Cineworld, Europe’s second-largest cinema operator, is tearing up the traditional cinema rulebook by digitising both its operations and marketing to compete in what it sees as an increasingly competitive, out-of-home leisure market.
Justin Skinner is a big part of that effort. As SVP of marketing, in charge of 97 cinemas and over 2,200 screens across the U.K. and Ireland, his remit covers brand, communications, advertising, PR, campaign management, a B2B sales team, and customer services.
In an interview with CMO.com, Skinner started by explaining the marketing ecosystem around cinema.
Skinner: The distributors look after the marketing of the titles. They build brands and create demand for the films that they’re releasing. We’re experts in marketing the retail experience, making sure our customers understand the different ways they can watch a movie, and why Cineworld is a great place to watch the fantastic product that we show on our screens.
My responsibility revolves, specifically, around driving admissions. That means making it easy for customers to find out what’s on and when. We also have the U.K.’s largest cinema-subscription programme, called Unlimited, and I have a significant challenge in continually growing that programme. ... It’s a really valuable proposition for us, and customers absolutely love it. They become real advocates of Cineworld when they join Unlimited.
We’ve got a number of propositions. We’re opening cinemas with 4DX screens—it’s a multisensory experience with wind, lightning, moving seats, and snow in the auditorium—so we want customers to know what 4DX is. We’ve got the Superscreen, which is a wall-to-wall screen with dual projectors, we’ve got the VIP screen, and all of them support our vision of Cineworld as being the best place to watch a movie.
My objective is to make sure on a local basis that customers are aware of each of those propositions, because, ultimately, that’s an upsell for our business. We have national campaigns and local marketing, and we also work with the distributors to ensure their films are getting exposure across our marketing assets. ... Then I want to try and create a brand, some point of differentiation in a market where geography plays the most important role. You will tend to go to your local cinema rather than drive past it to go somewhere else.
We’re a multiplex business, so, effectively, we have something for everyone. We’re building our brand around our “world of more” we offer customers. More choice, more ways to watch a movie, the all-you-can-eat approach of Unlimited.
We don’t really believe we’re competing against home entertainment. We believe we’re competing in that leisure market where that disposable pound needs to be earned.
CMO.com: What other business challenges does Cineworld face?
Skinner: It’s really about relevance in a highly competitive leisure market. We need to remind people that cinema is a great place to escape, to socialise, and is a great night out despite the leisure pound being squeezed.
Our secondary challenge is piracy. We need to ensure that if customers watch a grainy, poor-quality pirate copy at home, they go: “This isn’t good enough.” We need to offer [a better experience].
CMO.com: How does digital fit in to your marketing thinking?
Skinner: There is nothing within our business that isn’t being affected by digital—from programmatic advertising to mobile, to social engagement, to digitising in-house ways to deliver greater efficiencies, to the exploration of digital retail.
But, like most organisations, we’re on a journey. We were the first cinema chain to launch an app and an online membership programme. Now we’re leading with Snapchat filters. In a way, we’re tearing up the traditional cinema rulebook and saying: “Customers, expect a digital experience. And employees, expect to be able to work in a digital world.”
Interestingly, when we did introduce digital projectors, most customers expected we were there already. The level of expectation among our customers now is very high. And we constantly need to try and reach that bar. But as a business, we’re not prepared to be bleeding-edge. For us, it’s important we’re mass-market in our thinking, that we roll out solutions or propositions that are appropriate for our audiences.
Take virtual reality. We’re not really sure how it’s going to affect our business, but it’s important to dip our toe into it and see what our customers are looking for, what they’re prepared to pay for, whether it enhances their experience, and what the challenges are.
CMO.com: How significant is personalisation for you?
Skinner: We benefit from having a subscription programme where we have transactional, behavioural, and personal data on customers. Increasingly, our Unlimited customers expect a personal experience. As an Unlimited customer, I might be interested to know what genre of movies I go and see more than any other? How much have I saved this year versus buying pay-as-you-go tickets? Repackaging that data so it becomes valuable insights is really important for us, but also for our customers, for whom we can “gamify” information so they get value from it.
CMO.com: How do mobile and social fit in?
Skinner: Mobile is a core channel for us, making sure people can find out film times, buy tickets, and join our subscription programme. Allied to the opportunity to geotarget customers based on their location near our cinemas, it becomes even more powerful.
We benefit from hugely engaging content—customers want to watch upcoming titles. For example, [we were] awash with positive comments because we opened our box office for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The number of engagements already is in the hundreds of thousands. Customers give us feedback if, for example, they’re struggling to buy tickets online, which allows us to fix the issues immediately via customer services working with our IT team, and to double-check that everything’s working.
That shows the importance and the immediacy of mobile. Therefore, understanding how customers are using that channel, interacting, engaging, and listening to them via that channel, is key. Equally, our core audience are teens and young adults; they’re all second-screening whilst watching ads on TV. It’s a good, engaging channel to talk relevantly to them, encouraging them to buy tickets, for example, when watching trailers. We’ve trialled some activity with distributors around ensuring our messaging appears on a second screen at the same time their trailers are on TV.
One of the biggest opportunities we’ve had recently is working with Facebook. It did a recent study identifying that it’s not as simple as just advertising with a “Buy Now” button on Facebook, because there’s a step before that, which is, “Who within my network of friends would like to go to the cinema with me to watch X?”
We want to close that loop because the quicker we can make customers purchase, the better it is for our business and our industry. There are probably five times as many conversations about going to the cinema than those that actually end in buying tickets. If you can capture people at the moment when they’re thinking about going, and you can then convert them there and then, that’s half the challenge.
CMO.com: How are things likely to change in the next year to 18 months for Cineworld?
Skinner: Once again, it’s looking like a really strong year of film for us. And that’s key, because, clearly, great content is our bread and butter.
In terms of our ongoing marketing activity, the more we can mine the data to give us information that allows us to be ever-more relevant to our customers, the better. It means my marketing spend becomes more efficient, my messages to customers become more relevant, and my engagement with them potentially becomes more personal. We’re going to be working very hard over the next year to integrate multiple datasets into one place because data on its own is worthless—it’s the insight you get from analysing and interpreting that data that allows you to use it appropriately for business benefit.
I don’t think we’re ever going to stop learning what’s new, how we can innovate, how we can use data insights better. We’ve probably only scratched the surface.