When contestants on Bravo's hit reality show "Project Runway" were asked to design yet another outfit on the fly this summer, the sponsor wasn't Elle, Macy's, Saturn or Delta Air Lines, which have been regulars on the show. It was Waste Management, the Houston residential and commercial disposal-services company, which wanted consumers, not just civic leaders, to know it has a green side to its business.
But the appearance on a much-repeated episode of "Project Runway" was just the beginning of the company's strategy to break out of traditional advertising. Waste Management has hired Los Angeles-based entertainment-marketing firm UPP Entertainment-which also represents marketers such as Lexus, The North Face, UPS and Campbell Soup Co.-to get it more on-screen integrations. As a result, it will soon have a starring role in the romantic comedy "Perfect Christmas."
In the film, Queen Latifah and Terrence Howard star as employees at one of the company's recycling facilities, wear its uniforms and drive its trucks.
"We're looking for placements that help us tell our story," said Lynn Brown, VP-corporate communications at Waste Management. "We're trying to make that logo become less invisible and put it in places where people will see it and hear our story."
Talks are under way with production companies and studios around Hollywood to integrate the company into other TV shows or movies. It's willing to pay an integration fee to producers if the right opportunity comes along.
In the "Project Runway" episode, which originally aired Aug. 16, designers sifted through mounds of paper, Mylar, bottles and other materials at Waste Management Recycle America's collection center in Port Newark, N.J., to create their outfits after being greeted by Matthew Coz, director of recycling for Waste Management Recycle America's East Group.
The winning dress, from Michael Knight, was made of a vinyl-coated burlap peanut sack, Mylar tubing and clear plastic.
It was perhaps the cleanest trash ever to appear on TV. And that's just the way Waste Management wanted it.
Waste Management Recycle America, a division of Waste Management, is the largest recycler in North America, operating 85 facilities that handle 5.8 million tons of recycle materials each year.
But that message wasn't getting across simply through its green and yellow logo on the sides of its garbage trucks and Dumpsters.
The logo is the "invisible billboard and it's always there, but people don't really know what it is the company does," said Ms. Brown. "We're not just a disposal company. People don't know we're the largest recycler in America. They don't know we create renewable energy."
To promote its environmental message, the company launched a national ad campaign two years ago that targeted "civic-minded elites and decision makers" on CNN, the Sunday-morning news shows on CBS and ABC, and sporting events such as golf championships and Nascar races. The campaign was updated and relaunched in September.
"But you can't hit everyone just through advertising alone," Ms. Brown said. "We looked at other opportunities to tell our story to a whole different group of people who may not have seen that advertising."
That's why the company has turned to Hollywood as a way to promote the company's recycling and environmental services.
"We get two or three requests a week," she said. "We look at things as they come along. We want to make sure that we're telling the story that's consistent with what it is we want people to know. That all helps get that message out."
Waste Management has yet to do any formal measuring on whether the placements are paying off for the company. What it does have is a long list of anecdotes from customers and employees who saw the appearance on "Project Runway" and chatter from blogs across the web.
The episode featuring Waste Management has aired an average of 10 times each week since Aug. 16. Waste Management's appearance was also verbally mentioned during a cast reunion special that originally aired Oct. 4.
Additionally, Waste Management purchased all the dresses from the "Waste Not, Want Not" episode and has been auctioning them off to support charities in the communities where the designers live. The winning dress sold for $1,500.
"I think 'Project Runway' knocked it out of the park. It was enormously successful." Ms. Brown said. "That's the kind of thing we want."