|Office Max created 'Schooled' as a way to reach its target audience: school-age kids who aren't influenced by traditional TV campaigns.
The marketer forged partnerships with Google Video -- its first promotional deal since its launch -- for massive online exposure, and with Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Records (teen singer Jesse McCartney has a starring role) and ABC Family channel, which is airing the show Aug. 17.
At a time when many marketers consider branded entertainment a viable option, most tend to latch onto existing TV shows or movies rather than create their own. OfficeMax's approach is rare -- the marketer has no prior experience in the area and has created a one-hour special that serves as a showcase for its products and community largess.
"Most brands stick their toe in the water and experiment," said Julie Mulholland, founder of Mulholland Drive Entertainment and OfficeMax's branded-entertainment consultant. "They don't usually jump right in, but these guys had an idea and went with it."
The one-hour show, which will be aired commercial-free, came together in three months, which is lightning quick for unscripted TV.
Before "Schooled" has even aired, OfficeMax is considering future episodes. The budget was not disclosed, but Mark Andeer, the company's VP-brand strategy, pegged its cost as "about the same as four 30-second spots."
Mr. Andeer, who joined the company six months ago from Omnicom Group's BBDO, Minneapolis, said OfficeMax intends to make branded entertainment a priority. The marketer is shying away from traditional media, specifically TV ads, because school-age target audiences aren't as influenced by campaigns there.
"We don't want to dabble in branded entertainment. It's part of an overall strategy," Mr. Andeer said. "We really want to be aggressive."
Mr. Andeer is part of a team that's been assembled by Bob Thacker, OfficeMax's senior VP-marketing and advertising and former president-CEO of BBDO, Minneapolis.
Among OfficeMax's other branded-entertainment projects in the works is a website built around a private-label writing pen called Tul. The site, launching in mid-September, will provide a kind of handwriting analysis meant to keep consumers interacting with the brand and build brand loyalty to OfficeMax.
The marketer intends to fund its branded-entertainment projects with money it would have earmarked for TV ads.
OfficeMax spent $12.3 million on media from January to May last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence, with $2.5 million of that directed to network, cable and spot TV buys. The figure doesn't include outdoor. For the same period this year, the marketer has spent $10.2 million, none of that on TV.
"Schooled" centers on a prank where the summering eighth-graders at a suburban New York school are told they have to take written and oral exams in order to get into high school. If they fail, they'll be sent to "8 1/2 grade."
Their parents, the principal and faculty of Tuckahoe Middle School participated in the joke. The original idea for the show came from OfficeMax's agency, Omnicom's DDB, Chicago, and was tweaked by the director Henry Alex Rubin, an Oscar-winner for the documentary feature "Murderball."
The students show up on a summer Saturday to take the tests, which are administered by actors who have the students do silly stunts such as "stop, drop and roll." In a nod to pop-culture-and-marketing partnerships, the proctor asks the students, "How many results would you get if you Googled Google?"
As the youngsters are starting a written test, they're surprised with a concert by Mr. McCartney, who reveals the joke and OfficeMax's sponsorship of the project.
"Back-to-school is a very important time frame for them, and we were looking to create relevance with the target audience," Ms. Mulholland said.
OfficeMax, which is threaded throughout "Schooled" via on-screen graphics, will give the school $80,000 for school supplies. The suburban New York public school was chosen for the show because of recent budget cuts that wiped out some of its programs. The money from OfficeMax is intended to replace what had been lost.
The youngsters, armed with lists from the principal and faculty, later go on a shopping spree at OfficeMax. The chain, which is in the midst of redesigning its stores, has launched teen-targeted "Creation Stations" that allow youngsters to personalize some back-to-school supplies.
Google Video is featuring a preview of the show, with links to OfficeMax, and exposure for the project through banner ads, keyword searches and other online promotions. Mr. Andeer estimates the marketer will amass some 1 billion impressions through the Google partnership.
OfficeMax has an existing corporate alliance with Disney, whose executives were interested in the "Schooled" concept. Mr. Andeer and Ms. Mulholland worked with Hollywood Records to add the musical performance to the show. Mr. McCartney has a record coming out in September.
OfficeMax will give away DVD copies of "Schooled," including two bonus tracks from Mr. McCartney, with back-to-school purchases. The marketer will promote the giveaway in its circulars and print ads, and will hype Mr. McCartney's CD in its stores.