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In Product Placement, it’s About Genuine Conversations

Yours truly sans suit, The Donald and my client, John Sawyer
Yours truly sans suit, The Donald and my client, John Sawyer

So, more than a year ago, we sat in the lobby of the W hotel in Manhattan, surrounded by lawyers and producers for the 2009 season of Celebrity Apprentice.  Less than 72 hours prior, they had recruited Chicken of the Sea to be on the show – for that matter, a two-hour episode directly leading up to the finale.

A number of ideas swirled about with regard to what the marketing challenge would be and how to tie the brand and its products in the show.  For the record, the lawyers and producers were some of the coolest folks.  They had their minds set on some ideas, but fortunately open and respectful that we (all two of us – yours truly and my client – out-numbered 3 to 1) were passionate about the brand and the story it had to tell.

For two years leading up to that fateful call from Celebrity Apprentice, Chicken of the Sea had been engaging consumers in conversations about health, nutrition and convenience through online and offline mediums.  We learned there is a powerful story to tell not just about the brand and its products, but also in how consumers view and use Chicken of the Sea – what it means to them.  We saw an opportunity to replicate that with the likes of Clint Black, Joan “Cluck Cluck Splash” Rivers et al on Celebrity Apprentice.

With agreement from the lawyers and producers, we laid out a challenge for the celebrities to tell the Chicken of the Sea story in the form of a jingle and a 30-second radio spot.  Moreover, it wasn’t as simple as that.  The celebs and their respective teams needed to invest the time in learning about Chicken of the Sea and its loyal consumers.  They weren’t going to be judged solely on how catchy their tunes would be, but more on telling the story about the consumers behind the brand.

What that led to, in addition to the drama and debate of creating a jingle and radio spot, is two hours worth of unscripted conversations about Chicken of the Sea – precisely what we were shooting for and attempting to replicate, and there was hardly any discussion about getting video footage of the products in the celebs’ hands or on a table near where they sat.  Sacrilege to some, but again it was about the conversations.

So when The New York Times published the iTVX data on the most effective product placement in television for 2009, most would think the initial reaction of Chicken of the Sea being at the top was met with excitement.  But it told us much more.  Real conversations are powerful, more powerful than arranging to have your product sit statically in front of a celebrity, and product integration must reflect the character of the brand.  Alongside that is being a champion for your client, its brand and what it represents.

I just wish I were smart enough to wear a better suit on the show, and, for what it’s worth, my mother hasn’t forgiven me for contributing to Clint’s firing.

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