Around the world, General Motors Co. will heavily market the starring role of a yellow Chevrolet Camaro in the next "Transformers" movie. Except in China.
There, the automaker will focus on promoting a compact sport utility vehicle — the Trax — that also will appear in "Transformers: Age of Extinction," a potential blockbuster that Paramount Pictures will release June 27.
The Trax is expected to be a niche vehicle in the U.S., but it's key to the company's strategy in China. The marketing arrangement — the placement of an American car in an American film to target Chinese audiences — is pioneering, product-placement experts said.
"This is the first big American brand making a play for China via product placement," said Deborah Harpur, chief executive of Mogul Inc., an entertainment marketing agency specializing in product placement. "It's a fantastic platform to do this kind of deal."
The Trax placement is part of a wide-ranging brand integration deal between GM and Paramount. The "Transformers" franchise has been wildly popular in China, which is now the second-biggest film market in the world, trailing only the U.S. The last film in the series, 2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," grossed $165 million in China en route to a $1.1-billion global box-office take.
Rob Cain, a producer and veteran studio consultant on China, said the new "Transformers" picture should handily outperform the last film there.
The "Transformers" franchise is uniquely suited to automotive product placement because many main characters are cars that change into robots. In the film, a Trax transforms into a robot of the same name. The car appears in a portion of the movie that was shot and takes place in China.
"Many, many eyeballs will see this product placement," Cain said. "It's a huge movie in China."
That caught GM's attention. The automaker, including partners in its automotive joint ventures there, sold 3.2 million vehicles in China last year, an 11.4% gain from 2012.
China has been GM's largest market since 2010, last year accounting for about one-third of its global sales. GM expects China to remain the company's largest market well into the future.
GM is pushing heavily into the SUV market with the Trax and other models. The SUV market in China is forecast to reach 7 million vehicles by 2020, triple what it is today. Including the Trax, GM will add 11 new SUVs between now and 2018.
"By significantly increasing the presence of SUVs in GM's local China lineup, the automaker aims to strengthen penetration in the market and raise its standing of the Chevrolet brand," said Namrita Chow, an analyst for IHS Automotive.
The auto market in China, with more than 100 brands, is among the most competitive in the world. Volkswagen is the biggest seller, followed by GM's Wuling joint venture, according to IHS Automotive. GM's Buick brand was the seventh-best-selling brand in 2013 in China; Chevrolet was the 11th.
Chevrolet hopes the new "Transformers" film will help it stand out. GM vehicles have appeared in all four of the "Transformers" pictures.
Most famously, the company used the original 2007 movie to showcase a new Camaro concept car. The yellow muscle car was used to portray Bumblebee, one of the main Transformers. Bumblebee has appeared in each of the subsequent movies, and even spawned a special edition of the vehicle that Chevrolet sold for a few years.
Paramount and GM began discussing the appearance of the Trax in the film in late 2012, said LeeAnne Stables, executive vice president of worldwide marketing partnerships for Paramount.
GM indicated that it would soon be launching a new SUV that would target "young, urban twentysomethings." Stables said that in China that same demographic has come of age with "Transformers" movies, making the Trax a good fit for the film.
Stables declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal between the studio and GM. Typically, such pacts involve an automaker supplying a film with cars and technical support, and committing to an advertising campaign touting the movie.
The marketing blitz started when GM debuted the Trax at the Beijing Auto Show in April. At the show, a large model of the Trax in its transformed robot guise was on display. Advertisements at Chevrolet's auto show display touted the vehicle's appearance in "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which was directed by Michael Bay and cost $210 million to produce.
The car went on sale in China in April, and more than 7,000 units have since been sold, said Sharon Nishi, general director of Chevrolet sales and marketing in China.
Chevrolet plans to start selling the Trax in the U.S next year. It will be the smallest of the GM brand's crossovers and SUVs.
"Trax leverages our global resources and builds on Chevrolet's strong SUV heritage," said Alan Batey, the GM senior vice president who runs Chevrolet.
The U.S. version will come in bright colors such as brilliant blue metallic and orange rock metallic. It will be powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 138 horsepower. It will be available with a built-in Wi-Fi hot spot.
The Trax arrangement could be the start of a trend as companies increasingly try to appeal to the Chinese market and its rapidly expanding economy, said Harpur, who was not involved in the GM-Paramount deal. But she cautioned that such brand integration deals only work if they "feel organic to the storyline."
"It absolutely can feel false," she said. "It can't feel like an add-on."
Cain said that "Aftershock," a 2010 Chinese film, featured several BMWs as part of a product-placement deal, and the vehicles' appearance in the picture "didn't make sense. People remarked on it."
But given the nature of "Transformers," and the long tradition of GM vehicles appearing in the series, the Trax's inclusion isn't likely to raise eyebrows.
"They are making a big bet, so they'd take care to do it properly," he said.