Realer than Fiction

By Liam Humble
November 1, 2018
Reading Time: 10 minutes
Filed under Naming

Companies and products that leapt off the screen.

There’s one way to launch a brand that gives people unprecedented abilities to control public perception, make their brand feel real before it actually exists, fine tune their brand story, and have their audience’s undivided attention. It’s called fiction. Many brands have benefitted from having their name, logo, and even product design derived from a fictional company or product. This is because in a fictional universe the author totally controls perception, and brands can use this same power to create buzz and demand for a product that isn’t even for sale yet — like how we all wanted hoverboards so bad after Back to the Future Part II came out that most of the world leapt at a cheap imitator before Lexus developed something close to the one we’d dreamed of.

Fiction is also a good place to explore proof of concept — if people leave a movie buzzing about a fictional product or restaurant, they are inevitably going to Google it. Was that thing real? And, where can I get one for my kid? Or, that club looked insane! Is it actually in LA? Fiction helps intrigue potential customers and paint a story of success before the thing is even real. Let’s look at some real-life brands that have used this strategy and see how well it worked for them, while keeping in mind the valuable nuances that helped some of them start their story this way.

A fabled candy

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and its inspiration, the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, both present a world in which children are able to indulge in candy on a level that I never experienced in my childhood. From the first time I saw the film — probably age 6 — the name “Willy Wonka” was synonymous with chocolate and sugary excesses. I remember seeing Wonka Bars and Everlasting Gobstoppers (both real candies that derive their names directly from the film) at candy shops or convenience stores and feeling transported to that technicolor soundstage where kids could run free and stuff their faces.

Of course I wanted to buy those products and experience the intoxicating sweets that I had seen on the screen, but alas my parents were more of the Tiger’s Milk carob bar types and tricked us into thinking those were candy. Regardless, the film had done its job. It had shown a specific brand to be adored and coveted in fiction, which made the transition to the real world success that much more tangible. Children were entertained (read: brainwashed) for 99 minutes, leaving them almost worshipping this particular brand of candy.

How did this all happen? In 1970, the Quaker Oats Company bought the movie rights to the novel and financed the film for the purpose of promoting a new product: the Wonka Bar. The film was even named in a different way from the novel for promotional purposes. Despite not receiving a quarter of my allowance as revenue, the Willy Wonka Candy Company has survived for nearly 50 years and is now owned by Nestlé.

Ironically, the whole history of Willy Wonka as a work of fiction seems like it was destined for corporate involvement since author Roald Dahl and other British schoolchildren would be given test packages of candy from Cadbury in exchange for their opinions on the new products in the 1920s. Furthermore, the espionage-laden corporate battle between Cadbury and Rowntree’s (England’s two largest chocolate makers) around that time, was a major inspiration for Dahl to write the novel. Fiction imitates confection imitates fiction.

Seafood, see friendship

Some pieces of fiction introduce us to characters who are lovable or inspiring, and it’s an audience’s relationship to that particular character that helps a brand jump off the page — or the screen — and thrive in the real world. A perfect example of this is Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. In 1994, the film Forrest Gump was released and became a massive success — it earned $677 million at the box office worldwide in its first 12 months, and was met with other accolades, including six Academy Awards. The point is, it was a popular film. If you weren’t alive in 1994 you’ll just have to trust me that “Run, Forrest, Run!” jokes were everywhere and popular culture was generally overwhelmed with Forrest Gump references.

The film, and the book it was based on, feature a charming character named Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue. Bubba becomes Forrest’s “best good friend” after they meet at army boot camp. He famously “knows everything there is to know about the shrimping business,” dreams of starting a shrimping company with Forrest someday, and wants to captain their shrimping boat.

For tragic, and spoiler-related reasons, Bubba isn’t able to do any of that. However, after returning from the Vietnam War and some other adventures, Forrest decides to fulfill his friend’s shrimping dream and starts the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in his honor. Just two years after this film — and its tale of friendship — made many people experiencing some very strong emotions the real life Bubba Gump Shrimp Company came into existence.

As of publishing, there are more than 40 active Bubba Gump Shrimp Company seafood restaurants spread around the world — from Monterey, Calif. to Hong Kong and many places in between. This real-life chain seems to have its sea legs. Is it “Mama Gump’s Garlic Bread Basket,” “Bubba’s Far Out Dip” (spinach, roasted red bell peppers, artichokes, Monterey jack cheese), or the “Dumb Luck Coconut Shrimp” — the menu proclaims “Bubba always loved this one!” — or is it the fact that a good portion of the world was captivated by the authenticity, love, and sacrifice of Forrest and Bubba’s friendship? I’d venture to say the latter.

The most important piece of this story is that the restaurant didn’t just pass by in the background of a montage, Bubba and his story were heartwarming — even inspiring. His saga connected with people on such a visceral and emotional level that he felt real, and patronizing a chain seafood restaurant named in his honor feels comforting, maybe even subconsciously cathartic. Brand messaging is a fundamental piece of brand strategy and dialing in the right language and story is vital. In this case, having the right character immortalized in the name might have even done better than if there was a real-life “Bubba” who we would hold to a high standard as founder and proprietor.

High-tops of the future

I should start by disclosing that I was fairly obsessed with the Back to the Future franchise when I was a kid — Marty McFly (teenage guitarist skateboarder extraordinaire) and Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (iconic white-haired mad scientist type) could do little wrong in my opinion. So when I was first allowed to see Back to the Future Part II — sometime in the early ’90s — I was blown away by all of the future-tech props and fashion of a story set in the distant future of October 21, 2015. And, yes, I wanted a pair of Nike MAGs.

