The online store at TE Connectivity sells power relays, heat-shrink tubing and lighting connectors. Stuff our world is built with.
They’re important, the way tire valves or the screws on your glasses are important. Without these parts, cars and planes would stall, heating and air conditioning systems would shut down, artificial limbs would jam. And new TE parts aren’t just snap-and-play connectors: They are sensors that talk to each other digitally. And TE’s linked sensors, which fit into electric cars, smartphones and medical devices, will lead to autonomous vehicles, intelligent robots and continuous solar power, the company believes
But how exciting are car parts, really? Brand managers at the Berwyn company -- with its 80,000 employees and 8,000 engineers, its 300 facilities shipping billions of parts to 140 countries, its $14 billion in yearly sales (more than Campbell Soup, FMC and DuPont successor Chemours, combined) -- worry that their reputation hasn’t caught up to their technology.
So, inspired by earlier partnerships -- Coldwell Banker with the Marvel superhero movies, IBM with the computer-pioneering saga Hidden Figures -- chief marketing officer Kari Janavitz last spring jetted to California looking for the right big pop culture production to appeal to young engineers around the world, who represent TE’s key customers and recruits.
“I was pumped," she told me. “I’d never been to a studio. And I was on the hunt."
Not long ago, brand-building was about advertising, search-engine marketing, and retail display. But, just as Netflix now competes not just with pay-video rivals such as Comcast but with wildly popular digital games such as Fortnite, Janavitz said, her company realized it needs to get into young engineers' “mind space” -- which “doesn’t turn off on the weekend” -- so they’ll see TE Connectivity as a place to buy cool stuff hooked into a hot future and a stimulating place to work: “We need to integrate into the daily world of these engineers.”
So TE Connectivity has signed on as corporate partner of Twentieth Century Fox’s new movie Alita: Battle Angel. Due for general release on Valentine’s Day, it was previewed for local reviewers and superfans at the UA Riverview Plaza Stadium Imax in South Philly on Thursday. Based on Gunnm, a Manga (big-eyed comic-book) series by Japanese artist Yukito Kishiro, the film stars Rosa Salazar as a sensitive human brain awakening in a junior-high-skinny, warfare-tough cyborg body in a film co-produced by James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar) and directed by Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Sin City).
Why Alita? At Fox studios, Chris Cerbo, senior vice president for partnerships, showed his visitors a string of trailers. “One was a cartoon," recalls Janavitz -- not quite the thing. Another trailer was thoughtful, but dark.
Alita, already in post-production, “had a lot of interesting technological ideas of how things could work in the future. A great grasp of technology, a great grasp on creating a world, a great appeal to potential engineers.”
And at the center was a character Janavitz found relatable, trying to make friends and learn her powers, while coping with extreme conflict and rapid change. Janavitz found herself recalling what was a seminal moment for her own marketing career, the flashing personalized-ads scene in the 2002 Tom Cruise movie Minority Report.
“TE was very interesting to us," Cerbo told me. “They are not a traditional film partner. This company is an authority on creating things. So we said, ‘OK, technology and science, we can use that as an angle.’” Together they would promote “the science behind the science fiction.”
To seal the deal, the company sent Seattle-based engineer Matt Gould, a veteran of TE Connectivity’s Formula E electric-car racing team, to New Zealand -- to the Weta Workshop, the computer-generated graphics studio that worked on Alita and is famous for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies.
“We got behind the scenes with the producers, the director, the actors,” Gould, a York College of Pennsylvania grad, told me. “I saw how they did motion capture and animation overlay. They used technology grounded in today’s reality, then set it 600 years into the future, with artificial intelligence and humans, partial and full body replacement. They used tensors, wires, exoskeletal units.”
Alita “has a human brain” surrounded by sophisticated equipment. “She’s in a gladiator-style game” with skills easily adapted to warfare. But she also develops “thoughts, emotions, feelings,” which inform her use of her hard-wired tools.
Gould says we’re already in a version of that world: “TE Connectivity surrounds us every day -- in our cars and our kitchen appliances, in airplane in-flight entertainment and in medical devices. Anything that has power, or data, we are there.”
Seeing that vision extended in the movie made him proud, he said: "We are designing the future. I know what we’re capable of and I want to make sure people know that about us. "
For studios such as Fox, corporate partnership goes beyond product placement -- like old James Bond driving an Aston Martin. TE Connectivity will create its own videos explaining Alita tech and link it to the company’s products and people. "It is all about using them as a base for conversations about what future technology might look like,” -- conversations that, in 2019, are needed to get people to watch a movie, Cerbo added.
Official film sites and YouTube are crammed with slick “behind-the-scenes” movie videos that yield as little insight as a team-produced pro sports film. But by inviting a third-party engineering company to add its comments on the gee-whiz effects in the movie, the TE-Fox alliance hopes to add a more independent view with appeal for both the mass audience and the specialized professionals with informed views of what’s pure fantasy and what’s destiny.
How do we know this works? “We’re not a metrics business,” said Cerbo. Corporate partners have varying goals: “Maybe a brand needs to be cooler. Or they just think it’s a great match."
Fox wants to get its partners' audience talking about its show so they’ll watch. Cerbo found he likes working with engineers. “They gave us these clips and activations that show a lot of what we’re doing is rooted in existing technology," he added. "Engineers are always talking about different possibilities. With creative [people], there’s a lot we have in common.”