DESIGNING A CUSTOM FIT

Cable offering more integrated, multiplatform deals

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

By Nancy Coltun Webster

Call it extreme sponsorship.

As advertisers look for maximum returns on their media investments, cable networks are offering an increasing number of creative, customized and multiplatform ways to partner with marketer brands—and to make sure viewers are paying attention.

The options for integrated marketing have gone far beyond a title sponsorship or a simple product placement. Today the buzzwords are "content-mercials," "intromercials," "branded storytelling" and custom marketing. Network series stars are featured in marketers' commercials—and marketers' products have a starring role in hit series.

Every cable network has a different take on integrated marketing, but all agree on two things: Efforts must be organic and they must be entertaining.

"First of all, customizable efforts are what every advertiser is looking for," says Richard Goldfarb, senior VP-sales for National Geographic Channel. "You can't do 200 a year. To work right, you have to find the killer applications. One size doesn't fit all."

USA Network's approach is to treat an advertiser's brand as a supporting character in its multiplatform "Characters Welcome" credo. "Our network is not about one genre or one demographic. We are about characters. We celebrate the character of your brand," says Chris McCumber, exec VP-marketing, digital and brand strategy for USA Network.

USA's hottest show right now is "Burn Notice." In its inaugural season, "Burn Notice" partnered with Saab 9-3 for an online game, "Covert Ops," that allowed users to "drive" a virtual Saab all over Miami—and Mr. McCumber promises when the new season starts in June, viewers "will continue to see one of the most creative integrations in the business."

In "Covert Ops," "while you are playing the game, you are using the elements of Saab. The game drew more leads to Saab.com than the number of cars available to sell," Mr. McCumber says. "The gaming area has incredible opportunities for brand integration." He says the network's online Character Arcade attracts viewers, who spend an average 25 minutes on the site.

"That area is a big place for brand integration. Half our [viewers] come in through the gaming site. That draws new viewers," he says, because viewers can learn about new shows at the Character Arcade by playing the games.

USA's on-air integrations include using Hoover vacuums to "sweep" graphics off the screen during "Clean House." A program with Kia Motors put "Psych" lead characters Shawn and Gus in a commercial for the Kia Optima sedan. The pair pause in the midst of a chase to admire the car, and suddenly the "perp" sets off the car alarm.

Turner has moved to"100 percent custom marketing," says Linda Yaccarino, exec VP-chief operating officer, Turner Entertainment Ad Sales, Marketing and Acquisitions. In recent years, for instance, Turner has worked with advertisers on custom "microseries" that run on air and online.

"It takes an advertiser or an agency that has an appetite to do custom content development. It requires a long lead time, creative thinking and manpower," Ms. Yaccarino says. "We have a big marketing team at our network that works in concert with the brand team; we invite the sponsors into that development process."

In what Ms. Yaccarino calls "our most integrated, multilayered sponsorship to date," TNT paired its hot new show "Leverage" with the Hyundai Genesis. TNT kicked off "Leverage" this winter with a commercial-free premiere sponsored by Genesis. Cast members announced the commercial-free hour in an opening sequence and credited the brand for bringing the programming to the viewer. The vehicle was also featured in "Leverage" print ads in Entertainment Weekly, People and TV Guide. A seasonlong online game lured viewers to a Web site to help solve a mystery with the promise of a $100,000 prize.

In addition, the strategy included a cross-promotion for the auto and the show with TNT's NBA franchise that included on-air talent Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith.

"It was a raging success," Ms. Yaccarino says.

A SUBARU, I PRESUME
On A&E Television Networks' History, Subaru is a presenting sponsor for the upcoming "Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone." The program will follow modern explorers in Tanzania as they recreate the 1871 quest by New York Herald reporter Henry M. Stanley to locate Dr. David Livingstone, a missionary. The Subaru Outback will join the journey—in search of adults 25 to 54.