Within the first 10 minutes of the film Doc gifts Marty a pair of gray high-tops that have self-fastening “power laces” and illuminated “Nike” wordmarks on the ankle straps. Apparently I wasn’t the only person that was excited about the shoes because in the early 2000s an online petition caught the attention of legendary Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield — who had actually designed the fictional Nike MAGs for the film. In short, the petition requested that the Nike MAG be produced in the real world and sold.

Fortunately, at least for the sneaker aficionados of the world, Hatfield got to work with fellow Nike footwear innovator Tiffany Beers and they released the first real-world, functional version of the shoes six years later. This first batch of Nike MAGs featured an electroluminescent out-sole and a rechargeable internal battery good for 3,000 hours. Sadly, power laces were not included as the batteries served only to power the external lights on the shoe and ankle strap. However, on October 21, 2015 Nike unveiled the second edition of the Nike MAGs that did feature power laces…and there was much rejoicing.

“MAG” apparently stood for Magnetic Anti-Gravity, because the filmmakers initially wanted the shoe to help Marty walk up walls.

Ultimately, both releases were limited, leaving sneaker heads hoping for a permanent Nike MAG product line someday. On the bright side, the shoes were able to raise more than $16 million for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research, and frankly that is a wonderful way for Nike and fans of the shoe to honor the man who embodied the character that inspired us all. Interestingly, Nike released their first widely available auto-lacing shoe just last year, calling it the HyperAdapt 1.0. While it is a low-profile all-purpose shoe, the laces do look very similar to those found in Back to the Future Part II, and the second release of the real-life Nike MAGs. What did we learn here? Interesting fictional products and designs can create an inspiration loop, and whether that leads to a real-world product raising millions of dollars for important medical research or results in real-life innovation, there is something very powerful about products being presented to mass audiences via fiction and how that can spark their imaginations.

Lights, camera, consume

With the holidays just around the corner, I would be remiss not to give you one more example of fiction bringing a product to life — and, as with the winter holidays, there is a healthy dose of capitalism baked into this particular story. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York was the second most financially successful film of 1992, earning more than $173 million in revenue in the United States and $359 million worldwide. The first Home Alone is still the highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time in North America and reigned as the highest-grossing live action comedy film in the United States from 1990 to 2011 — needless to say, anyone looking to get their toys in front of children’s eyes would explore product placement in the sequel.

Home Alone 2 took most elements of the first Home Alone film and dialed them up to 11. The film is set in Manhattan not a suburb outside of Chicago, Kevin McCallister (the child protagonist) uses an increasingly more violent series of booby traps to fight off two criminals, and his branded toys become a more fundamental part of his ongoing games of deception — and the plot in general.

I vaguely remember hearing about the Tiger Electronics Talkboy even before I saw Home Alone 2 — probably because my family rented the film on VHS after the movie had been released on video and definitely because my neighborhood friend, Justin, got one almost immediately after they hit toy stores (I chalk the second part up to his mom being a professional personal shopper, and you’ll see why shortly).

The Talkboy is basically a combination tape recorder and cassette player with a varying speed (or “voice modulator”) playback mode that Kevin uses almost constantly to fool adults into thinking he is an adult man. The toy is essential to the plot of the film and comes in handy when Kevin needs a grown-up voice to make reservations at the Plaza Hotel over the phone, scare away the nosey front desk staff, or just annoy the shit out of his mom.

The device that Macaulay Culkin used during the shooting of the film had been merely a non-working prop.

The Talkboy was developed explicitly as a tie-in with the film and was based on design specs that came directly from the film’s renowned producer, John Hughes. The marketing was lock-step: the film and the toy were both released a week prior to Black Friday 1992, the original packaging featured Home Alone 2 branding with an image of Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) using the Talkboy, and one edition of the toy even included a cassette with one side write-protected, and featuring various lines and sound effects from the movie. After the film was released on video the following summer demand for the toy surged and Tiger Electronics claimed that at some points they were getting 300 phone calls a day from flustered parents who couldn’t find the sold-out device in any stores. Needless to say, it was a hit.

In the 1980s and 1990s children-oriented cross promotions with films were fairly common, but the Talkboy took the trend to a new level. It was written into the script of a blockbuster holiday film, had pivotal features that effectively dictated the plot, had the ability to confuse and irritate grown-ups, and was intrinsically linked to the mischievous pre-teen icon Macaulay Culkin. The movie gave the toy company and film studio a perfect opportunity to combine their efforts and market the story of the product — every moment, every gesture, every sound was tuned to entice kids into wanting the toy.

Long story short, these are some of the more interesting and successful brands to use fiction to build popularity, demand, and growth for their projects by using fiction of some sort. They’re able to bank on having a captive audience for several hours, and use any narrative tool to pique someone’s interest or sway their opinion.

If you want to explore some more cocktail party conversation fodder, check out these other companies that dabbled in fiction:

Soylent — a real-life brand of meal replacement products named for a fictional food made out of human bodies. Yum!
Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville — a real-life casual-dining restaurant chain named after that song that you (possibly, politely) tolerate hearing once annually at a barbecue.
The Moon Under Water — any number of real-life pubs that take their name from George Orwell’s 10-point essay describing his perfect pub in the London area circa 1946.