|Chili's is expanding its product placement strategies and budget.
Rather than go the reality-TV route, the Brinker International-owned chain has recently appeared as part of the set of NBC’s "The Office," the WB’s "What I Like About You" and "Gilmore Girls," where the restaurants’ ubiquitous ribs could be written into storylines.
For example, in the Sept. 22 episode of "The Office," Chili’s serves as the host of the annual “Dundie Awards,” which are arbitrary awards that office boss Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) gives to employees for various reasons.
In "What I Like About You," the chain was written into the plot of the show’s first episode of the season, in which one of lead characters is shown working in the restaurant. The location will reappear in episodes later this season, as part of a season-long pact with the WB.
In the past, Chili’s baby-back-ribs jingle “would show up in pop culture without us really trying,” said Ken Thewes, Chili’s VP-marketing, with the song sung in a number of TV shows and even finding its way in the hit film "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" in 1999. “Based on that experience, we tried to get more active in integration.”
The company is now among a growing number of marketers becoming more sophisticated about using entertainment as a promotional tool. Only this time, Chili’s is paying for the plugs through increasingly elaborate brand-integration buys.
While Chili’s declined to disclose just how much it spent to appear in the scripted series, Chili’s media agency Omnicom Group’s GSD&M, Austin and Chicago, negotiated roles for the restaurant and even some of its servers, who also are actors, to appear in the shows.
GSD&M expects Chili’s to have four to six such integrations this season.
GSD&M approached the integrations just as it would in a typical media buy, looking for “high-affinity” programs, factoring in the demographic match and how the restaurant would appear in the show. It especially wanted a show’s cast and characters to appear experiencing the brand and the restaurant. It also wanted to play up the brand’s equities—like the company’s iconic pepper logo, Mexican-tile tabletops and signature menu items -- much the way it does when producing commercials.
For "The Office," the chain built out a restaurant with signage and found some actors who also were Chili ’s servers that helped make the integration authentic.
Deals for the integrations were structured as value-added media buys during the TV upfronts last May.
“We went into the upfront strategy to be more relevant in the creative,” Mr. Thewes said. “We’re in a cluttered market place. We want the brand to be integrated and not be a static representation. When we can have a relevant message in the shows, it gives you better retention and a better brand message.”
Chili’s prioritized programs on the networks’ slates, read and approved shooting scripts and had staff on set during filming of each production. Mr. Thewes admitted that beyond making sure the integration is a natural fit, some of the placement is beyond his control.
But because Chili’s already was a desirable brand to the producers and castmembers, “we’d end up getting more,” said Noelle Newby, associate media director at GSD&M, Austin.
For example, "The Office’s" Mr. Carrell plugged the chain during his publicity tour to promote Universal’s comedy The 40-Year-Old Virgin. In addition to the placement within the shows, Chili’s also catered for the cast and for audiences at the "Office" tapings, as well as gave away Chili’s merchandising or Chili’s gift cards. The chain also received plugs on TV-fan Web sites.
Chili’s views the effort as a way to differentiate itself from rivals such as Applebee’s International, TGI Friday’s and Ruby Tuesday. Other eateries such as Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster and The Cheesecake Factory, have already made their own appearances in sitcoms such as ABC’s "According to Jim" and CBS’ "Listen Up."
The move is also being eyed as a way to connect with younger consumers -- especially with the younger demos that networks like the WB attract.
In addition to integration fees for the prime placements, Chili’s bought a 30-second TV spot that ran with the Sept. 16 appearance in "What I Like About You" and promoted network celebrities as part of its September fund-raising efforts for St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
For the Nov. 18 episode of the show, Chili’s and the WB will launch a “Watch and Give” campaign that will include a PSA at the end of the show to send viewers to www.TheWB.com/Chilis. Chili’s will make a donation to St. Jude Children’s Hospital for every visitor. The effort will be supported by co-branded TV spots, billboards and a print campaign in magazines like Seventeen, US Weekly and ads on Web sites such as Yahoo, MySpace.com and Facebook.com.
Chili's spent $106 million on advertising last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
GSD&M doesn’t use a specific model for measuring return on investment, but the agency tracks how the shows perform in the ratings, the buzz factor inside Brinker and in the consumer base.
Frank Zazza, CEO, ITVX, which tracks the quality of brand integrations and compares it to the exposure of a 30-second TV spot using what the company calls Q-ratios, said marketers are becoming more aware of the recall differences between having a product appear in the background and having it be directly part of the program’s plot and dialogue.
“The [notion that] longevity of a product on a set has a high recall recognition is a fallacy,” he said, noting that the recall recognition from 12 seconds of a brand that is being handled or discussed in a scene “will have a higher recall recognition than that Coke cup for an hour in front of Simon [Cowell.]”
Chili’s appearance in "What I Like About You" didn’t register highly based on ITVX’s research, but its role in "The Office" earned a strong score among the 100 placements monitored that week.
“They did something right because it made one of the top five Q-ratios,” Mr. Zazza said.
NBC declined to comment. The WB didn’t return calls.