|In Degree's "Coffee Run," the first of two planned web series at CTURookie.com, CTU Rookie Jason Blaine runs into terrorist miscreants on his way to a coffee shop.
The Unilever brand has made "24" and its fictional G-men centerpieces of what appears to be the giant marketer's most extensive branded-entertainment venture ever.
Serialized, cliffhanger-style TV ads
Degree this week launched "Coffee Run," the first of two planned web series at CTURookie.com, based on the show. The total of six webisodes planned for "Coffee Run" also will be repurposed into six serialized, cliffhanger-style 30-second TV ads, created by WPP Group's MindShare Entertainment, which is also developing the online advertising. The ads will run concurrently with the series through May, when Degree will present an animated "Day Zero" series prequel. The Unilever deal extends to an in-store co-promotion with Fox of the show's DVDs.
Degree has spent the past three years using mostly action-adventure themes to position the male version of its dual-gender antiperspirant as a product for men who take risks.
"Degree is about embracing challenge and giving men more confidence by equipping them with more power than they need for the one day they do need it," said Sam Chadha, marketing director-deodorants for Unilever. "['24'] is just a perfect fit. It's one of those 'Ah-ha!' moments you get in your career with marketing where everything fits together."
It's the latest of several marketing campaigns for Unilever built around branded entertainment, including two others produced by MindShare Entertainment last year -- the Spike TV special "Order of the Serpentine" for Axe Snake Peel body wash and webisodes featuring Felicity Huffman of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" for Dove Calming Night bath products. The branded-entertainment unit's parent, MindShare Worldwide, handles communications planning and media buying for all Unilever brands.
No longer the marketing exception
For many Unilever products, branded entertainment now is "not the exception; it's more the rule," said David Lang, senior partner-director of programming for MindShare Entertainment.
Much of Unilever's branded entertainment in recent years, such as "Serpentine" or the "Gamekillers" special for Axe, headed by Bartle Bogle Hegarty and in development as a possible series for MTV, has involved original properties. Tying into an existing franchise made sense in this case, however, because of the strong affinity Degree Men consumers already have for "24," said Mr. Chadha, a former director of global integrated marketing at Jose Cuervo International and former VP-advertising and strategy at Rainbow Media's AMC cable network, who joined Unilever last April.
Fox programming in general does well with the brand's target, he said, though the "24"-themed 30-second spots also will run on other networks. Trailer-style ads for CTURookie.com first broke on Fox's national broadcast of the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 8 before the first webisode launched Jan. 15.
The challenge of tying into a strong existing franchise such as "24" is to meet the expectations of a fairly rabid fan base, Mr. Lang said. "You have built-in fans right away," he said, "but what's really crucial is to execute your creative in a truly authentic way."
Turned to show's creative talent
For that, MindShare and production house Science & Fiction drew heavily on creative talent for "24," including hiring Rodney Charters, a past director of the show and currently its director of photography, to handle "CTU Rookie." Jeremy Ray Valdez, who plays the webisode's title role, appeared toward the end of last season as a naval officer who witnessed Jack Bauer execute the season's prime terror suspect. The Degree production also drew on the show's stunt director, several of its camera people and one of its editors, Mr. Lang said.
"All along the way, we made sure that what we were going to produce was authentic and true to the tonality of the show," he said.
The trailer ads did take a turn toward parody, highlighting CTU Rookie Jason Blaine's command of weapons systems and ability to carry four lattes without spilling a drop. But the "Coffee Run" series quickly takes on the more serious character of the TV show, as Mr. Blaine, on his way to an unidentified coffee shop, runs into the sort of terrorist miscreants who seem always just around the street corner or behind the hedge in Southern California, the show's locale.
Fox's webisode spinoffs
Fox has done similar webisode spinoffs of popular series, including another produced by MindShare Entertainment for American Express around "Prison Break" last year. Separately, Cisco has backed a mobile-phone series around the network's "Vanished," and MasterCard has done the same with "Bones." But Mr. Chadha believes the Degree-"24" deal is perhaps the most extensive and best-matched partnership he has seen yet.
"It takes one of the biggest, most popular shows on television, new creative, online television and retail, all with the right brand positioning and messaging, strongly targeted at the right consumers," Mr. Lang said, "and reaches them at the places and times they want to be talked to."