For Unilever, Branded Drama Is Unbeatable in China

A New Series Promoting Clear Shampoo is Subtle and Sophisticated

By Published on .

The cast of 'Unbeatable' included actors from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The cast of 'Unbeatable' included actors from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
SHANGHAI ( -- Unilever is backing its second branded content series in China, nearly two years after the debut of its hit remake of "Ugly Betty."

Like "Ugly Wudi," as the Chinese version is called, the new show "Unbeatable" promotes Unilever's Clear anti-dandruff haircare line, which is aimed at both men and women. Unilever launched Clear in China in early 2007, to tap into a major growth category then dominated by Procter & Gamble Co.'s Head & Shoulders.

Attitudes toward dandruff shampoo in China, and in much of Asia, are very different from western markets like the U.S., because it is more noticeable on black hair. For Asian women, particularly those with long hair, haircare is a major consideration. At the same time, grooming practices among young men and women have become a bigger concern as graduates head into the work force in a highly competitive job market.

Unilever has tackled those concerns with "Unbeatable," a show that combines friendship, romance and office politics. The name of the series plays off Clear's "overcoming all odds" brand persona in China.

The drama's plot centers around a college graduate who lands a job at an international public relations company that handles PR for the Clear haircare line. The heroine falls in love with the office janitor, who is really a spy from a rival pr agency, leading to problems that make her a tougher individual with "unbeatable" resilience.

Branded dramas are the "next big thing"
The brand is woven into the storyline through the main character's job, as well as in the theme song.

"Unbeatable" is Unilever's "next big thing for branded-drama marketing in China. With the sophistication of content integration, content format, scale of distribution, digital program and the full 360 activation plan, [the show] has raised the bar where branded content is concerned," said Patrick Zhou, Unilever's media director for Greater China in Shanghai.

The approach is certainly more sophisticated than Unilever's first branded-content initiative in China. Set in an ad agency, "Ugly Wudi" has been a hit with tens of millions of consumers.

But complaints about the heavy-handed use of product placement prompted Unilever to take a new approach with "Unbeatable."

Clear is integrated into the new show in a "subtle and complex way. There are brand references, because Clear is a client, but there are no repetitive packaging shots like in 'Ugly Wudi,'" said Mark Heap, managing director, China at Omnicom Group's PHD division. PHD won Unilever's media business in China from WPP's Mindshare in early 2010.

Part of the challenge facing the creators of the earlier show, which was put together by Mindshare and Hunan Satellite TV, was the need to incorporate three Unilever brands in the series--Dove shower cream and Lipton milk tea in addition to Clear shampoo--plus another sponsor, Bausch & Lomb.

"Unilever has learned from 'Ugly Betty.' Having several brands involved massively increases the complexity of managing the show internally. The brand managers have different objectives," Mr. Heap said.

Series will air on TV and video websites
Thirty-six 45-minute episodes debuted Aug. 1 on provincial TV stations in five Chinese provinces--Anhui, Jiangsu, Chongqing, Tianjin and Laoning. New episodes will roll out through late August. The series will be run again on all five stations in the fourth quarter of this year and in a sixth province, Yunnan.

Unilever created the show with Blue Ocean, a production division of provincial broadcaster Jiangsu Media Group, and has bought airtime during the show on all five channels.

The series is also on video-sharing sites like Tudou, Youku, Ku6, search giant Baidu's video channel Qiyi, and video channels on the Sohu and Sina portals. Episodes can also be viewed on a branded mini-site, The site hosts a talk show featuring interviews with both the cast and real Unilever executives, product information, games and quizzes.

Unilever is promoting the show with teaser videos and music videos airing on other websites and an internet word-of-mouth campaign involving opinion leaders talking up the series and the Clear brand on social media platforms like Sina, Sohu, Weibo, Kaixin001 and discussion forums on bulletin board sites (BBS).

Marketers face inventory pressure and competition
Sponsored programming isn't a new tactic for package-goods marketers like Unilever, but it is becoming a popular one this year in China, where the price of TV inventory shot up after China's media regulators limited the amount of time broadcasters could devote to ads during prime time.

"That has put a lot of pressure on inventory," Mr. Heap said. "Money is flooding into the market every year from new competitors, new brands launched, new product lines and spin-offs for existing products. [Fast-moving consumer goods] is becoming a more competitive category," Mr. Heap said. "Unilever will never stop doing TV ads but cost efficiency is a factor. For the amount of exposure, we believe you get a good return on investment compared to buying TV spots."

Most TV ads in China are 15 seconds or even five seconds long, and focus on pushing a brand name and a product. At the same time, young urban adults, the target market for Clear, increasingly consume TV on video-sharing websites or by downloading content, missing ad breaks altogether.

"With so many new choices available, it's important to build brand positioning and equity. Using branded content, especially in this case where we've built the storyline from scratch, brings relevance and meaning. We can tell more stories about the brand," Mr. Heap said.

Advertising Age Embedded Player
Unilever created a music video with the show's theme song and cast that is now running on video websites.

Return to the Ad Age China home page here

Most Popular
In this article: