The telenovela that swept the world and became the hit comedy show “Ugly Betty” in the U.S. is launching in China as a soap opera heavily sponsored by Unilever.
Now called “Chou Nu Wu Di” in the Chinese version, 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” (“The Prettiest Ugly Girl”).
Beijing’s Nesound International Media Co., a production company partly owned by Hunan Satellite TV, has licensed the show. The Chinese provincial broadcaster is known for turning out national hits like Supergirl, a reality singing contest that was the highest-rated show on Chinese television.
As title sponsor of the biggest branded content deal yet in China, Unilever is promoting three brands: Dove shower cream, Clear anti-dandruff shampoo and Lipton milk tea.
The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant won’t reveal how much it has invested in “The Prettiest Ugly Girl,” but Unilever’s media director for Greater China, Patrick Zhou in Shanghai, said it would consume “a relatively large proportion” of the total media budget for these three brands. “But it’s really worthwhile to do this,” he added. “We’re really excited about it.”
When the show goes on air this fall, it will have near-national reach through Hunan Satellite’s cable and satellite network in China and will dominate the programmer’s schedule for the coming year. “The Prettiest Ugly Girl” will debut in September right after the Olympics end. Two 30-minute episodes will air per day, with 80 episodes scheduled for each two-month season. The plan is to produce a total of 400 episodes, aired over ten months.
“This is [Hunan Satellite’s] big show coming up,” said Mateo Eaton, Shanghai-based managing director of GroupM’s MindShare Performance, MindShare’s dedicated content division in China. “It’s going to be the Supergirl of dramas. Four hundred million viewers easily is the viewership target.”
Hunan Satellite TV, one of the leading national channels, “is the most important channel that we use for normal TV advertising. It will also air in prime time so the media value will be guaranteed and the investment risk for us is generally low,” said Mr. Zhou.
Unlike the other versions, the Chinese show will be set in a fictitious ad agency, offering endless opportunities for marketers’ brands. (In the U.S., “Ugly Betty” takes place at a fashion magazine, and the Mexican “La Fea Mas Bella” and the earlier Colombian soap opera were set in a production company and a fashion design business).
Latin American stories appeal to Chinese audiences, said Mr. Eaton. Culturally, they are “closer to home” than American dramas like “Desperate Housewives.
“Most Chinese can’t relate to a rich life in surburbia with a big lawn, picket fence and two cars in the driveway,” he said. "In much of Latin America, like in China, people live in small apartments, need to spend a lot of time traveling to work, and people have close, extended families.”
For the Chinese version, the writers deleted the siblings Betty had in other versions to match China’s one-child policy. They toned down some of the more extreme features, such as a transexual sibling and assassins hired by former lovers. Storylines are also expanded over several episodes like 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 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 over-branded 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 their 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 Unilever’s brands.
With three brands in the storyline, Unilever is the advertising star of the show. The female lead character, Lin Wu Di, will use Dove, the leading male character, Fei De Nan, will use Clear shampoo, and Lipton will appear at office tea breaks during every episode.
The story is a “strategic fit” for Dove, said Mr. Zhou, because it talks about different kinds of beauty and “real beauty, exactly the brand essence of Dove. This is a perfect fit.”
Last year, Unilever launched Clear shampoo in China, including a product line aimed at young men.
“We found an interesting angle to use the leading male character in the show,” he added. The image of this character “is someone who is cool and willing to overcome any challenge but also wants to enjoy quality of life. This character represents our target consumers for our Clear brand.”
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 contacs.
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.”