Pond's Affiliation With 'Starter Wife' Pays Off for Unilever, Cable Net

USA Calls Partnership 'Home Run'; Marketer Says Integration Built Brand Awareness

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NEW YORK -- USA was the top-rated cable network in 2006 thanks in large part to its exclusive coverage of "WWE Raw," a Monday-night wrestling show that regularly attracts far more men than it does women. And original series such as "Monk," "Psych" and "The Dead Zone" generally skew 50-50 across the genders, making USA a second or third choice for marketers when it comes to reaching women.

'The Starter Wife' on USA benefitted from an early marketing push by Unilever's Pond's brand.


But when it came time to launch the summer miniseries "The Starter Wife," starring Debra Messing, Unilever saw a perfect opportunity to align its Pond's brand with the female-friendly show -- and early. Though "Wife" didn't premiere until May 31, Pond's started taking the show to market back in January as a tie-in to its "40 and Fabulous" contest, an affiliation that was later echoed in the pilot and finale episodes of "The Starter Wife."

Early jump pays off
Even Chris McCumber, USA's senior VP-marketing and brand strategy, admits the campaign started "well above the industry standard," but an average 4.5 million viewers over its six-week run certainly meant it paid off by getting out early.

"It was an absolute home run," Mr. McCumber said. "The pure business of having a sales partnership was a success, but from a ratings and audience perspective, we're more than pleased with how it worked out."

While the miniseries had an obvious female slant to it -- complete with pink background for the website and ads featuring Ms. Messing atop a set of Louis Vuitton luggage -- Mr. McCumber and his team made sure to convey through marketing that the show wasn't a total estrogen-fest.

"We put out several different trailers that were a little more male-skewing, emphasizing the Peter Jacobson role [as Debra Messing's husband], highlighting the comedy aspects and making it sexy as well."

The over-40 aspect of the plot -- which plagues Ms. Messing's newly single title character -- was what made the show attractive to Pond's. Unilever was even able to bring the show to retail, with specially marked "Starter Wife" Pond's products containing game pieces for its "40 and Fabulous" contest. Unilever's marketing director, Srini Sripada, said the combined contest and on-air marketing efforts have helped drive traffic to the brand's website, as well as build a healthy brand association with the network.

A how-to in brand awareness
"All of [the marketing] elements together with the affinity so many consumer have for our brand helped to build brand awareness and further bolster its image," Mr. Sripada said in an e-mail interview.

Having "Starter Wife" kick off the summer season for USA extra early this year is a move that continues to pay off with strong ratings for the new seasons of original shows such as "Monk" and "Psych." This summer has been "the biggest in USA's history as far as original series go," Mr. McCumber said.

And the NBC cable network hopes to keep the momentum going well into the fall when it brings new episodes of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" exclusively to its schedule in October. Getting viewers to tune in to new episodes of a show -- and franchise -- they can see virtually on any network is the next major challenge on Mr. McCumber's plate.

"It's an interesting challenge. The perception is that there are originals on NBC, but the repeats are on every network. ... It's the seventh season, so we don't have to sell the show, we just have to differentiate it from all the other 'Law & Orders.'"
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