'Apprentice' tie-ins add up for firms seeking exposure

A few companies are cashing in on the popularity of Donald Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice," by using the program as a launch pad for new products.

A few companies are cashing in on the popularity of Donald Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice," by using the program as a launch pad for new products.

It only took one hour to cause Ciao Bella's website traffic to jump more than 8,000% and its online sales to increase 200%.

From 9pm to 10pm Thursdays, two teams of contestants battle in simulated business tasks for the chance to work in a lofty position for Donald Trump's real-estate empire on NBC's hit reality show The Apprentice.

In the second week of this season, the contestants were charged with creating new flavors for high-end ice cream purveyor Ciao Bella. The teams produced Vanilla Donut Dream Ice Cream, the winning flavor, and Red Velvet Ice Cream.

At the end of the program, viewers whose appetites were whetted by either option could go to local.yahoo.com to find locations in 13 markets that would have 64 to 100 pints of both flavors the next morning, says Debra Holt, sales and marketing manager for Ciao Bella. The day before The Apprentice ran, Ciao Bella's website had 12,000 visitors. The day after the flavor debuted, 1 million people went to the site. Most of the 13 locations selling the flavors had sold out by noon that Friday.

While the actual planning and deployment of Ciao Bella's marketing efforts took much longer than an hour, those 60 minutes will likely pay more dividends than the $10 million company, which has not advertised once on television, could have imagined.

"The biggest [benefit] of all is clearly exposure," says Jay Bienstock, an executive producer at The Apprentice. With Ciao Bella, a 20-year-old company with a narrow but dedicated base of foodies and gourmets, there existed the potential that people outside that demographic might not have heard of the brand. According to the show's ratings, at least 16 million people now definitely know about Ciao Bella.

More corporate interest

In the show's first season, the contestants participated in such tasks as selling lemonade, renovating and selling an apartment, and building a casino game for the Trump Taj Mahal. Sporadically, the contestants partnered with non-Trump businesses like advertising agency Deutsch and Planet Hollywood. Bienstock says the production company was thinking back to the first season and trying to improve upon the vision of capturing the world in which Trump does business.

"Tasks like the lemonade stand were interesting, but didn't fit into this world - big companies, big money - that Donald occupies," Bienstock says, adding that viewers connect better if real-life stakes are involved.

Trump told PRWeek that companies were more skeptical during the first season, and he relied on friends to participate, such as New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whom the winning team met in episode five.

"Unless they were a friend, they didn't do it," Trump says of the first season. Both Trump and Bienstock say that companies now line up to be on the show.

In the first five weeks of the second season, the show has featured Mattel, QVC, Zagat's, Ciao Bella, and Procter & Gamble. Bienstock says that when real-world companies are involved and real product decisions are being made, it provides the show with the opportunity to transcend normal TV.

"If it just happens on TV, it doesn't have the large ramifications," Bienstock says. "It's not a job interview; it's a silly show."

Bienstock says the show discussed potential tasks and thought about what companies might make good partners.

Once the partnership is created, Bienstock says, there's a "bunch of legal stuff, and a deal is struck." Neither Bienstock nor reps from the participating companies would disclose what, if any, remuneration took place.

Jonathan Holiff, president and CEO of celebrity endorsement agency, The Hollywood-Madison Group, says his informed guess is that companies paid an inclusion fee for an appearance on the second season. It is his understanding that the firms participating in the first season did not pay a fee, but that came once the show was such a big hit.

Holt says Mark Burnett Productions (MBP), producer of the show, asked the company if it was interested in participating.

"They were looking for something with ice cream and wanted a Trump-like brand," Holt says.

Bonnie Clark, QVC's VP of PR, says via e-mail that the company was also approached because, according to MBP task consultant Dan Gill, it gave "viewers a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into a live TV production."

Ciao Bella rebranded three years ago by changing its logo and giving each of its flavor pints a different logo.

"When we redid our branding, we were looking for ways to show it," Holt says. "We realized this was our opportunity to make the country more aware."

But in a clever, guarded move of brand protection, the company identifies the two products as "ice cream," whereas its traditional flavors receive the more reverential "gelato" designation.

Integrating the brands

However, working on a product launch with a TV show augers how a company normally does business. The firms must adhere to embargoes and nondisclosure contracts that maintain the surprises necessary for good TV. Yahoo only finalized its relationship with MBP two weeks before Ciao Bella's episode aired. And it obviously couldn't release the ice cream flavors before viewers saw them created on TV.

The Apprentice ramps up the power of television and product placement because the products and companies are not just a backdrop, Bienstock says. "They are integrated in the tasks."

In week three, the contestants helped P&G create a $50,000 PR campaign for its new Vanilla Mint Crest product.

Bryan McCleary, PR director at Global Oral Care for P&G, found the experience extremely positive for his company. The only snafu was that the show spelled Procter & Gamble as "Proctor & Gamble." Regarding the error, McCleary laughs and says, "We're used to it."

"We have a mantra that the consumer is boss," McCleary says. "We like to go where the attention is, and if it's The Apprentice, that's where we need to go."

McCleary says that the product started shipping the week of the episode and was available at all locations the morning after it aired. Sales were 50% higher at top retailers than projected if it had launched without the tie-in, McCleary says. It also generated more than 10 million hits to the Crest website in the three weeks following the show. McCleary calls it P&G's "most successful online promotion." P&G also registered names into its Crest.com database and received more than 100,000 submissions for its online contest to see how users would launch the product. "It really got consumers interacting with the brand in a fun way," McCleary says.

"We're moving in the company to use PR to launch new brands and sustain with advertising," McCleary says. "Scientific data [supports] that if the first message the consumer sees is from the media, influencers, or other consumers, it will make the advertising more credible."

He adds: "It's not PR versus advertising [anymore]," referring to the oft-adversarial relationship between disciplines. "It's PR plus advertising; one plus one equals three."

McCleary says there was a bit of trepidation because P&G had not really done something like The Apprentice before, but credited the "safe learning environment" at the company. He also praised senior management for taking the risk because, unlike a company-approved 30-second ad, unscripted reality TV can damage reputations. Reinforcing that uncertainty was the fact that one of The Apprentice contestants was fired from her real job because of comments she made on the show.

Trump recently confirmed to the press that he is shooting a third season. With the queue for new corporations sure to be snaking around the block, the firms from this season will have to go on with their own campaigns for new products. This doesn't mean that Trump has to be far away. After all, he worked with QVC to hawk his new book, Think Like A Billionaire.

And what better way is there to wash down Ciao Bella gelato than with a Trump Ice water?

  • Additional reporting by Beth Herskovits.

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