Slumdog Springboard: Marketing on the Back of the Oscar-Winning Movie

OneWorld Health

The morning after the Oscars, a full-page ad appeared in The New York Times. It had a photo of the Mumbai cityspace and a "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" gameboard. "Why do millions of people die from treatable diseases every year?" it asked. "A. They're poor. B. They lack access to medication. C. They're not our problem. D. It is written." The words "Slumdog Millionaire" weren't anywhere on the page, but the look, the vibe, and the allusion were unmistakable. The organization that placed the ad was a not-for-profit pharmaceutical company called the Institute for OneWorld Health.

The ad kicked off a yearlong campaign to bring attention to global poverty--and specifically to OneWorld's strategy of tackling poverty by making medicine. (As Fast Company wrote about when we named OneWorld Health one of our Social Enterprises of the Year in December, its first drug is a treatment for leishmaniasis.) The Slumdog-centric campaign is also an unusual spin on cause-related marketing.

Typically, it's corporations and for-profits that piggyback off a cause. Here, it's a not-for-profit capitalizing on a pop-culture "brand," totally independent of the film's makers or its distributor, Fox Searchlight.

"Let's be honest: For a feel-good movie, watching 'Slumdog Millionaire' doesn't feel very good until the end of the film," CEO Richard Chin wrote on the Huffington Post. "How the Western world channels its enthusiasm for 'Slumdog Millionaire' into meaningful action will be the test of whether this feel-good movie can do good, too."

To that end, OneWorld followed up the print ad with two weeks of online ads at nytimes.com. And various other non-Slumdog-related parts of the campaign will unfold over coming months; in the run-up to Mother's Day, for instance, Pandora Jewelry will sell a charm bracelet shaped like a microbe--what Mom has always wanted!--with the slogan "Charm your mother and save a life" and proceeds to support OneWorld Health.

The OneWorld Health team had been talking about the movie for months, but it wasn't until just after the film's success at the Golden Globes that its publicity plans crystallized. "Suddenly we didn't have to fly people to India so that they can see the disease and the living conditions," OneWorld Health VP Jim Hickman told me at the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship. "There are moments in time when people are collectively focused, and if you can get into that discussion, you can have a real impact." (OneWorld Health is a past winner of the Skoll Foundation's Social Entrepreneurship Award.)

It was the first time that OneWorld Health had ever bought ads in The New York Times, and the organization was pleased with the results. On the day of the ad, traffic to OneWorld Health's Website nearly quadrupled. During the duration of the online run, traffic was up 50%. The organization saw a small bump in donations. And it doubled the number of people on its Facebook Causes page.

OneWorld Health is now pondering ways to better exploit social media, which "has made campaigns like this so much easier," Hickman says. It's also thinking about whether to run more such advertising. He wouldn't give me any other specific benchmarks or targets, other than simply to "raise awareness" and, obviously, more money. But he did wryly note that the firm that created the Slumdog ads was GMMB, the Washington agency that now has Chris Hughes on its team and worked on Obama '08. "Everyone," Hickman notes, "hopes to replicate the Obama campaign's success."

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