'Apprentice' Ratings Are Down, but Ace Gets Uplift

Appearance Boosts Chain's Sales, Draws Attention to Charity Work

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The deal: Ace Hardware took a cause-related approach to its brand integration in NBC's "The Apprentice," using the show's contestants to highlight its community-based program that renovates shelters, community centers and health clinics. As their task, the wannabe Donald Trump proteges remodeled playrooms at a Boys & Girls Club in New York, using materials donated by Ace.

The result: After the early April episode aired, sales jumped each day for four straight days at the national chain, bumping up by 13% on two consecutive days. Transactions increased anywhere from 3% to 9%. Traffic to the marketer's Web site increased 59% the day the episode aired and 26% the next day, compared to the prior year's numbers.

'Apprentice' season one winner Bill Rancic, above, helped spur Ace's integration into the NBC show.

There are few absolutes in branded entertainment, but one thing seems to be certain: the warm and fuzzy works.

Marketers that have associated themselves with feel-good reality shows, especially when their products and services help families or people in need, have seen a serious halo effect from the integrations.

Community outreach programs

Just ask Ace Hardware. The Oak Brook, Ill.-based chain appeared on the April 10 episode of NBC's "The Apprentice" to showcase its ongoing community outreach program called "New Faces for Helpful Places."

The retailer has been re-painting, re-plumbing and renovating nonprofit venues since 2004, donating materials and labor.

"We wanted our integration to be different from anything that had been done before," said Paula Erickson, the executive who headed the marketer's team on the project. "And we looked at it as more than a one-night opportunity, but something we could leverage over a period of time."

The genesis of the integration actually started last August when Ms. Erickson met Bill Rancic, the winner of the first season of "The Apprentice," who was speaking to a group of Ace retailers. She said she was impressed by his entrepreneurial message and started discussing how to involve him with the chain and how the chain could weave into season five of the reality show.

Donating money to high schools

Those talks ended up helping to hatch two deals. In the first, Mr. Rancic agreed to work with Ace on the "New Faces" program. He started touring high schools, touting community involvement and goal setting. Ace donated $5,000 to each of the schools for building improvements and career development.

The second deal, made with Mark Burnett Productions, landed Ace in an episode of "The Apprentice" for an undisclosed amount. Recent integrations on the show have cost marketers as much as $2 million.

While other advertisers have used the platform to launch new products, having the contestants create packaging or marketing materials, Ace executives did not want to go that route.

Instead, they used the show as a way to extend their existing program. They created a contest that will send a winner to the live finale of "The Apprentice," and they asked consumers to nominate nonprofit places in need of renovation. The company had chosen those venues in the past based on recommendations from its own retailer network.

To draw attention to the program and garner nominations, Ace ran a 30-second spot with Mr. Rancic during the April 10 episode. The marketer also plastered the program throughout its retail stores, on 60 million circulars, on e-mail blasts, on its in-store public address system and voice mails, and on its Web site.

2,000 suggestions sent to Ace

The campaign continues through May, but already has solicited more than 2,000 suggestions, which is a "tenfold increase" in numbers from the past, Ms. Erickson said. The chain will pick 10 venues to repair. So far, more than 12,000 people have entered the marketer's contest to win a trip to "The Apprentice" finale.

On the show itself, the two teams worked to refurbish rooms at a Boys & Girls Club in Queens, New York. The winning team came up with a concept that included areas for music, video games, TV watching and socializing. Ace executives helped with the judging.

Sales were up anywhere from 8% to 13% in the days following the episode, and transactions were up 3% to 9%. Ms. Erickson said she can't necessarily attribute all the gains to "The Apprentice" integration, but the marketer had no other consumer promotions going on at the time. She does think the heavy Web traffic came from the exposure on the show.

Ratings down for season

Ratings for this season of "The Apprentice" are down -- the show has lost 41% of its coveted 18- to 49-year-old viewers from the year before -- but some marketers are still pleased with their integration. Ace would fall into that category.

"We looked at what it costs for a 30-second spot as opposed to what we could do with a 45-minute integration with a captive audience," Ms. Erickson said. "We decided we were getting a lot of value out of it."
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