Now entering its fifth season, "Top Chef" has emerged as the reality series for the NBC Universal cable network, now that the fate of former flagship series "Project Runway" remains in legal limbo between the Weinstein Co. and new cable parent Lifetime. But "Top Chef" has been coasting on a highly successful integrated-marketing strategy that has kept longtime sponsors coming back and recruiting new marketers for the upcoming "Top Chef New York," premiering Nov. 12 at 10 p.m. ET.
New sponsors make reservations
Returning for this go-round for season-long integrated sponsorships are Toyota, Clorox and Food & Wine magazine, with Campbell Soup Co., Diet Dr Pepper and Quaker new to the table.
So what's Bravo's secret ingredient? Kevin McAuliffe, VP-branded entertainment for NBC Universal cable entertainment sales, said the answer is a strong commitment to creativity and keeping ideas fresh, which can take some doing.
"At the very early stages, we have gut-check conversations where we say, 'Here's the kind of things we'd like to creatively follow or look to bring into the show that fit its sensibility,'" he said. "Once we go through that, then we determine the kinds of ideas we're going to pursue based on the specific direction we get from programming and producers."
The bulk of negotiations for "Top Chef New York" first began during the network's upfront conversations with advertisers in May and June, with deals often being inked five to eight weeks before any cameras start rolling. The show's producers, Magical Elves, and the Bravo programming executives have final say on each of the show's creative executions, which include a strict policy on not repeating any of the show's quick-fire or elimination challenges. So for returning sponsors such as Toyota and Clorox, Mr. McAuliffe's biggest task is to find new ways to incorporate different brands from each company's suite of products.
And because each sponsor is exclusive to its respective category, some precautions have to be taken to keep everyone pleased. In the case of season three, "Top Chef Miami," the show's producers wanted to use a stretch limousine to transport contestants to a challenge on a yacht. Mr. McAuliffe immediately got on the phone with the sponsors at Toyota to give them a heads-up that they would be using a non-Toyota vehicle on the show. "They were like, 'We get it, and by the way we're not competing with stretch limousines,'" a relieved Mr. McAuliffe recalled. "There is a lot of back and forth to make sure everybody feels protected."
Clorox, meanwhile, has used its sponsorship to provide contestants with Glad food storage and trash products, occasionally creating entire challenges around the brands. "We do a lot of collective brainstorming with the Bravo team, because you want to be unique, be relevant and still be interesting. It's not easy coming up with the challenge idea," said Ellen Liu, Clorox's media director.
And not all the branded integrations are appearing in the show itself. Prior to production, Mr. McAuliffe and his team ask the season-long sponsors their marketing objectives going into the upcoming season, and determine the best platforms in which to place the integrations. In the case of Glad, the company was looking to promote MealsTogether.com, an initiative to encourage home dining among families, and not necessarily within the context of a quick-fire challenge.
Nicole Sabatini, Bravo's VP-strategic marketing, said the network created a customized vignette for "Top Chef Chicago" asking different contestants their favorite meals to cook for family members, with a drive to a customized microsite featuring a downloadable recipe book featuring the chefs' favorite dishes. Glad also sponsored a sweepstakes awarding one family the chance to win a block party hosted by contestant Casey from season three. The partnership was able to air throughout the entire season, and was even extended into retail through Glad's existing in-store marketing relationships.
Marketers like what they see
The seamless integrations from brands such as Glad and Toyota were a big part of the appeal for attracting the new season's sponsors, including Diet Dr Pepper, the exclusive carbonated beverage partner for "Top Chef New York." Lauren Radcliffe, director of branded entertainment for the Dr Pepper Snapple Group, said the marketer's recent forays into brand integrations on NBC's "30 Rock" for Snapple and MTV's "Band in a Bubble" for Dr Pepper have raised the bar for her team's own media-planning strategy, so the goal for "Top Chef" was to outdo themselves.
"It was so apparent we'd be able to really communicate our brand positioning through the show and achieve a great audience fit in terms of viewers," Ms. Radcliffe said of the "Top Chef" deal. "We likened the brand to food in our advertising -- our tagline is 'Nothing diet about it' -- so we wanted to relate the brand to food in such a natural, organic place."
Attracting new sponsors will also be key to the show's future as the top reality franchise for Bravo now that "Project Runway" has said its fifth -- and, lawsuit pending, presumably final -- "auf wiedersehen." The show grossed $37.75 million in ad dollars for the network in 2007, with an additional $16.1 million in 2008 year-to-date, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Recent Nielsen IAG research found Bravo to be the highest-ranked network on all of broadcast and cable TV in top categories for the first half of 2008, thanks to shows such as "Top Chef," "Project Runway" and "Make Me a Supermodel." The network took top honors for in-program placement brand recall (63% vs. No. 2 Fox's 46%), brand opinion (26% vs. Fox's 12%) and perceived fit (21% vs. Fox's 16%).
In a separate Nielsen IAG study, "Top Chef Chicago," the series' fourth and highest-rated season, posted high brand recall for sponsors such as Toyota (67% vs. the cable average of 49%), Glad (77% vs. the 73% cable average) and Food & Wine (77% vs. the 70% cable average).