Though merchandise tie-ins geared to kids is nothing new, selling products based on books and films to adults, specifically women, is a more recent phenomenon. Sure, "Sex and the City 2" had jewelry, sunglasses, vodka and thong panties, but it didn't have a weekend (Aug. 6-8) of themed stuff being sold on HSN and a line at Cost Plus World Market and themed travel tours.
"This is enough of a paradigm shift that it's not just another Friday night movie opening," says Peter Sealey, former president of marketing and distribution at Columbia Pictures and now a professor of marketing at the Peter F. Drucker Graduate School of Management at the Claremont Graduate University. "This movie [which opened Friday] has a uniquely different approach to generating buzz and marketing." "Eat Pray Love" is one of those rare convergences of a chick lit bestseller set in exotic locales turned into a chick flick starring Julia Roberts. In other words, a marketer's dream.
It all started with Gilbert's 2006 book, which recounts how she left an unhappy marriage, ultimately traveling the world for a year to Italy, where she discovered the joy of amazing food; India, where she got in touch with her spiritual side; and Bali, where she found love (in the cinematic version, her paramour is played by Javier Bardem). The book has since sold more than 7 million copies and has been translated into 30 languages. Since the film rights were sold, fans have been eager to see Gilbert's words come to life on the big screen.
So were executives at HSN, which is still selling those fans tote bags, dresses, bracelets, pillows and coasters. (The firming serum appears to be sold out.)
Mindy Grossman, HSN's chief executive, throws out phrases like "wrap-around experience" and "immersive event" when talking about the "Eat Pray Love" weekend extravaganza. She says she got goose bumps when the movie was invoked during a meeting with Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairman Jeff Blake. "I think what's been created is this passionate, evangelical fervor around the products and around the journey." Grossman said she sent 2,400 copies of the book to customer service reps so they could hitch a ride on that journey as well.
At Cost Plus World Market, Elizabeth Gilbert/Julia Roberts fans can buy Tibetan prayer flags, a Buddha with a candle in it, meditation bells and wicker storage baskets, all part of the "Eat Pray Love" shop. They can pick up some limited-edition "Eat Pray Love" tea from Republic of Tea.
Or, fans can visit the online site of Dogeared Jewels & Gifts, where delicate charm necklaces come with cards that read "beauty is everywhere" and "to lose balance sometimes for love is part of living a balanced life." Hello Kitty! Los Angeles-based designer Sue Wong has a line of "Eat Pray Love" inspired comfy-but-elegant clothes shipping to Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales and other stores.
Sony Pictures and retailers are banking on women feeling such a connection with Gilbert's story—sorry, journey — that they'll want a tangible piece of it, be it a $20 pair of earrings or a $300 gelato machine. That, in marketing parlance, is something called transference, when someone takes the good feelings toward something (Gilbert's book or Julia Roberts' character) and links it to something else (a pasta machine) that might edge them a little closer to happiness and fulfillment. Retailers are also counting on a spillover effect from consumers who haven't read the book and don't plan to see the movie but like the stuff anyway.
Not everyone who read the book loved it, and even among those who liked the book there is already some backlash against the product lines. A commenter named "Helen" wrote on the website Monsters and Critics, in response to a story on "Eat Pray Love," "HSN might have taken us … higher. Instead, it's hawking marginally more exotic versions of stuff no one particularly needs. It's reinforcing its business priorities with its usual message: 'Shop your way to happiness.' It's taking Gilbert's book and standing it on its head, reducing her life-changing experience to the 'Eat Pray Love' lifestyle."
It might be easier for some to purchase the "Eat Pray Love" products since most don't carry logos, thus flying better under the radar. Indeed, the majority of the products are inspired by the book and film's stunning locations and then translated into brightly colored bed linens, prayer bead bracelets and the like.
Marcia Maizel-Clarke, founder of Culver City-based Dogeared Jewels & Gifts, is hoping its "Eat Pray Love"-inspired line will outperform the company's jewelry line based on "Sex and the City 2," which featured only 10 pieces. This one has 150-plus items and branches out to other products, such as luggage tags and bookmarks.
But if necklaces and pillows aren't enough to launch an epiphany, maybe a trip to Bali is. And not just any trip, but one that includes visits to places and people Gilbert encounters in her book, such as the town of Ubud, medicine man Ketut Liyer and musician Yude Andiko.
Spirit Quest Tours offers an Eat, Pray & Love Bali trip, presumably for those who don't care to craft their own life-changing expedition. "We did a trip in May and people were having these totally life-changing experiences," says Halle Eavelyn, a screenwriter who co-owns the business with her husband.
A fan of the book, Eavelyn knows what some of her clients (almost all women) want out of the trip: "We definitely work with people to try and facilitate spiritual breakthroughs." The tour includes readings from the book, which she calls "a beautiful, coalescing teaching tool. I feel the book was a huge catalyst in making [those breakthroughs] happen." Two more themed Bali trips are planned, with spots still available.
But with hundreds of "Eat Pray Love" items for sale, the product launches may be missing one thing, according to John Kremer, author of "1001 Ways to Market Your Books."
"Do they have an action figure?" Kremer says facetiously. "That's how you know you've made it."