NBC marketing helps sponsors take root

Integrated initiative targets social issues

Branded integration is where the sizzle in advertising is right now.

Marketers are looking beyond the prospect of 30-second commercial spots; they want their products woven into the fabric of the program, which can make the message immune to DVR skipping and, in a best-case-scenario, confers the coolness-factor of the show and its stars onto the product itself.

At the same time, it’s no revelation that environmental messages are resonating among an increasingly aware public. NBC is including such themes in its Green Is Universal platform, which courts advertisers who want to position their brands as eco-friendly within an integrated marketing context.

The Peacock has developed extensive campaigns, at premium prices, for its green advertisers, often involving brand placement in programming and direct plugs from the stars of NBC Universal shows. Most of the advertising runs during two “Green Week” programming blocks that run across the Peacock’s various channels in April (to coincide with Earth Day) and November.

Each Green Week brought in an estimated $20 million in ad coin for the Peacock since the initiative bowed in 2007. It’s been successful enough with Madison Avenue for NBC U to branch out to another advertising niche with a feel-good, socially conscious message to impart.

“Healthy Week,” which runs June 20-26, will trumpet “nutritional literacy and fitness.” The initiative is reportedly expected to net NBCU between $10 million and $15 million, with General Mills as the anchor sponsor. General Mills products will be be featured in custom Healthy Week spots on Oxygen and Bravo. Meanwhile, a host of programs across NBC U outlets will promote the Healthy Week initiative, from “Be Well, Be Healthy” segments airing on NBC News programs to a storyline involving the docs on USA Network hit “Royal Pains” to NBC’s weight-loss reality skein “Losing It With Jillian.”

NBC U’s push into cause-oriented integrated marketing arose from the company’s research on changes in the advertising market and in consumer behavior.

“We knew that commercials were increasingly susceptible to being skipped, and we were trying to find things we could do to keep people from skipping them,” says Mike Pilot, prexy of NBC U sales and marketing. “What we learned was that there was nothing we could do to keep the viewers from skipping commercials — but when we mingled our brands with advertiser brands and used our own talent, we had content that did really well” and that scored high on the favorability meter with viewers, Pilot says.

Lauren Zalaznick, NBC U prexy of women and lifestyle, leads the Green Is Universal initiative, which extends beyond the advertising realm to NBC U’s internal efforts to monitor its own behavior (she’s clamped down on such things as the use of bulky plastic DVD covers and Styrofoam in the commissary). She notes that the initial research demonstrated that Green Week grabs viewers’ attention because, among other things, it’s rooted in a social cause.

“We did pre- and post-consumer research around each advertiser that bought ad time specifically to be on Green Week,” she says. “And we found that there was a significant increase around brand likability. It wasn’t a single spot; consumers like sponsors to message to them inside this positive green environment.”

But what happens when bluechip brands go bad? What’s the fallout for programs that associate with brands and companies that become embroiled in corporate scandals and public relations disasters? Think BP and the oil spill that has devastated the Gulf Coast region. Or Toyota, which has long pursued branded integration deals on TV, and its travails with the sudden-acceleration defects in its automobile brands previously thought to be above reproach in quality.

Ad buyers see cause-driven branded integration as an image polishing platform, and also as a kind of insurance policy for companies should things go wrong. Negative publicity may make the news cycle for a day or two, but it doesn’t doesn’t usually linger with the general public, unless it’s an Enron- or BP-level disaster.

“I don’t think it resonates with customers as much as, say, talking about how committed to sustainability you are,” says Horizon Media buyer Brad Adgate.

Zalaznick knows NBC U has to walk a tightrope between satisfying its advertising customers and maintaining credibility with the public as a green-friendly company, otherwise Green Week won’t have any pull with viewers and thus won’t be attractive to advertisers.

“If NBC Universal is viewed as not earnest, then we’ll put at risk the advertising dollars,” Zalaznick says.

Dave Kimbell, senior veep of Burlington, Vt.-based cleaning and hygiene products manufacturer Seventh Generation, argues that a favorable corporate image is more important than ever now that consumers have access to vast amounts of information and feedback from other people about companies and products. And that’s what makes branded initiatives like Green Is Universal, of which Seventh Generation is a client, attractive to marketers.

Consumers “want to have that broader understanding that the companies they associate with aren’t just providing the product in the moment that they need it, but are also living up to the standards they want to see,” Kimbell says.

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