The result: One movie flop and a disappointing video game later, the partnership is starting to show signs of paying off with the latest game, "Tomb Raider: Legend."
|Teen boys rejoice: Lara Croft is hot again, as 'Tomb Raider: Legend' has sold more than 3 million units worldwide since its release in April.
When DaimlerChrysler's Jeff Bell brokered a deal for Jeep to partner with Lara Croft, little did he know that the buxom gun-toting adventurer's "Tomb Raider" franchise was in trouble.
The partnership kicked off in 2003, with the release of Paramount Pictures' "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life," in which the Jeep Rubicon replaced Land Rover as Ms. Croft's vehicle of choice. The film showed off the vehicle crossing rugged desert terrain, and the thrill-seeking character, portrayed by Angelina Jolie, appeared in ads produced by the automaker.
However, the sequel to the 2001 big-screen introduction of the character flopped, earning only $67 million in the U.S., ending any future plans for further box-office adventures.
Shortly after, video-game publisher Eidos Interactive released "Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness," the franchise's sixth game, after eight months of delays. Although it went on to sell more than 2.3 million units worldwide, the game, which also featured Jeep vehicles, was panned by critics and was instantly dismissed as a disappointment.
But three years later, Eidos has breathed new life into Lara Croft and its "Tomb Raider" franchise.
The seventh game, "Tomb Raider: Legend," has become the fastest-selling title in the series, selling more than 3 million units worldwide across all gaming platforms since its release in April, with 401,000 units sold in the U.S., according to the NPD Group. Critics are hailing it as one of the best titles of the franchise, not only for its sophisticated graphics, but also for returning Lara Croft to her roots, exploring ancient tombs in exotic locations around the world to search for artifacts and solving puzzles along the way.
Jeep vehicles, including its iconic Wrangler and full-size seven-passenger Commander SUV, are integrated into the game play and animated movie sequences that play in between levels, showing off the vehicle's abilities to traverse various terrains like the desert, snowy mountains or jungles. The vehicles are easily recognizable; and the Jeep logo is prominent.
But Jeep isn't the only brand that appears prominently in the game.
Italian motorcycle maker Ducati also has two of its bikes, the Monster and 999, featured in the game, a relationship with the "Tomb Raider" franchise that also continues from having a placement in the second film.
"Having a female heroine riding on Ducati sport bikes is something completely new, exciting, and exclusive in the video-game world," said Stefania Clapci, licensing director at Ducati Motor Holding.
In fact, Ducati ends up stealing much of the attention away from Jeep.
That's because the Croft character ends up relying on Ducati's bikes for many of the game's more heroic moments. She uses a motorcycle to leap from one building to another. She wears a leather biker jacket branded with the Ducati logo. And in several driving missions, she's racing across mountain trails and deserts on the back of a Ducati blasting away at villains with her dual pistols.
Villains who drive a fleet of black Jeep Commanders, with the vehicles getting destroyed in fiery explosions throughout the game.
But Jeep doesn't mind.
"It was a question for us," said Vanessa Kelley, manager of Chrysler Interactive and cross-brand gaming. "But it came across OK. It's a great vehicle. Raising someone's awareness for the Commander in any way is what we're looking for. As long as that's what the game is affording us, I'm fine with that."
In addition to the placement in the game, Jeep offered an exclusive demo of the game on its website. Ms. Kelley declined to disclose just how many people downloaded the game, but the numbers were "high" and "surprised" the company, she said. In May, the Commander also appeared at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, to promote its tie-in with the game.
Financial details of the Jeep or Ducati deals were not disclosed, but such deals can easily cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or less, depending on how they were structured. Eidos' Detroit-based strategic-marketing agency, Eiko Media, brokered the deals.
Whether the placement has helped sell more Jeeps is hard to prove.
Months after its release, sales for the Commander have been slow, not helped by rising gas prices. But the SUV did post sales of 8,958 units in June, up 40% from May, and even more than the 3,241 units it sold last October. Overall, Jeep brand sales were down 19% in June and 18% for the quarter.
Jeep's involvement with the "Tomb Raider" games may have started with the company's placement in Paramount's film, but Mr. Bell had long supported using video games as a way to help invigorate DaimlerChrysler's brands, which include Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler, either by placing new models into already-popular gaming franchises or new titles it created itself. In addition to "Tomb Raider," Jeeps have also been worked into the "Tony Hawk" and "Medal of Honor" franchises.
Taking his interest in games one step further, Mr. Bell left his post as VP-product strategy for the Chrysler Group in June to join Microsoft as VP-global marketing for the company's interactive-entertainment business, which includes Xbox.
But DaimlerChrysler continues Mr. Bell's gaming efforts, having placed the company's vehicles in 18 games last year, and nearly 15 this year.
"We don't think of games after the fact anymore," Ms. Kelley said. "We want games to be one of the components of a vehicle's overall launch. It's a nonintrusive way to support our brand message and get out information to consumers. You can't put a dollar figure on raising awareness. It's priceless."
DaimlerChrysler has yet to decide whether Jeep will appear in the next "Tomb Raider" game. No deal has yet been signed. But it's leaving its options open.
"It's nice when you have a good partner and can maintain a relationship," Ms. Kelley said. "But the timing has to be right and you have to have the right vehicles."