Faced with that challenge for client Applebee's, Starcom took a novel approach: It got the brand a recurring role on NBC's high-school-football drama "Friday Night Lights."
Plot lines in 'Friday Night Lights' often revolve around discussions in the Dillon, Texas, Applebee's.
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The restaurant appears in the show almost weekly, as the site of heart-to-heart chats between the football coach and his wife and as a meeting spot for the team's boosters.
While many product and brand placements come off as contrived, the ubiquity of chain restaurants in small towns actually serves to make the NBC show feel more authentic, not less.
"Writers and directors don't often like brands to have an ongoing relationship with a show," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, exec VP, Starcom Entertainment. "It's added a sense of realism to the show."
The integration play started to take root in January 2006, when Starcom staffers spied a description of the then-in-development show in the Hollywood press.
They'd been looking for a prime-time integration vehicle for the brand, and the small-town setting seemed ideal for a chain that emphasizes its ties to communities through localized décor and its "Eating good in the neighborhood" mantra.
"The show is set in small-town Texas, and it's all about community, friends, family and neighbors," says Starcom Entertainment Associate Director Carolyn Boese. "We wanted to make the brand a character in the story line."
So prior to the upfront selling season, Starcom entered extensive negotiations with NBC, working out how the brand would be integrated into the script before financial terms were even discussed. Once both sides saw the deal as a fit, the still-undisclosed financial conditions more or less fell into place.
While "Friday Night Lights" has been a darling of TV critics and network executives, audience ratings haven't mirrored that acclaim, but the deal looked even better when the show -- and Applebee's role in it -- got picked up for a sophomore season.
"It's worked out well for us, just from a media-efficiency standpoint," says Bill Leibengood, executive director-national marketing at IHOP Corp.-owned Applebee's International. "It's had a great impact on our brand."
Asked to pick his favorite Applebee's scene from the show, Mr. Leibengood says that the restaurant has become so integrated into the local skyline of the show's Dillon, Texas, that its marquee is often visible in scenes that the chain hasn't paid for.
"We'd had ongoing discussions with Starcom about becoming more integrated in programming content because of the challenges we all face," Mr. Leibengood says, adding that the restaurant chain rejected a number of earlier concepts that weren't an ideal fit. "They kept their radar out for something that could do that, and they approached it in a very disciplined way.
"We're trying to position Applebee's as an authentic brand, and the show does a great job of that."