Mumbai: In-film product placements and co-promotion are not new to Bollywood. But Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), the country’s largest fast-moving consumer goods company by sales, is taking it to another level with its brand Sunsilk.

In an unusual deal, HUL has tied up with film producers Sajid Nadiawala and Dharma Productions Pvt. Ltd’s in their venture 2 States, in which the shampoo brand has been so well-plaited that the movie’s release dovetails with the launch of its new variant—Sunsilk Natural Recharge.

HUL is hoping that 2 States, which releases in cinemas on 18 April, will add some lustre to its new launch.

The film, based on author Chetan Bhagat’s book of the same name, is about a young couple’s journey from their campus days to marriage. The film that features actor Arjun Kapoor as Krish Malhotra, a fun-loving Punjabi, and Alia Bhatt as Ananya Subramaniam, a stunningly smart girl from a Tamil-Brahmin family, is a humorous take on inter-community marriages in India.

In the film, Bhatt’s character gets picked up by HUL during campus placements to work as a brand manager on Sunsilk. Her assignment is to launch the new variant of the shampoo in the market.

Apoorva Mehta, chief executive officer of Dharma Productions, said the company could not have found a better fit than Sunsilk to reflect the confident and attractive personality of Ananya. “It also helps that hair plays a big role for us in showcasing her personality transformation from her college days to being a professional," Mehta said.

Clearly, filmmakers and production houses are waking up to the merits of such brand tie-ups to help them cover production costs and cut their risk even before the film hits the theatres. Advertisers are beginning to realize that coming on board fairly early at the scripting stage can help them integrate their brand more seamlessly and therefore create a stronger connect with audiences who may have developed a blind spot for traditional commercial messages such as television ads.

“We got involved at a fairly early stage so it gave us the time and flexibility to integrate our brand into the storyline," said Srinandan Sundaram, general manager, hair care, HUL.

He said the story and characters offered an opportunity for the perfect brand fit. “We explained to Dharma (Productions) in detail the personality of character and worked on certain scenes where the brand could come in. We got detailed character sketches which were in sync with the brand values. Everything else just flowed," said Sundaram.

Although the shampoo variant was launched in the market in February, as it takes a month for it to get into all the retail outlets, the idea of tying up with the movie was aimed at creating buzz around the launch platform of 2 States. “The advertising and marketing will take off now and we have a lot of activities planned around this," he said.

According to estimates by two independent sources, a consumer products company such as HUL would spend about 30 crore in marketing and promoting a product variant in the first quarter of its launch.

“Considering that the launch is coinciding with the onset of summer when the tendency of consumers to wash their hair is much more, the marketing would be far more aggressive," said an analyst who did not want to be identified, citing company policy. Of this amount, nearly 50% would have been diverted towards the association with a film such as 2 States, experts said.

Branded content in films is increasingly becoming popular for advertisers to cut the clutter. “Films are very much a part of popular culture and a passion point with the target audience of the brand. So it made perfect sense to do this," said Amin Lakhani, leader, South Asia, Team Unilever, at Mindshare, the media-buying and planning company that worked on this deal.

This deal comes on the heels of HUL’s recent deal with youth channel MTV India, which will launch six films that are inspired by the philosophies of different HUL brands such as Sunsilk, Tresemme, Ponds, Lakme and Close Up, among others.

Filmmakers are beginning to see value in chasing such deals. In 2013, Mere Dad Ki Maruti by Y-Films, a label of Yash Raj Films Pvt. Ltd (YRF), was almost like a 101-minute commercial for Maruti Suzuki India Ltd’s vehicle Ertiga.

According to Ashish Patil, vice-president, YRF, the total project cost—which included cost of production, prints, publicity and distribution—was pegged at approximately 11 crore. Nearly 80% of this was covered by its brand partners alone.

“Today, as a filmmaker, you don’t have a choice. As soon as you have a working script in place, the first thing you do is look for possible brand fits. Not only is it an additional revenue stream which can offset production costs, but it’s also something you can leverage, to bring in marketing dollars," said Patil.

However, he said that most advertisers still rush to a film at the last minute. “In that sense, Bollywood is still very underleveraged. Few brands actually have a movie strategy, so to speak. However, there are certain companies such as Unilever and Samsung now which actually factor in films into their plan," he added.