NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- General Motors Corp. may still be facing an epic struggle to sell Saab, but a successful brand integration has delivered the beleaguered automaker some of its best brand metrics ever.
USA Network's "Burn Notice" saw record ratings earlier this month as its second-season finale trounced all of cable and even ABC prime time with 6.1 million viewers. That capped a consistent, season-long lead in the time slot among men 18 to 34. And online, spy Michael Westen and his exploits around Miami delivered broadcast-level reach for both USA and Saab.
"Covert Ops," an interactive game USA created for the first half of the season in summer 2008, featured Mr. Westen tooling around Miami in a virtual Saab while driving traffic to a microsite where users could locate their local dealers. With 500,000 unique visitors to the site during the game's eight-week run and upward of 50,000 registered users playing the game for an average of 12 minutes, GM exceeded its initial expectations 400%, said Dino Bernacchi, GM's director of branded entertainment.
"Can a TV show sell cars? I'm not sure you can do that when you're talking about $30,000, $40,000 vehicles," Mr. Bernacchi said. "But can it generate interest, intrigue and desire behind a vehicle? Absolutely."
Mirrored the show's plot
"Covert Ops" was co-created by USA and Los Angeles-based entertainment agency Omelet, with "Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix also onboard to develop a story line that mirrored the show's on-air plot. The game was referenced on-air in a co-branded vignette sponsored by Saab at the end of every new episode. Paid search and a sweepstakes promoted in print by GM also helped boost traffic as the season progressed.
Steven Amato, a partner at Omelet, compared "Covert Ops" with similar "alternative reality games" created for "The Dark Knight" and "Lost," which painstakingly recreate movie and TV plotlines but often experience major drop-offs in subsequent installments. With "Covert Ops," however, "we kept seeing growth week by week, to the point of 500,000 uniques," Mr. Amato said. "So for us, being able to literally sustain and engage people for that long is pretty cool."
Jesse Redniss, USA's VP-digital, said: "This is probably the best case and a shining example of how integration works to its fullest. Having the writers from the show crafting these missions is what made it work so well."
A strategic shift
Mr. Bernacchi said brand integrations are anchoring a strategic shift in GM's media strategy, as the automaker puts serious reins on its media spending. Whether it's Cadillac's role in FX's "Damages," Saturn's partnership with CBS's "Ghost Whisperer" or its tentative involvement in the upcoming "Transformers" sequel, GM is relying on entertainment more than ever to do the heavy lifting.
"We want to think about the best opportunities for GM and the best cars and trucks we're launching to see if there are opportunities where we can extend our brand and create that dialogue with viewers and consumers by going to our best partners," Mr. Bernacchi said.
And with the fate of Saab still in limbo, negotiations for the vehicle's role in the third season of "Burn Notice," premiering June 4, are in limbo as well. "We've been supportive of the show, and the show's been very supportive of us. We do hope we can find a way to return," Mr. Bernacchi said. "Ultimately, if we're going to invest the energy and time to be in a show, we want to be about the show and leverage that content to activate a real fan base."