How PropStar's Services Have Expanded the Reach of a Canadian Telecom

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The deal: Mitel Networks hired Canadian product placement shop PropStar Placement to help the telecommunications company improve company morale through TV shows and movies.

The result: Mitel’s appearance on several high-profile productions has not only boosted morale, but also has given its sales staff leverage to help phone in new orders.

LOS ANGELES -- Companies have turned to product placement to do a number of things, including beef up sales and a brand’s image. But Canadian telecommunications company Mitel Networks is using several high-profile placements on TV and in films to help boost company moral.
A Mitel phone unit appears conspicuously on a desk in ABC's 'Boston Legal.'

Three years ago, the business-to-business provider of phone services and hardware turned to Vancouver-based PropStar to help make its office products appealing to Hollywood set decorators. Mitel had been looking for a unique way to make its products stand out from rivals such as Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems. The Ottawa-based company sells directly to customers, as well as through partnerships with manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM to customers that include Venison and businesses operating in the education, hospitality, health care, retail and government industries.

'Poke in the eye'

“Product placement proved a fairly cost effective way to get your brand out there,” said Simon Gwatkin, vice president of strategic marketing for Mitel Networks. “If you have a competitor who is using a vehicle to promote their equipment and you’re not, you’re at a disadvantage. Doing it gives them a little poke in the eye. Gently, of course.”

Mitel’s phones have had cameos on hit shows such as NBC’s ER, ABC’s Alias and Boston Legal, and CBS’ CSI franchise. The phones have also appeared in movies, most recently in 20th Century Fox’s romantic comedy Fever Pitch, which stars Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon. Phones are now being shipped to the set of Intermedia’s Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction.

Because Mitel primarily sells directly to businesses, the Hollywood productions appealed to the company because of their fictional workplace settings -- something Mitel’s sales team could use to demonstrate the phones’ functions and how they look in real-world environments. For example, ER enables Mitel to target medical professionals, while a show like Boston Legal helps the company pitch lawyers. Fever Pitch featured Mitel’s phones in the offices in which Ms. Barrymore’s character of a business woman works.
A Mitel phone unit appears conspicuously on a desk in ABC's 'Boston Legal.'

“We look for opportunities in shows where our devices are seen to be very professional and used by professionals,” Mr. Gwatkin said. The “importance of the person” who is using the device is especially important to Mitel. “It’s not just about where it’s placed,” Mr. Gwatkin said. “People will be looking at them, especially if they’re a bigger star, and what they’re doing.”

Dream scenario: 'Desk of the president'

Mr. Gwatkin said his dream scenario would be to see one of Mitel’s phones placed “on the desk of the president while giving an address to the nation.”

So far, the Mitel 5240, 5220 and 5303 phones have proved to be the most popular for productions. Early prototypes of new products hitting the market will be given to PropStar to promote.

“We try to work with the production and the client to make sure there’s a good fit and that the product works in the right places,” said Nancie Tear, creative director of PropStar, which also counts Alienware, the Toronto Blue Jays, D-Link and as clients. She cites the Mitel 5240, which sells for $900, as an example of a product that would only be seen used by a high-level executive.

Product placement, however, still doesn’t get Mitel’s full message across.

“What you see visually is the phone on the desktop, but we make the full system,” Mr. Gwatkin said. The executive also understands that “not a lot of people are going to know if what they’re seeing is a Mitel phone.”

But the company’s employees, dealers, channel partners and customers can spot Mitels anywhere, and that’s what matters, Mr. Gwatkin said.

Employee and dealer community

“Sales are great, but what [product placement] did internally within the employee and dealer community was to make them feel really good about the product,” he said. “They watch that TV show or that movie and say, ‘That’s a Mitel phone.’ The word then goes around virally.”

“Because of the nature of Mitel’s business, they’re only trying to impress their buyers,” Ms. Tear said. “If you’re in the business of selling telephones, having your phone seen over and over again helps change the conversation for Mitel and their sales team. It helps establish a platform for the products. If they can add fun and unique elements to it, that’s pretty exciting to staff morale.”

When it comes to hard numbers, Mr. Gwatkin said that it is still tough to measure the exact value of product placement. “It’s a difficult thing to measure,” he said. “It’s like asking how are you feeling today”

The company tracks the ratings of each show it appears in to use as a metric, and knows exposure doesn’t die after the episode has aired. The shows Mitel’s products appear in are often repeated and live on in syndication and DVD. They’re also popular worldwide, expanding the global reach of Mitel’s brand.

Pushing brand out more and more

“It’s just pushing out the brand more and more,” Mr. Gwatkin said. “We couldn’t afford an advertising campaign of that nature.”

Word-of-mouth has been strong enough to be “something we wouldn’t want to stop at this time,” he said. In addition to a company newsletter that updates employees of its placements, the company has an internal Web site on which employees and customers can post messages on spotting Mitels on sets and track feedback.

“Our employees get constant feedback from their network of customer contacts,” Mr. Gwatkin said. “We have had instances where customers have called us and said, ‘I saw your phone on a movie or TV show,’ and asked where they could buy that. We know [product placement] works.”
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