‘Top Chef’ bakes in deeper brand integrations to reduce reliance on skippable ads
While brands like Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi are creating their own TV-like content in an effort to reach consumers who are skipping ads, tried-and-true brand integrations continue to be an important way for marketers to reach fragmented audiences.
Case in point, Bravo's "Top Chef" debuts Thursday with eight brand tie-ins peppered throughout the season. This includes returning sponsor, BMW, as well as new sponsors like Chipotle and Dave's Killer Bread.
Brand integrations certainly aren't new, but marketers are finding new ways to embed themselves into series where the number of commercial breaks might be decreasing or even non-existent.
“There's been an uptick in interest in brand integration and they have gotten a lot better,” says Michael Law, president of Dentsu’s Amplifi. “It's no longer putting a can of soda on a table; there's a more natural fit into storylines."
Amid the pandemic, brands have had to think a bit differently about how they integrate into the cooking competition. BMW, in its fifth year as a “Top Chef” sponsor, doesn’t just provide automobiles for grocery pickups at Whole Foods. Its vehicles are front and center during a drive-in-themed challenge that ties into how people are gathering during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tillamook signed on as a season-long “Top Chef” partner, as the show’s exclusive cheese and butter brand. The contestants visit its creamery during an episode. Chipotle and Dave’s Killer Bread are new to the show and will be featured in challenges, as will returning brands Talenti and Better Than Bouillon. S. Pellegrino is also back for the season.
This comes as more brands are eager to create their own custom content and IP, Law says. Pepsi, for example, created a reality dating show with ViacomCBS to promote its new Pepsi Mango flavor, while Anheuser-Busch is airing "Not A Sports Show" on the streaming platform Ficto TV.
“Brands are seeing themselves as content creators and have plenty of ways to distribute it,” says Law. “But there is room for both. Producers and talent have been more open to letting brands in.”
The tie-ins go beyond the show itself. Starbucks already released custom content featuring season 17 winner Melissa King, who showed how to incorporate its spring blend coffee into a recipe in a video meant to drive interest for the upcoming season. And Campbell’s, which has its soups featured during the series, sponsored a post on Bravo’s site with an early look at the show’s kitchen design.
As the BMW example shows, it’s not just about food and beverage brands tapping into “Top Chef.” The 3M brand Command will have a ShoppableTV moment during a commercial break early this season. Viewers will see season 15’s Carrie Baird in the spot and will be able to shop for products used in her kitchen by pointing a smartphone at a code on the screen.
The upcoming season, with returning host Padma Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons, was shot in Portland with COVID-19 protocols in place. The set was expanded to allow for six feet of space in between chefs, and the pantry was expanded. And there’s a new semicircle table where the judges spread out to taste the dishes during the show’s QuickFire challenges, rather than walking from table to table.
The season that ran from March to June 2020 began airing just as the pandemic started, quickly upending the restaurant industry. Those issues will be addressed on the show when the cast discuss how the pandemic has affected their work, including contestants whose restaurants shut down. Contestants also feed frontline workers as part of a challenge.
Another moment rethought due to the pandemic was a visit to Whole Foods. Rather than heading inside, the contestants — or “cheftestants” in the show’s lingo — used curbside pickup for their groceries, highlighting a service that’s taken on new prominence at grocery stores and other retailers during the pandemic. The vehicles used for that shot are BMW X6 M luxury SUVs.
The pandemic wasn’t the only concern to affect production. Along with the protests in Portland that began after the death of George Floyd, wildfires hit the Portland area in September, calling off some of the show’s plans to be outside. Instead of going out and foraging mushrooms, tree stumps were brought in and used to display dishes, says Jamie Cutburth, senior VP of marketing at NBCUniversal.
As brands find ways to get their products and logos shown at times viewers are less likely to fast forward or turn their attention toward second screens, there’s a push to measure the effectiveness.
“Branded content is resilient to the decrease in linear ad impressions, as integrations follow the content wherever and whenever it is consumed,” says Dan Calpin, president of Hive, an AI company that works with agencies, brands and programmers on measurement of branded content and sponsorship. Hive, which recently teamed up with Comscore on branded content measurement, is seeing increased demand for competitive intelligence, says Calpin.
Rivals want “to understand the TV shows, streaming originals, and films where competitors are investing,” says Calpin. “It may be widely known that a competitor is the official sponsor of a major sports league, but it’s often a blind spot to understand the broader mix and focus across platforms and genres.
Nielsen is also starting to measure brand integrations in non-ad supported video-on-demand. Looking at brand integrations in the YouTube Red-turned-Netflix series “Cobra Kai,” which is positioned as a sequel to the hit 1980s “Karate Kid” film franchise, Nielsen’s SVOD Brand Integration Report says that product placements in a non-ad-supported environment can be valuable for advertisers looking to reach a cord-cutter or cord-never audience.
Contributing: Jeanine Poggi