The latest commercial from Farmers Insurance starts out fairly typically. Using the insurance marketer's current University of Farmers storyline, and featuring character actor J.K. Simmons ("The Closer," "Spider-Man") as professor Nathaniel Burke, the ad also features a few surprise pupils. Instead of insurance agents, they're X-Men from 20th Century Fox's "X-Men: First Class," which opened today.
What's a relatively small insurance company like Farmers doing in an ad for a summer superhero flick?
For starters, the insurance category has been slowly trickling into movie-marketing partnerships, particularly among Disney films such as "The Princess and the Frog" (Geico), "Tron Legacy" (Progressive ) and this summer's Pixar film "Cars 2" (State Farm), as well as a 2009 team-up between Esurance and Paramount's "Star Trek." But in the case of Farmers, geography played a role, too.
When Paul Patsis, president-enterprise marketing, relocated from Seattle to Farmers' Los Angeles headquarters in 2009, he wound up in an office with a panoramic view of the Hollywood sign. "We should be embarrassed," he told his team. "We're standing in the shadow of the Hollywood sign and haven't been able to leverage all the things being done three, four miles up the hill."
To that end, Farmers has been talking to major studios such as Fox for the last 18 months, evaluating the potential promotional or integration opportunities for upcoming films. "We were just trying to find a project that fit with both the brand and also the idea of the campaign we had at the time," said John Ingersoll, VP-director of advertising.
Although "X-Men" didn't seem like much of a fit at first, a quick plot synopsis soon showed that the film's university-themed plot synced up nicely with Farmers' current campaign, created with Santa Monica agency partner Rubin Postaer Associates.
"Our category is obviously not the hottest and hippest category, and maybe we don't have hottest and hippest brand because we haven't had the strongest creative," Mr. Ingersoll said. "So how do we stand apart from companies like State Farm that have part of our name in their name? How do we be cutting edge? 'X-Men' allows us to steal a little bit of excitement and a little bit of youth and allow us talk to segments we don't get to in our overall media buy."
Rita Drucker, 20th Century Fox's senior VP-feature film promotions, said the studio was actively seeking nontraditional partners to keep the marketing fresh. "This is the fifth in a franchise, so it was important for it not to feel like an also-ran," she said.
An insurance brand had particular appeal precisely because it isn't a typical superhero tie-in, Ms. Drucker added. "It's sort of an unexpected category for entertainment that hasn't been done to the point of bread-and-butter categories like a cereal, fast food, or candy which you will often see in a summer slate of films," she said.
Other marketers involved include first-time movie partners BlackBerry Playbook and the U.S. Army.
Farmers is still a modest spender in an increasingly competitive category, but Mr. Ingersoll said the brand's overall spending will continue to increase this year as the University of Farmers campaign gives it new momentum and awareness. "We feel like we have a creative strategy that 's very flexible," he said. "We have TV spots and have created dozens of spots for radio and online and outdoor. Probably for the first time in company history, every one of these media are adequately represented in terms of spend and messaging."
As for future Hollywood roles, Mr. Ingersoll and the branded-entertainment team at RPA are still very interested. "We're certainly reaching out now to more studios so we at least know which movies are coming down the pike to make sure we don't miss more opportunities," he said. "When something gets produced, [we think,] could we have been in that or could we have helped promote it?"