A marketer’s adventures in Hollywood

He was once P&G's 'launch guy.'

He was once P&G’s ‘launch guy.’

In 2000, after successfully launching Febreze and Dryel in Canada, the CPG giant sent Jeff Norton stateside to work his magic on its vital Dawn brand to reinvigorate it south of the border and re-launch it up here. The Canadian ‘launch guy’ stuck to the States but traded CPG for CGI.

Now Norton is focused on the biggest launch of his career: the DVD release of The Abominable Snowman, the first interactive ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ movie, produced by his own Beverly Hills-based start-up, Lean Forward Media, and featuring the voice talent of stars Frankie Muniz, Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy.

Norton’s marketing background is evident in his multi-faceted launch campaign. Aside from traditional print, TV and online efforts, he has created some unique co-promotions. In the U.S., the movie is being promoted on 18 million Life cereal boxes across the country, directing consumers to the Life website where they can download a $3 rebate off the purchase of the movie, play ‘CYOA’-branded advergames and enter a contest to win a chance to be animated into the next ‘CYOA’ movie. In Canada, consumers can enter to win their own adventures at choosemovie.ca, (supported by TV and print efforts running on kid-centric media like YTV), where they can build their ideal vacations at their choice of Intrawest Resorts.

Norton’s marketing adventure began with a summer internship at P&G, where he worked on Bounce. The CPG giant scooped him up full-time as soon as he graduated from Queen’s University in 1997, and he launched Febreze and Dryel from the Toronto office in 1999, then headed to Cincinnati to work on Dawn. He came back to Toronto briefly in 2001, when he made a short film before heading down to Harvard Business School later that summer, where he began seriously contemplating his interactive movie venture.

Norton fondly remembers reading the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books as a child, and thought the series would be the perfect fit for his interactive movie concept. In 2003, while attending Harvard Business School, he cold-called ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ author R.A. Montgomery one morning, and he and his business partner Michelle Crames drove up to Vermont that night to dine with him and his family and discuss the project. Norton’s obvious passion for the books helped win the family over, and they agreed to grant Lean Forward Media the home entertainment rights to the series.

After securing the rights, Norton and Crames headed for the Hollywood Hills in 2003 to work on turning Norton’s vision into reality. He frequently drew on his marketing background throughout the process of wooing investors and raising capital for the project. ‘We use creative briefs, we use issue sheets…I’ve always seen this as a brand management exercise,’ Norton explains, adding that his disciplined approach helped separate him from other producers. ‘There are so many horror stories of people in Hollywood asking for your money and then throwing it away on vanity projects.’

Norton, who did a double-major in film studies and commerce at Queen’s, always saw marketing as a career path that would allow him to appease both his creative and business inclinations. ‘Jeff can see solutions that aren’t always intuitive – he would say there’s probably a third alternative,’ says Peggy Cunningham, Norton’s marketing professor at Queen’s. Though it’s been almost 10 years since she taught him, Cunningham recalls Norton vividly. ‘Jeff stands out in one’s memory…I knew he would be a leader.’

In Hollywood, his creative/business combination gives him an edge. ‘I think he has a split brain…divided between creativity and business, and that’s rare,’ notes Charlie Rivkin, president/CEO of San Francisco-based animation studio Wild Brain (and former CEO of the Jim Henson Company, where Norton worked under him). ‘He’s able to deal with creative people as well as with investors very well.’

While at P&G, Norton’s creativity helped him build activation plans that broke new ground for the firm. He was very inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, and crafted unique word of mouth promotions around the Febreze and Dryel launches. ‘The concept of influencing the influencers really made sense. It resonated with me,’ Norton says.

‘I was given Febreze when it was just a concept – a fabric refresher. I was given the opportunity to run with it,’ he recalls. ‘We realized that the education aspect was essential…at the time, the concept of spraying a liquid on your most expensive pieces of furniture and clothing was quite out there.’

Norton worked with his PR agency, Toronto-based Manning, Selvage & Lee (MS&L), to figure out just who the influencers for this new product would be. They ended up mailing out 5,000 gift-wrapped full-size bottles to select targets across the country, including 1,000 mobile home operators. ‘We went after PR in a major way. We wanted to weave Febreze into everyday life,’ he says.

Leading up to the 1999 Canadian launch, Norton spent a lot of time in Phoenix, the American test market for Febreze, observing how consumers were reacting to it. ‘I sat with a woman who was trying to spray a couch with the tiny [trial] bottle. She even said: ‘Gosh, my finger really hurts,” Norton says, explaining that this observation supported his hypothesis that the 100ml mini-bottle trial sizes being used in the U.S. could be problematic. He opted not to run trial sizes in Canada, a decision that inspired his European counterparts to do the same. Another tactic picked up overseas (in the U.K., this time) was Norton’s decision to include an informational booklet on the package to help people understand how to use this strange new product.

Clearly, Norton’s intuition paid off: the Canadian launch of Febreze took just three months to meet the volume forecast for the entire year, planting the seed for Norton’s reputation as the launch guy. ‘Almost as soon as Febreze was launched, they asked me to do it again for Dryel,’ he recalls, adding that at age 25, he was the youngest person working on the Dryel global team.

Once again, Norton worked with MS&L on WOM-building efforts. ‘He was particularly excited about the potential of word of mouth when it was still in its very early days,’ notes Gayla Brock-Woodland, managing director at MS&L. They did a 25-mall tour with four dryers, demo-ing how Dryel works. ‘Consumers were afraid of putting their garments into a plastic bag and putting it into the dryers,’ says Norton. ‘They literally had to see it before their eyes – it normalized the behaviour.’

Norton also tried to reach out to the dry-cleaning community to present Dryel as a complement to, not replacement of, dry cleaning to help keep them from telling all of their customers not to use Dryel. He even spoke at a dry-cleaning trade show, and recalls that it was a very hostile crowd. While he wasn’t able to win the community over enough to do co-promotions with them, Norton thinks his primary task, to deter them from bashing his product, was achieved.

Anticipating future competitors, Norton positioned Dryel as a fashion-enabler to create an emotional connection to the brand. He and MS&L partnered with about a dozen Canadian designers to do Dryel fashion shows. ‘We did arguably some of the first generation word of mouth efforts,’ says Brock-Woodland.

‘He has vision and tenacity, and that’s an extraordinary combination,’ she continues. ‘I always had a vision that he is someone I would read about in Fortune magazine one day.’

With Norton’s first DVD release in the CYOA series under his belt, and his next projects in pre-pro, Rivkin agrees that Norton is one to keep an eye on: ‘This is just the beginning of a very, very interesting career for this guy.’


Favourite movie

Die Hard. The story of one man’s triumph over impossible odds.

I wrote a film studies thesis on it at Queen’s.

Favourite website

Globeandmail.com. It’s what keeps me connected to Canadian news.

Favourite TV commercial of

all time

‘Apple 1984.’ I can still remember watching it during the Superbowl with my Dad.

First job

I started working very early, to save money to travel to Expo ’86 in Vancouver. I did anything I could to earn a buck. My first full time/

part time job was at the local

movie theatre.

Greatest strength

Leadership. Inspiring others to do their best work.