If the Shoe Fits

Viewer fragmentation means the traditional 30-second ad just doesn't get the attention it used to. Advertisers have to find more meaningful ways to dialog with viewers, and that's good news for non-fiction producers.
June 1, 2003

Viewer fragmentation means the traditional 30-second ad just doesn’t get the attention it used to. Advertisers have to find more meaningful ways to dialog with viewers, and that’s good news for non-fiction producers. Sponsorship is one answer to ad-overwhelmed audiences – but not the slapped-on, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom kind of corporate tagging that was the approach traditionally. Viewers are too smart for that today. Now it’s all about synergy.

National Geographic Channels International understands synergy. When it approached London, U.K.-based Granada Television to produce the 6 x 60-minute series Science of Sport for pan-European broadcast, the commissioning team knew they had something with business appeal. So, they turned to sports apparel company Adidas, which was about to launch its new ‘ClimaCool’ shoe line.

Adidas’ London-based media buying agency, Carat International, was seeking a suitable content match that would do two things for the brand: first, it would get the Adidas technology message out; secondly, it would reach a young, ‘opinion-forming’ consumer demo – just the hip sort of viewer Nat Geo recently started targeting.

Notes Deborah Armstrong, senior VP sales and partnership marketing at NGCI, ‘In international media there has to be a thematic association. It’s not like domestic TV, where you’re buying cost-per-thousand rating points. You buy international for branding exercises.’ Science of Sport gave Adidas the scientific credentials it was looking for, and it gave Nat Geo the hip cred it wanted with young viewers.

Indy Sahar, European advertising manager for Adidas, agrees the deal hinged on finding the right theme, and he thinks sponsorships miss the mark when they don’t jive thematically. Sahar points to European soccer coverage as an example. Noted for beer brands, technology companies and credit cards, the efforts don’t deliver like they might if product and program were more closely linked. ‘While you may remember and register the brand that sponsored the program, not many people are going to see the relevance,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes it feels a bit forced. What is the link between [soccer] and MasterCard? It’s not immediately obvious. But [with Science of Sport], there isn’t any leap of imagination required by the consumer to put the two elements together.’

Sahar notes that Adidas looked to Discovery and a series it had planned on the human body as a possible outlet as well, but the timing didn’t work for Adidas. Science of Sport, however, was already in Nat Geo’s inventory. Sahar says the Adidas marketing group screened clips from the already completed series, some featuring products from competing companies, but still felt the fit was right. Armstrong recalls it was only about five weeks between signing the deal and getting the show to air last month.

Armstrong says she is often approached to do similar deals, but Nat Geo insists on absolute editorial control, something that wasn’t a problem for Adidas. Although Adidas has done fully commissioned programming in the past, that’s not what it wanted in this case. ‘If you have too much control over the program, it can feel forced,’ Sahar observes.

To make the sponsorship as integrated as possible, the partners created break bumpers (i.e., ‘Brought to you by…’ to lead in and out of commercials), branded five-second billboards, and three 15-second product-specific billboards (all in accordance with the rules of the Television Standards Commission). The cablecaster also created an ‘Adidas’ Science of Sport’ micro website, and the manufacturer ran a spot campaign on the channel during broadcasts. Lastly, Adidas was mentioned when Nat Geo promoted the series on other platforms. Although neither party will reveal numbers, Adidas confirmed the package represented 25% of the total pan-European TV budget for its ‘ClimaCool’ campaign in 2003.

While Armstrong believes this type of sponsorship model shouldn’t replace suitable programming budgets, she predicts it will become increasingly common as a supplement – both because funding is harder to come by and because ad agencies are recognizing its potential. ‘Agencies are realizing the value of the 30-minute editorial association,’ she says.

Fast Cash

That’s not to say the impact of corporate dollars is only being felt on the small screen. Large-format films live and die by the number of people they attract to a theater, and that means marketing, and lots of it.

When Laguna Beach, U.S.-based large-format gurus MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) began working on Top Speed, a film about the science of going fast, they found the perfect promotional partner: Porsche. On the filmmaking front, the high-end car maker offered producers access to technology, cars and the Porsche racing team. But perhaps more importantly, it put its full weight behind international marketing efforts that tied the film to the Porsche name.

To handle marketing in the U.S., mff hired an expert. Mary Jane Dodge opened her first large-format theater in 1980 – then only the 12th in the world, she notes – and went on to become vp of Loews IMAX Theaters. Two years ago, she left Loews to become an independent consultant. For Top Speed, Dodge worked with local imax theaters (mostly in museums) as well as with individual Porsche dealerships to do concentrated campaigns that would drive local attendance in about a dozen U.S. cities.

The sponsorship packages offered ranged from US$5,000 to about $50,000, depending on the size of the market, and all the money went to the museums to help further market the film. For their investment, the Porsche dealerships got their names on posters, advertisements, the museum website and even on the film as the presenting sponsor.

The dealers who signed on for the full package, notes Dodge, get more mileage for their money. ‘By doing the local sponsorship, they get more than just an ad, they get everything the museum does – membership mailings, school mailings – as well as [a chance to reach] corporate members and high-end donors. They get exposure to that entire audience…over the six-month period [that the film screens].’ Many of the dealers also added to their reach with traditional promotions that trumpet their participation with both film and museum, pushing the Top Speed name that much further.

Dodge sees these sorts of deals as critical for large-format filmmakers now that the cost of such films is in the $5 million-plus range, and now that the large-format world has attracted Hollywood players like Disney with their Hollywood-size marketing budgets. ‘There are a million great ideas out there for large-format films, but getting the money to get them made is a battle and it’s getting tougher,’ she says. ‘I would say almost every large-format film producer I’ve talked to in the last couple of years has said they couldn’t make a film now without some kind of corporate support or grant.’

But, corporate participation can come at a premium: time. Dodge notes that most corporate sponsors take between six months and a year to make a decision on proposals, and recalls one instance where four years slid by without any signatures – although this wasn’t the case for Top Speed, she adds.

Dodge has been dedicated to Top Speed for about a year, but the film only premiered in theaters in April. It will, therefore, be a few months before the results of the partnership are known. Still, if producers can maintain their grip on editorial control, enlisting the power of appropriate corporate brands can go a long way towards shoring up the bottom line for non-fiction films.

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