East Meets West in Nissan Social Media-Bollywood Film

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Nissan is attempting a double play with its latest campaign in India.

The effort consists of "New Star of India," a five-minute film made in partnership with creative agency AKQA and unveiled online March 30, on Nissan India's Facebook page and YouTube. The campaign is the automaker's attempt to own both the Bollywood and social-media spaces in the country.

Featuring one of India's most popular actors "New Star" is a Bollywood production in which Nissan unites star-crossed lovers. There is the requisite singing, dancing and melodrama, as well as a huge social-media component: Other than the star, Ranbir Kapoor, the film was cast via Facebook.

But that wasn't easy. Because Facebook has just 3.5% penetration in India, Nissan decided to bring Facebook to wannabe Bollywood talent. AKQA and the carmaker set up stages in shopping malls where consumers could make a movie of themselves dancing and upload it to Facebook right there.

The more than 2,000 entries submitted were whittled down to 100 through public voting. Mr. Kapoor and the production team picked the final 20, who all appear in "New Star."

If social media is a virtual unknown in India, Bollywood is the opposite. Its cultural influence is hefty, and the use of its celebrities in advertising is the norm. TAM AdEx, a division of TAM Media Research, and Hansa Research Group estimate that Bollywood actors had 78% and 76%, respectively, of TV commercials last year.

Positioning the campaign as a film rather than a spot helped cut through celeb-infused brand clutter, said David Parkinson, social and digital engagement GM for Nissan EMEA and India.

"Everyone does advertisements, but we're the only one doing a film. It's memorable on its own."

Mr. Kapoor was chosen as Nissan's brand ambassador in India almost two years ago, but the ads he appeared in to this point have been more mainstream.

"What we wanted to do is to play up the Bollywood aspect of Ranbir," said Duan Evans, exec creative director at AKQA London. "It's a slightly risky thing to hijack something so culturally deep, but we already had Ranbir on our side."

Vathsala Ravindran, director of Hansa Research, said a link between the celebrity, campaign and product is important in motivating consumers. While most brands successfully link the campaign and product, she said, "New Star" differentiates itself by so clearly attaching the endorser to the effort.

The film highlights the Nissan Micra, an entry-level car aimed at young, affluent men. AKQA used local talent to ensure a balance between the "Western" and "Indian" elements. Offroad Films produced the shoot, while Showbiz Entertainment and Phonetics, both small Indian startups, handled the experiential and community management aspects.

Mr. Parkinson said working with local outfits helped circumvent what he called his biggest challenge: the "organized chaos" that's a hallmark of doing business in India.

"We plan everything carefully here, with organized milestone reporting," said Mr. Parkinson. "But it's so different there. You have to put trust in the companies you have."

The film, shot in five days at Ramoji Film City, in Hyderabad, embeds the Nissan brand extensively but subtly. You may have to watch it a number of times to notice the things a typical sheet-metal ad might show off, such as the keyless start button Mr. Kapoor pushes as he speeds away to get his girl, or how agile the Micra is on potholed streets. The idea is that the Micra and cast are the stars—not Mr. Kapoor, said Mr. Evans. "Our angle was that we were inclusive, and Ranbir would provide the halo effect."

In preparation, AKQA's creative team viewed Bollywood movies, as well as Hollywood productions set in India, such as "Slumdog Millionaire." References were also drawn from older Indian movies with a warmer, more traditional aesthetic.

"We wanted a surreal but classic story with an epic feel, so we watched a lot of over-the-top movies," said Mr. Evans.

The team had multiple edits to pick through. A couple were almost too confusing—losing the plot in the elephant, the crowd and the hundreds of Micras that appear in the raucous movie. "We wanted the ridiculous, but it also had to make sense," said Mr. Evans. "We want you to keep asking, 'Is this funny or is this meant to be serious?' "

The music tries to maintain a fun, peppy, Western vibe with classical roots. Independent Bollywood musician Pranay Rijia, who composed three audition tracks, created the score for the movie: a simple melody backed by intense harmonies and employing multiple styles— drum and bass; ballad; and classic, earthy Indian.

"New Star" doesn't let you forget its social-media roots, either. Posters showing people who auditioned appear in the background and on walls—one of Mr. Evans' favorite details. "We want the community to get into this," he said.

The film will screen at a press event this month (dates depend on Mr. Kapoor's availability), at which an Orange Micra like the one he drives in it will be given away to one of Nissan's Facebook fans. A 60-second trailer has been running since March 30 in 3,500 Indian cinemas. The campaign also helped its presence on the social network. Nissan now has a community of 500,000 fans, making it one of the top automotive brands on Facebook in India.

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