “But an independent film is risky. It just isn’t going to have a huge reach. So it has to be authentic. It worked for us because we reached influencers in our consumer category—those who want to know the back story and will share and promote it because it is authentic. I think it was a win-win, for Aron and Gita, and for Terra.”

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