Hidden Figures has been a box office smash ever since debuting in theatres this year. The film—which covers the story of three African-American NASA employees who turned around the Space Race in the ’60s and served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit—has spent two weeks at the No. 1 spot and already grossed more than $80 million. Not too shabby for a movie that worked with a $25 million budget.

The film also has opened opportunities for brands to enter the conversation about empowering education and diversity in tech—specifically through STEM—to act as role models for the next generation.

IBM’s branded content division was front-and-center behind this message by unveiling the branded AR app “Outthink Hidden” in partnership with The New York Times.

The experience entails 3D computer graphics and renderings that explore stories of STEM innovators through a mobile device by using a Pokémon GO-style hunt with 150 geo-fenced locations around the Unites States.

The virtual museum, complemented with audio and video narratives and written content about historical leaders in science, technology, engineering and math, enjoyed its day under the sun earlier this month at CES before the movie’s premiere.

Ann Rubin, IBM’s vice president of branded content and global creative, oversaw the “Outthink Hidden” activation. She joined [a]listdaily to discuss IBM’s strategy in the space.


Why was it critical for IBM to be at CES this year with “Outthink Hidden” and complement it with a mobile component and panel discussion as well?

The timing aligned perfectly with the Hidden Figures and our partnership with Fox and we knew people would really be talking about the film. It’s definitely a movie that has sparked a lot of interest and enthusiasm from people. We knew there would be a lot of buzz. At the same time, we were in a position to give people deeper insight into the film and the important women in history and tell a deeper story. People were super engaged, and the interest level was very high. We feel like it did what we intended for it to do in terms of inspiring them and thinking about STEM.

How did you engage with consumers through social and digital channels?

We had a Facebook livestream for the panel discussion hosted by Soledad O’Brien and posted lots of key pieces of content that pushed to a landing page with more content. We had plenty of engagement through Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. We like to experiment with new platforms and really try new things. It’s really a great way for people to interact with us in real-time. We make it a priority to engage and respond with them. It’s really nice because people can also watch it later. It kind of serves two purposes. We’ve been livestreaming strategically since last year, and this was one of the right places to do it. We got a lot of engagement.

IBM also produced mini-documentaries and created a micro-site, too. What was the overall marketing strategy for this activation?

The app itself is intended to let people explore the key figures in an immersive way. We were inspired by the Hidden Figures story to share more about the unsung heroes. The overall program itself was to increase diversity in STEM. It’s part of the core of our company’s culture and values. We want to continue to encourage how important inclusion and diversity is to a company’s success. Things like this program get people to think differently about other people, and perhaps new hiring processes, and that results in improved innovation and success within a company. It’s really critical to us as a company, and our clients, that we all think this way.

Why was augmented reality the best approach for the in-person experience? Why was it important for IBM to partner with a media company like The New York Times?

We’ll always look at what’s new and what’s emerging. We want to make the learning about science and technology as interesting as we can. We think people like to explore new technologies, so might as well make the learning fun and combine desire with curiosity. There are a number of companies who do AR, and we explored a few, but we landed on The New York Times. We knew that they would provide great quality from a tech perspective. We knew that they would collaborate with us and our ad agency for the creative elements. They are also a great distribution channel with the newspaper, online and the AR app to get the message across. It’s important for brands to partner with media companies who are publishers first to create great content because they can help us distribute the content to various platforms. We can learn a lot from the true publishers, so partnering with them just makes all of the work a lot better.

Which of IBM’s previous branded content activations has resonated most with people?

I love all of my children, but one that resonated particularly strong with people was our Cognitive Dress at the Met Gala that we did with high fashion designer Marchesa. It was one of the first big activations we did where people could really see man and machine working together to do something that they weren’t able to before. It was done in a very acceptable way; it was cultural, and approachable. Not everyone sees the amazing and incredible things that we’re doing with Watson. You can’t ‘touch’ it. But the cognitive tech was visually apparent for a dress in the public eye because it was analyzing social sentiment and social feeds and changing colors based on what people were talking about. It was so tangible, that people were saying, ‘we get Watson. I can see it happening, and how it can apply it elsewhere.’

Looking at the current marketing technology landscape and all that is currently available, what sort of tech and services do you think marketers are lacking?

For us, Watson is the technology that we continue to experiment and explore, even in our branded content. We test and implement in a lot of ways, and we’ll use the APIs to make the content more engaging and personal, so they can experience Watson and see it in action. It’s important for marketers to understand that cognitive technologies are here, it’s now, and it can be applied to business. Call it Watson, or cognitive, or artificial intelligence . . . it’s one of the main areas of experimentation. For us, we’re testing how we can personalize content for audiences in new ways based on personality and tone. It can help us predict what our audience wants to hear and how they’re feeling about it.

Do you think marketing executives can keep up with the current pace of innovation?

It’s our responsibility as marketers and leaders in the field to make sure we’re up to speed, just like a doctor would with the latest medical procedures. It’s the right events to go to, the right partners to talk to, or the right agencies to have.

How has IBM’s brand narrative evolved through branded content activations? How do you further plan on carrying the momentum this year?

Our main narrative is the same—that IBM can help companies, individuals, or even cities, apply data and science technology to all kinds of problems in order to perform better. It’s about world-changing progress. What changes with the current technology. Given where the world is today, it’s important for us to communicate cloud tech, or Watson’s cognitive technologies. Our branded content programs will focus on those areas. We’ve said that we are the ‘cognitive business and cloud platform company.’ Some things never change. Some things do.

Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan