In September, the Spanish-language telenovela that spawned the hit comedy show "Ugly Betty" will launch a soap opera in China that will be heavily sponsored by Unilever. In the biggest branded-content deal yet in the country, Unilever is promoting three brands -- Dove shower cream, Clear anti-dandruff shampoo and Lipton tea milk -- in the Chinese version of the show, called "Chou Nu Wu Di."
Patrick Zhou, Unilever's media director for Greater China, said "The Prettiest Ugly Girl" will take "a relatively large proportion" of the total media budget for the three brands.
Beijing's Nesound International Media Co., a production company partly owned by Hunan Satellite TV, has licensed the show. The Chinese cable and satellite broadcaster is known for turning out national hits such as "Supergirl," a reality singing contest that was the highest-rated show on Chinese TV.
"The Prettiest Ugly Girl" will make its debut right after the Olympic Games end and will dominate Hunan's schedule for the next year. Two episodes will air per day for each two-month season. The plan is to air a total of 400 episodes over 10 months.
"This is [Hunan Satellite's] big show coming up," said Mateo Eaton, Shanghai-based managing director of Group M's MindShare Performance, MindShare's dedicated content division in China.
Unlike the other versions -- the original telenovela was created by Colombia's RCN Television and later remade by Mexico's media giant Grupo Televisa as "La Fea Mas Bella" or "The Prettiest Ugly Girl" -- the Chinese show will be set in a fictitious ad agency. (In the U.S., "Ugly Betty" takes place at a fashion magazine, and the Mexican "La Fea Mas Bella" and the Colombian soap opera were set in a production company and a fashion-design business.)
The story is a "strategic fit" for Dove, Mr. Zhou said, because it talks about different kinds of beauty and "real beauty, exactly the brand essence of Dove. This is a perfect fit."
Matching China's politics
For the Chinese version, the writers deleted the siblings Betty had in other countries to match China's one-child policy. They toned down some of the more extreme features, such as a transsexual sibling and assassins hired by former lovers. Storylines are also expanded over several episodes like in a traditional soap opera rather than condensed into single episodes.
"Ugly Betty" was brought to the U.S. by one of its biggest fans, Mexican actress Salma Hayak, who is both executive producer of "Ugly Betty" and an occasional guest star. One thing Ms. Hayak didn't bring to the U.S. was the Mexican version's heavy use of product placement.
"She thought it was overbranded in Mexico and wanted the U.S. version to make it more about the storyline," Mr. Eaton said. In the Chinese version, "we're trying to be a lot more conscious of content without going overboard, but still take advantage of the fact that this show is set in an advertising company and people will expect a limited amount of branding."
MindShare's deal with Nesound gives it a first look at all of the production company's properties for branding and integration. Talks about the show began in September 2007, giving the company time to negotiate a deal for Unilever, including rewriting scripts to incorporate the marketer's brands.
The female lead character, Lin Wu Di, will use Dove, and Lipton will appear in office tea breaks during every episode. In a scenario that probably wouldn't happen in the U.S., the cool and alluring leading male character, Fei De Nan, will be a big user of Clear anti-dandruff shampoo, launched in China last year.
Bausch & Lomb, another MindShare client in China, is also a sponsor. The show's stylish characters will wear Bausch & Lomb contact lenses, and Ms. Lin's transformation during the series into a beauty will include switching from glasses to contacts.
MindShare is looking for a dozen more marketing partners, Mr. Eaton said. "There is a lot of ability to build in brands, since this is a story that's based at an ad agency. It means we can have stories inside stories, people talking about brands as part of the storyline."