In 1962’s Dr. No, a tuxedo-clad Sean Connery subdues assassins, foils the world domination plans of an evil genius, and seduces pretty women, all with an occasional bon mot thrown in. Forty-four years, 20 films and five leading men later, the James Bond film franchise continues to flourish by relying on that same basic formula — and with good reason, film and marketing experts say.
On Nov. 17, Casino Royale, the 21st film in the series, will be joining a $3.2 billion box office juggernaut spanning the Bay of Pigs to the Iraq War. And despite sweeping social and geopolitical changes over the years — least of all the end of the cold-war spy era — the Bond films, like the man himself, seem indestructible. How? Just as 007 relies on nifty gadgets to beat the odds, the films themselves are armed with a secret weapon: branding.
“Bond is timeless because the essence of James Bond is timeless,” says Annie Jennings, an international branding expert and head of Annie Jennings PR. “You can update him with fancy cars and the newest gadgets, but you don’t change what makes James Bond tick.”
So what makes James Bond tick? Paul Kyriazi, a Hollywood producer and author of The Complete James Bond Lifestlyle: A Serious Course To Upgrade Your Life, says Connery, along with the writer-producer-director team of Ian Fleming, Terence Young, and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, firmly established Bond’s persona from the start. A runaway low-budget hit — in at least two sequences you can see the sound and lighting crew — Dr. No ‘s mix of wit, sophistication, action, and sex had instant appeal in the cold war years of the early 1960s, Kyriazi says.
“Before Bond, the big male icons of the day were Frank Sinatra and the rat pack,” Kyriazi says. “The reason we loved Bond back then, and now, is the same reason we loved Sinatra. He’s cool. And who doesn’t want to be cool?”
If that seems far-fetched, consider the range of similarities between 007 and ‘Ole Blue Eyes, what Kyriazi calls essential Bondisms: both men wore tuxedos, drank martinis, gambled, and had a way with the women. Kyriazi himself admits to taking Judo lessons after seeing Dr. No, hoping to someday become a home-grown gentleman spy.
But beyond cool, Bond is also a man of leisure and prosperity, always enjoying a round of golf or a skiing trip before being called to save the planet, he adds. “Underneath all the action, that in itself hits us at a subconscious level. It’s very attractive.”
Still, it wasn’t until the release of Goldfinger, which premiered two years later and sparked riots in London’s downtown theatre district, that the full Bond brand really took hold, he says.
“With Goldfinger, you had Shirley Bassey belting out that great opening song, the Austin Martin, the golden girl dancing in the title sequence. Then there was the great villain and his sidekick, and the gadgets, everything was there,” Kyriazi says.
Karen Post, a branding consultant based in Tampa, Fla., says the music of the Bond films, like Bassey’s classic Goldfinger theme, is as integral to the brand as the visuals. “Branding is about leveraging all the senses. If you were to shut your eyes while the movie was playing, you’ll still know it was a James Bond film,” she says. That’s because the Bond filmmakers have been very careful not to mess too much with formula once is was firmly established, Post says. “If you look at Target, they’ve always had a consistent flavor, whether today or years ago. When you go to Target, you know what to expect every time,” Post says.
Jennings agrees. “The branding formula is what people come for,” she says. “In the case of Bond, viewers come for the suave, sophisticated, dangerous man with all the attributes that are appealing to men. Men want to be Bond and Bond is the man women dream of being in love with.”
At the same time you don’t want people to stop expecting surprises.
When Connery first left the Bond series after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, producers kept the identity of his replacement, George Lazenby, a secret right up until the premiere of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Enduring brands must be able to maintain a crucial, yet delicate balance between fulfilling expectations without losing an innovative edge, Post says. Any long-standing branding strategy is in danger of appearing formulaic, uncreative, and uninspiring without the occasional, unexpected tweak to push it forward, she says. It’s a fine balancing act, given that marketers can be equally chided for messing with a good thing. Just take New Coke or Pepsi Clear.
Some brand-savvy marketers have already attacked Casino Royale, which features Daniel Craig as a tougher Bond before his civil service days, for down-playing 007’s beloved spy gadgets, while writing Q, MI6’s secret weapons man, right out of the script.
“Might as well give Donald Trump a hair cut,” Scott White wrote in his Boston, Mass.-based Brand Identity Guru blog. “Or heck, Nike doesn’t need the swoosh. While you’re at it change the Coke cans to blue.”
White called the gadgets, which made their first real appearance in From Russia with Love in 1963, an integral part of Bond’s brand image, and predicted the new film will be a bust.
Yet, Kyriazi points out most Bond aficionados now consistently rank Lazenby’s 007 as one of the best, even though the one film he made flopped at the box office in 1969, prompting Connery’s short-lived and costly return to the title role two years later in Diamonds Are Forever. Sounding much like early reviews of Craig’s performance, Lazenby’s Bond offered a rare look at the inner workings of the gentleman spy, and as such was at once more human and more menacing, Kyriazi says.
“Even Connery said you have to play Bond with a sense of danger. I’ve heard that Daniel Craig worked out for months before filming, not to look good with his shirt off, but to look like he could hurt someone,” Kyriazi says. “As long as there’s that global threat, and all the Bondisms. That’s what we want.”