The result: The contest has enabled Colgate to connect with loyal country music fans through events at more than 500 local fairs and country-music festivals each year, with much of the costs to do so offset by radio stations picking up the bill to run the contests.
Before "American Idol" ever emerged as a talent search phenomenon or brand-integration vehicle, the
|Colgate has expanded its audience with its wildly successful backing of 'Country Showdown.'
grassroots "Colgate Country Showdown" was churning out future country music stars.
And after five years as title sponsor of the 25-year-old "Country Showdown" -- whose finals air annually on syndicated and cable TV -- Colgate-Palmolive Co. is seeing solid returns on a program in which nearly 500 local radio stations do much of the heavy lifting financially and operationally.
While the "Colgate Country Showdown" can't beat the nation's highest-rated TV program for viewers, it has "American Idol" beaten handily as a brand-integration vehicle. While Coca-Cola has its cups on the judges' table of the Fox show, Colgate has its brand name all over every element of "Country Showdown," which includes local talent-search events backed by nearly 500 local radio stations linked with retailers in their local markets each year.
The "Country Showdown," produced by Special Promotions, Nashville, Tenn., started with Wrangler Jeans as its title sponsor and has included Dodge, True Value, Coca-Cola and GMC Trucks at times over the years. But under Colgate since 2001 it has evolved into a major national retail promotion, combining the show's branded-entertainment component with co-marketing programs via retail chains such as Kroger, Albertson's and CVS, national coupon inserts and extensive event marketing with sampling.
"The return on investment is very good," said John Kooyman, general manager of Colgate's personal-care division. "Longer term, there's much more brand equity building than a typical retail promotion. Country music has a very passionate fan base. Like Nascar, like soaps on TV, if you get that consumer who loves that genre and make that connection, you potentially have a consumer for life."
Though he declined to specify the investment or payback, Mr. Kooyman said Colgate has boosted investment behind radio advertising backing the program and the broader integrated-marketing program, including newspaper insert and in-store support.
Reaching country music fans, termed "heartland consumers" by Mr. Kooyman, addresses a relative weakness for Colgate, which long has over-indexed with Hispanic and African-American consumers and in major urban markets.
That the talent show takes Colgate into what has been relatively hostile territory for the brand is obvious with one of its local tie-ins in recent years -- holding local tryouts at the Taste of Cincinnati within sight of headquarters for rival Procter & Gamble Co., marketer of Crest.
The local contests, played out over hundreds of local fairs and country-music festivals, put "Colgate Country Showdown" in front of millions annually. The finals, held in January at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, air in syndication in March and April and potentially reach about 90% of U.S. households, though Colgate and Special Promotions did not cite aggregate ratings. The syndicated broadcasts are backed by Colgate advertising.
One key to making the talent search an ROI success for Colgate has been that radio stations pick up much of the cost of running the local contests, which are backed by advertising from Colgate and local retailers in a turnkey program with materials and operating plans supplied by Special Promotions.
"This is a monstrous program," said Dean Unkefer, president of Special Promotions. "We are producing over 550 shows a year with more than 50,000 contestants. In the entertainment business, that's just incredible. The key to the whole thing is that we operate a franchise system to the radio stations."
Radio stations pay to promote the "Colgate Country Showdown" but ultimately make a profit, Unkefer said, with 60-second ads that include 15-second co-op advertising for the local retailers.
"The other beauty is that Colgate is not choosing one retailer over another," he said. "It's the radio station making the choice."
That does help absolve Colgate from responsibility when retailers are vying to get involved in local markets, Mr. Kooyman said.
Colgate hasn't yet tied in with a past winner of the national contest, preferring instead to focus on each year's cycle, which begins anew in the fall. But the marketer is hoping consumers might make the connection as winners move on in their careers.
The talent search has helped launch the careers of stars such as Martina McBride, Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw.
"Ultimately if Michelle Rene [winner of the Showdown in 2006] becomes the next Martina McBride, that would be great for us, because that would be the perfect connection between the 'Colgate Country Showdown,' our brands and the winner," said Marie Agnes Daumas, marketing director-corporate events for Colgate.
Among local retail promotions for Colgate with some local retailers is giving away Ms. Rene's CDs to shoppers who buy a specified number of Colgate, Palmolive or other company branded products, Ms. Daumas said.
"For retailers like Kroger and Albertson's, the 'Colgate Country Showdown' has become their event, which is a major accomplishment, because they already have their own events," Ms. Daumas said. "The support we get from the retail accounts makes the return on investment positive. It's driving share, incremental merchandising support, and it has a positive return on investment."