Brit Reality Show Portrays Giant Tesco Helping the Little Guy

Program Bypasses U.K. Product-Placement Ban, Offers PR Coup for Chain

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LONDON ( -- Tesco, the U.K.'s largest supermarket chain, is getting a ton of publicity from a British reality show in which amateur cooks compete to get their products sold alongside Britain's biggest brands.
Famed chef Simon Rimmer (l.) offers contestants tips.
Famed chef Simon Rimmer (l.) offers contestants tips.

Yet, though its name is in the title of "Breaking Into Tesco," the supermarket retailer has no influence on the show's creation or development. And while much of the action is set in a store and the program showcases Tesco personnel, such as the intrepid brand-development team, the show cleverly skirts strict U.K. rules on sponsorship that ban product placement.

That's because, ironically, if Tesco had funded the show, the supermarket giant would not be allowed to appear in it due to the ban.

Shelved ideas
"Breaking Into Tesco" pits 20 amateur cooks against each other in a winner-take-all competition. Recipes on trial include cherry ravioli, soup in a bun, and biscuits that dogs and humans can share, all vying to join the 6,000 new products that arrive on Tesco's shelves each year.

The first weekly episode, on March 3, was seen by 1.4 million viewers, winning a higher-than-usual 6% audience share at 9 p.m. on Channel Five, and a big chunk of the desirable 16-to-34-year-old demographic.

A Tesco spokeswoman said: "We felt the program would give us the opportunity to show the outside world just how much work goes into developing our products and how customers are at the heart of everything we do. All our own-label products have to pass the discerning tastebuds of our customers before we would even consider stocking them."

Viewers get to see exactly what goes into creating the food they buy -- perfecting the concept, testing the dish's feasibility, sourcing ingredients, refining recipes, facing the Tesco customer-taste-test panel, scaling up for mass production and ultimately filling the supermarket shelves.

Each episode starts with four of the contestants happily preparing treasured recipes in their own kitchens. Only one will be left at the end of the hour. The first week, the maker of "Lancashire hotfoot" stew didn't make it past customers at a local market. Cherry ravioli was knocked out at the next stage after failing to impress Tesco's consumer panel.

Independent talent
A U.K. celebrity chef, Simon Rimmer, offered tips on improving recipes for mass production. Two offerings made it past Tesco's customer panel to Tesco's brand-development team, whose members selected indulgent spicy Malaysian noodles over less-appetizing fat-, gluten- and dairy-free muffins. The winner will be picked in the sixth and final episode by two Tesco execs, Richard Stride, head of product quality, and Sarah Bradbury, category director.

Tesco has annual sales of $45 billion, and $1 of every $8 spent in British stores is spent in Tesco. Because of its size, the retailer is often seen as trampling over the little guys and squeezing suppliers, so a show in which the retailer encourages independent talent is a public-relations coup.

Tess Alps, chief executive of Thinkbox, the U.K. marketing body for commercial broadcasters, said, "As a PR exercise for Tesco, being seen to take care over small producers is right on strategic brief. And the Tesco connection helps the marketing effort for [Channel] Five because it gets the program to stick in the public consciousness."

Advertisers from General Mills' Cheerios to dating site are flocking to commercial breaks. The first episode included spots from include Reckitt Benckiser, Tesco's personal-finance products, a Tesco program to provide computers for schools, Peugeot, Barclaycard, Kraft, Nestlé, Ford Motor Co. and Kellogg's.

With product placement banned in the U.K., it's unusual to see prominent brand names on TV programs, although other marketers do get involved behind the scenes with reality shows. No-frills airline EasyJet, for instance, cooperates with the program "Airline," and hi-tech company Amstrad plays center stage with a CEO, Alan Sugar, who fills the Donald Trump role in the U.K. version of "The Apprentice."
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