Trump's 'Apprentice': A Bit Frayed but Still Pulling Sponsors

More Than 20 Brands Buy Into Sixth Season

By Published on .

LOS ANGELES -- The Donald’s prime-time pride and joy, “The Apprentice,” has suffered steep ratings decreases since its initial launch in 2004, when Mark Burnett Productions inked integration deals for upwards of $3 million with some marketers.
Despite the show's problems, The Donald continues to ride high with a large enough stable of advertisers to keep "The Apprentice" going into a sixth season.

20-plus brands

Even so, more than 20 brands, still attracted to the show’s affluent demo, have committed to the upcoming sixth season.

They are AdSpace Networks, Adwalker Inc., AMC Entertainment, El Pollo Loco, GNC, The Home Depot Center, Lexus, KB Home, Ralphs Grocery Co., Renuzit Super Odor Neutralizer, SmartMouth,, Soft Scrub Deep Foaming Bathroom Cleaner, Sue Bee Honey and Trina Turk.

Though the individual marketers wouldn’t give specifics on their integration fees, media buyers and branded-entertainment executives have said the price they’ll pay is significantly lower than in previous “Apprentice” incarnations.

P&G executive a contestant

One behemoth brand that could get more screen time than any this season didn’t pay at all. Procter & Gamble, by way of a handsome young executive who’s a cast member, could get near-constant exposure during the series, provided he’s a strong contender.

Producers say they believe that twists in the format, a schedule change to Sunday nights and the new Los Angeles setting will make the show vital again. Though the series has taken its hits for wall-to-wall branding, producers said real-life marketers are necessary for the contest.

“You can only have so many lemonade and rickshaw episodes,” said Conrad Riggs, a co-executive producer, referring to a few New York-based episodes from the past. “It gives the show credibility and scope to use real companies.”

New West Coast feel

For this season, the producers gathered some L.A.-centric marketers to give the show a distinct West Coast feel, Mr. Riggs said. Among those are the Home Depot Center sports stadium, Ralphs Grocery and KB Home.

El Pollo Loco, a fast-food chicken restaurant based in Irvine, Calif., wanted to be involved because season six of “The Apprentice” dovetails nicely with the chain’s expansion from its Southwest base to other parts of the country.

The company, which has been a regional chain for 25 years, opened its first East Coast outlet recently and plans to expand into seven more states.

“We look at this as a great way to seed our future marketing campaigns in these areas,” said Mark Hardison, El Pollo Loco’s director of marketing. “It highlights us on a national stage.”

El Pollo Loco personnel

Contestants on the show work at an El Pollo Loco restaurant as part of a challenge, and the marketer’s executives appear in the episode, which is set to air the week before the Super Bowl. Mr. Hardison wouldn’t specify how much the company paid to be in the show, but said he weighed the cost against the amount of face time the brand would have and the “implied third-party endorsement” from the integration.

The marketer has worked with NBC shows in the past, embedding its brand into “The Biggest Loser” for about two minutes. Mr. Hardison said El Pollo Loco will continue to look for ways to integrate into entertainment content because it “can do so much more than a paid 30-second spot.”

Henkel’s Dial will use the show to promote its Soft Scrub Deep Foaming Bathroom Cleaner and Renuzit Super Odor Neutralizer. It’s the first sponsor ever to integrate two brands into a single season of "The Apprentice."

Two Dial brands

Brian Shook, senior VP and general manager at Dial, declined to comment on whether a volume discount applies, and he wouldn't discuss the precise terms of the deal. But he said: "Obviously, being a sponsor of the show ... the bigger a sponsor you are the better. What we found is that both the Trump organization and the Burnett team have been great partners in helping us amplify [the sponsorship] in terms of a lot of different elements. ... Some things with retail and from a PR standpoint will become more evident over time."

But he said Dial ultimately put two brands on the show because marketing teams for both brands came up with compelling cases for the integrations.

Mr. Burnett and Mr. Trump also have made other changes that make brand integration a little more effective and predictable for marketers this time out, Mr. Shook said. Integrations, once kept confidential until the week of the show on penalty of $3 million fines, now are disclosed before the season starts.

"As far as the retail element of the 360 plan, because retailers are so far out in their merchandising plans, the approach this year I think makes it easier for manufacturers trying to tie down exactly when the consumer is going to be looking for the product in the store," he said.

Advance screening

Sponsors also now have a better idea of how their integration will look prior to when the show airs. In years past, such as during the infamous "cucumber porn" incident for Unilver's Dove in 2005, the marketer saw all elements of the show at the same time everyone else did. "I would say you have more visibility about what you're going to see," Mr. Shook said. "They're still very guarded, understandably, about anything you don't need to see you're not going to see, just because they do want the element of surprise out there."

Mr. Shook said he's not concerned about the ratings decline for the program, adding that he believes there's a strong possibility for an uptick surprise following a lengthier-than-usual hiatus. "You still get the wow factor internally with the sales force and externally with the retailers around all the elements of the plan," he said.

Neither Soft Scrub nor Renuzit traditionally are big media spenders, and Mr. Shook said “The Apprentice” will make up the centerpiece of their first-half marketing plans. But he said, "If you rely on "The Apprentice" to do all the work for you, it's not going to get the results you want. You have to have the other elements in traditional media and alternative marketing. Around each brand we also have all the traditional elements of the marketing plan, the predictable ones and some less predictable, such as PR and some things on the internet to engage our consumers."

Human product placement

Henkel rival P&G will also have what may look like a human product placement for its corporate image and recruiting efforts -- though a P&G spokesman said there was no plan to that effect.

Surya Yalamanchili, a digital-media strategist for P&G, will be one of the 18 candidates on the series. As a 24-year-old brand manager, Mr. Yalamanchili is about as precocious as they come at P&G, where making brand manager by 30 is considered a substantial accomplishment.

American-born but of foreign ancestry, Mr. Yalamanchili is something of a poster child for the global company’s efforts to make its management ranks more diverse. He’s also telegenic, started a web e-commerce strategy company at age 15, worked full-time at a web company in college and was president of his class at Rutgers University.

The P&G spokesman said Mr. Yalamanchili originally responded to a casting call with a buddy “on a lark” two years ago or more but wasn’t originally selected. Cincinnati, which indexes heavily for reality-show viewership, has been a favorite for reality-show casting, he noted, adding that he suspects Mr. Yalamanchili will be welcomed back to P&G eagerly should he not be chosen by Mr. Trump.

Mr. Shook said he's not concerned that an executive of Dial's big competitor is among Mr. Trump's apprentice candidates.

"I think Mark Burnett and the entire operation does a good job of making sure everyone involved, whether it's the manufacturer or the candidates, handles everything extremely confidentially, and then you have to trust people are going to honor that part of the agreement," he said. "So we weren't highly uncomfortable with that."
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