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Will Universal's Harry Potter ad blitz cast global spell?

05 February 2010 by By Jason Garcia - Orlando Sentinel

Universal Orlando will take to the world's biggest stage Sunday to promote the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with a $3 million television commercial that will air during the first half of the Super Bowl.

But how Universal follows up on that 30-second spot is what could ultimately determine what effect Wizarding World has on Orlando's tourism industry overall when it opens this spring.

A splashy national and overseas advertising blitz would help ensure that Wizarding World draws legions of new tourists to Orlando, lifting Universal and the rest of the local industry. But such an effort would also be expensive: Marketing experts say the price tag for a sustained national campaign could reach $100 million.

That is a big chunk of change, even for Universal, which has in recent years been spending about $75 million a year on marketing. A far more affordable option, those experts say, would be to devote more resources to the targeting of tourists already coming to Orlando, with highway billboards, ads in local media and similar programs that would help Universal siphon visitors away from its theme-park rivals, Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando.

But such a strategy would do more to shift Orlando's existing travel market than to expand it.

"It depends on their resources — and their willingness to allocate significant resources to market it," said Abe Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

Though Universal would not discuss the specifics of its marketing, the resort said its plan for Wizarding World is ambitious.

"We have carefully planned a global marketing effort that maintains and builds on the excitement surrounding the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and that shows our commitment to creating a world-class entertainment experience everyone will enjoy," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.

Much as it has with the construction of Hogwarts castle — a meticulous re-creation of Hollywood's version of the wizardry school, right down to the long rows of small windows that encircle the tallest tower — Universal says it has worked closely with Warner Bros. to ensure that even its Wizarding World advertising is appropriate for the Harry Potter brand. For example, the British ad company that Universal hired to help create the Super Bowl ad, Rosso Media Ltd., has also worked on the Potter films.

Universal says it is taking steps to court both new travelers and those already planning trips.

Targeting a broad national audience, for example, the resort brokered a deal last month with USA Today in which the newspaper, the No. 2 daily in the U.S., with nearly 2 million readers, published a promotional map of Wizarding World that interacts with computer webcams.

Universal has also had help from its corporate parent, NBC Universal. The media conglomerate, which co-owns Universal with the Blackstone Group, has aired an earlier TV commercial touting Wizarding World on its broadcast and cable-TV networks and has begun cross-promoting the project on its television shows. The Today Show, NBC's morning-news program, included a segment last week that launched a sweepstakes in which a school class can win a trip to the grand-opening ceremony.

And there is this weekend's Super Bowl commercial.

Experts say Universal's willingness to shell out for ad time during the most-watched television event of the year — CBS reportedly charged close to $3 million for each 30-second slot — suggests it plans to spend aggressively to promote Wizarding World.

"I would say it suggests a high level of spend is coming," said Lisa Cotter, a marketing consultant in Los Angeles who spent a decade in the theme-park industry. The Super Bowl spot, she said, indicates "they're likely to go big."

But Universal is clearly hoping to steal market share from its rivals, too. For instance, it recently approached the owners of, a popular vacation-planning site for Disney World fans, about buying advertising space.

It's the first time Universal has inquired about direct advertising on that site, said the site's owner, Pete Werner. The majority of's traffic comes from people already planning Orlando vacations.

Werner, who also runs Dreams Unlimited Travel, a local travel agency, said he expects Wizarding World will succeed in drawing some Disney fans away from Disney World and over to Universal. He noted that sales of Universal vacation packages through Dreams Unlimited leapt 72 percent in January — a popular month for booking summer trips — compared with the same month a year ago.

"I noticed, when the announcement first came out, these people who swore they would never set foot on Universal property all of a sudden started saying, 'Well, OK, for that I've got to go,' " Werner said.

Schroder, the Universal spokesman, said the resort places equal importance on in-market advertising and national/international initiatives.

"We have created dedicated, market-specific efforts against each segment," he said.

Still, some experts say Universal would be smart to focus on stealing market share. There is typically a much higher rate of return on travel advertising aimed at people already planning to visit a destination. And Harry Potter is already among the most-recognized brands in the world, so consumers do not necessarily need to be introduced to it.

Furthermore, persuading an entirely new set of people to make the trip to Orlando is especially difficult in an economic environment where one in 10 Americans is out of work

"This isn't exactly the best time in the world to be optimistic about saying, 'Look, we can grow the overall Orlando market,'" said Daniel Fesenmaier, a tourism-marketing expert at Temple University in Philadelphia

Universal is certain to emphasize key markets with its Wizarding World push. Chief among them: the United Kingdom, where Harry Potter is already exceptionally popular (the books are set in England). It's also Universal's most important overseas market: Approximately one in every six visitors to the resort is from the U.K


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