GM's Sponsorship of Ken Burns' Jazz
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GM's Sponsorship of Ken Burns' Jazz

General Motors has been the sole corporate underwriter for all of Ken Burns' films. The relationship has been a healthy one for ten years now – except that GM has traditionally failed to win credit for its on-going support

Paul Holmes

 

Ken Burns is America’s premier documentary filmmaker.  General Motors, the sole corporate underwriter for all of his films, is the world’s largest company.  The relationship has been a healthy one for ten years now – except that GM has traditionally failed to win credit for its on-going support of Burns and Burns himself produces so many films that they are more expected than anticipated.

Dan Klores Communications’ (DKC) goal for the General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation of Ken Burns’s JAZZ (10 parts on PBS throughout January 2001) was two-fold: to brand General Motors as the company most responsible for bringing the American experience on film into American households; and, secondly, to create an unprecedented buzz and excitement about JAZZ and associated products and events to further drive tune-in to the multi-episodic film.

Following extensive research into earlier Burns films and the GM relationship, DKC developed a multi-faceted campaign that combined strategies and tactics from both a presidential campaign and an Oscar campaign – with election day January 8th, 2001, the airdate for the first episode.  

The first story, which helped to shape our positioning, broke on the op-ed page of the New York Times on July 3, 2000 – a column tied to Independence Day, followed by a variety of teasers and screenings, and a curtain raiser on the making of JAZZ that ran on the front page of the LA Times Calendar Section in August.  

On September 6th, at a press conference at the jazz club Birdland in New York, we announced the formal campaign – partnerships, events, and products – and kicked off the four-month march to the airing of Episode I.  The coverage was huge:  New York Times exclusive followed by pieces in the L.A. Times, Detroit News and Freepress, NY Daily News, USA Today, Associated Press, etc.

Because of the early research, the most successful integrated marketing ever on behalf of a film on PBS, the teasers and screenings, a 14-city tour that included screenings, concerts, education efforts and fundraisers – we not only sustained the coverage for JAZZ – we created a national event that won recognition for General Motors, nearly doubled PBS primetime viewership throughout the length of the film, shot the accompanying JAZZ CDs to the top of the charts – something unprecedented for archival jazz – and even turned the companion book into a bestseller.  As the New York Times wrote only days after our September press conference, four months before the film was even scheduled to run: JAZZ was expected to be, “the outstanding program of the television season." 

RESEARCH

The research for JAZZ was three-fold.  First, we conducted an extensive review of early GM efforts, the timing of events, written materials, etc. to determine why coverage had been so deficient and relegated primarily to television pages. At the same time, working with Burns staff, DKC compiled exhaustive fact sheets and photo descriptions to allow for market specific stories on jazz artists and settings.  Finally, we began a trial by elimination search for potential jazz partners – looking in each case for a particular fit with JAZZ (the film, music and culture) that would be newsworthy in and of itself and drive tune in.  Ultimately we decided on: The National Basketball Association, Starbucks, Sony Music and Verve Music, the United Negro College Fund, the publisher Knopf, Amazon.com, and American Airlines, among others.

PLANNING

After extensive research, the marketing and public relations plan was finalized in the early spring of 2000.  While the plan included direct marketing efforts for General Motors’ dealers and others, the entire plan was structured around driving tune in to the film (our election day) and increasing awareness about the film and the music.  

Based on our research into earlier GM/Burns efforts, we also incorporated into the plan the stand-alone press conference (September 6) far enough prior to the film to win coverage for General Motors.  The plan outline – the full plan is enclosed – was:

Early Teasers

Early Strategic Screenings

Advance Press (to set tone with non television and music writers)

Television Critics Association Sneak Preview

Partnership press conference

Unveiling of Book and CDs in November


 

14-City JAZZ Road Show 

Long-Lead Media Break

TV Inserts and TV Reviews Break

National Electronic Coverage

Release of rare footage for local television pickup

January 8 airdate

On-going coverage to sustain tune-in

EXECUTION

Given the cynicism of television writers and critics, and the saber-toothed bite of many jazz writers, our goal was to get the film out, seen and reported on months prior to the actual airdate – to create anticipation and win praise for the project before the stories appeared from those who may have had (and did have) disagreements (though ultimately even the criticism worked to our advantage).

As with a political campaign, we created a targeted opinion list to generate buzz and then expanded outward.    In the early summer, two thousand special box sets of JAZZ postcards were mailed out, followed by individual episodes with a request card for more.  The first screening, in May, was for a sympathetic audience at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City.  That was followed by a fundraiser for the Harlem based Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Hamptons – Harlem in the Hamptons.

Given the competing interests of the book, the CDs, and the home video, we also created a tight schedule for the release of information that would enhance interest and not threaten coverage of the film:

September press conference

November Book and CD sales (we brought together Sony and Verve, two competing labels) to handle the music (a five CD box set, a best of CD and 22 individual artist CD)

November launch of new Amazon.com Ken Burns JAZZ store

January Starbucks promotional campaign – posters and jazz music in all 3,000 stores (percentage of proceeds from music sales to the United Negro College Fund)

January Home Video for sale

On-going television, radio and print coverage to sustain tune-in

Because of the limited advertising budget available for the film (some from PBS and limited funds as well for the book and the music), every effort was made to coordinate the free press to maximize sustained editorial coverage.

EVALUATION

The coverage of JAZZ was unprecedented.  Every paper in every major market ran features and reviews – most on the cover of arts sections.  The New York Times, L.A. Times, USA Today and other major papers all ran multiple articles, with the New York Times alone running at least eight pieces, including a written “round table” of leading writers.  It paid off.  Tune in for JAZZ beat all expectations.  This esoteric topic averaged a 3.5  throughout January (not even including the viewership for the multiple rebroadcasts of each episode in major markets), nearly doubling the PBS primetime viewership of 2.
Following the first episode of JAZZ on January 8, Amazon.com reported that the five-CD box set was the number one seller, surpassing the Beatles Anthology and Madonna.  Within two weeks, the now gold box set, along with the overview CD and one of the individual artist CDs, made it onto the Billboard Top 200 Chart – an unprecedented achievement for archival JAZZ. And on Sunday, February 4, JAZZ, the companion book, appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List. 

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