"We provided the explorers at certain points in the expedition [in four episodes] with the Subaru—where it made sense," says Mel Berning, exec VP-ad sales for A&E Television Networks.

The integrations highlight features such as trunk space capacity and vehicle toughness off-road. Thirty-second "content-mercials" will run in every episode of "Expedition Africa," showing how the Subaru is used on the trip.

"In addition, we are creating a 'Convergent Talk,' a 15-second element that will air in the middle of any of the shows, when the viewer is engaged in the show and they will want to know more about the explorers. It will include explorers themselves or more on the specific expedition and topic for a richer, deeper experience. You will see the Web site, navigation of the site and you'll see the Subaru."

Another very robust deal partners Sears Craftsman tools with History's "Ice Road Truckers" when its third season debuts in May. "Sears Craftsman is going to be integrated into every episode. It is going to be extremely organic," Mr. Berning says.

The show will include a central garage for 75 rigs and three lead trucks, each outfitted with a Craftsman tool kit. The primary room in the garage, the Safety Room, will include Craftsman and DieHard battery signage. The men working in the garage will wear Craftsman-branded clothing. On air, Craftsman will be featured in 10-second opening spots for each of the 13 episodes.

History also is developing an "Ice Road Trucker" interactive garage on the History.com Web site. Viewers can go there to check out the Craftsman tools, machines and gadgets seen on the show.

"We've done proprietary research with our advertisers. There's a lot higher level of recall in terms of viewer perception of recall of brand, and it is a much deeper experience as they follow across different platforms," Mr. Berning says.

AMC is promoting its Branded Storytelling—a way for advertisers to tell their brand stories through AMC's programming, says Bill Rosolie, AMC exec VP-sales. The idea relies on AMC's Audience Identity Metric to help deliver ad messages to the right audience, in the right environment, at the right time.

Examples include: Takeovers, where marketers can own an entire episode, movie or day with their messages; Matching Moments, where AMC breaks the action with a sponsored pod that directly follows relevant content; and "Matching Attributes," where brands' messages are connected to key movie content by using custom creative to run within the film.

Nickelodeon has made multiplatform integration central to its ad sales efforts. This year Nick teamed with Walmart for an integrated effort celebrating the 10th anniversary of the No. 1 kids show, "Sponge Bob Square Pants." The plan included TV, print and online media backed by in-store support. The Happy Place inside its Walmart stores offered exclusive Sponge Bob merchandise. A microsite (www.spongebobhappyplace.com) requests a sign-on code, only available at Walmart stores, to allow visitors access to exclusive content.

In 2008 Nick and AT&T joined efforts on a Web site where kids could text "iCarly," get an iCarly ringtone, view cool gadgets (such as the Palm Centro or the AT&T Slate) and see a sneak peek of the iCarly movie "iGo to Japan," which aired last November.

PROTECTING THE BRAND
Still, cable networks aren't giving the store away. Mr. Goldfarb emphasizes that National Geographic is very protective of its brand as it seeks marketing partners. A primary example is "Dangerous Encounters," featuring Brady Barr and its presenting partnership with Geico.

The growing partnership came to include a tongue-in-cheek approach featuring the insurance company's iconic gecko with four co-branded vignettes showing people imitating a gecko—in addition to a map sponsored by Geico in National Geographic magazine.

As it showcases its own brand, National Geographic aims to leverage its experts for its advertisers, says Kiera Hynninen, senior VP-marketing and strategy. "Our experts are so critical to our brand. This is a key differentiation point. They provide information to our viewers that people love."

For example, National Geographic's "Dog Whisperer" and Petco have expanded their partnership from a conventional media buy four years ago to a full-blown integration. Petco is a presenting sponsor of the show, while the "Dog Whisperer," Cesar Millan, now has a line of pet products distributed exclusively at Petco stores.

It all comes down to customization, Ms. Hynninen says. "We have all these ways to meet the clients' needs, and we are able to scale up or down depending on the needs of the advertisers. Given these economic times, you need to be able to be flexible."