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Restaurant brands reach fast-forwarding viewers with savvy placement

KFC ran several product placements on prime-time TV shows this fall, and its integration into the Oct. 14 episode of NBC’s comedy “Community” was less subtle than others. In fact, it was impossible to miss.

The episode’s turning point occurs when the gang from Greendale Community College gets trapped in an old flight simulator from the 1980s, the “Kentucky Fried Chicken 11 Herbs and Space Experience.” The simulator’s on-board guide, an artificial-intelligence program called S.A.N.D.E.R.S., has such memorable lines as “Just as KFC’s secret process seals in the flavor, I’m sealing in the cabin’s air.”

Ralph Heim, director of media for KFC, said extreme tie-ins — in which restaurants go beyond mere product placement to serve as the crucial setting for a scene or to drive the plot — like its “Community” episode engage viewers more effectively at a time when they can fast-forward past commercials with digital video recorders.

“We’re looking for something DVR-proof,” Heim said. “In this day, where you’ve got DVR penetration of over 30 percent in America, and half of those people are skipping commercials, you need to think of other ways that you can communicate.”

Another benefit of tying into episodes with product integration is that the shows are replayed often, not only on DVRs, but also on such sites as Hulu, he added.

Consumers can expect to see more such product integrations, according to New York-based Nielsen IAG. Dave Kaplan, senior vice president of research and product development at Nielsen, said the firm has tracked a 31-percent increase in integrated in-program placements since 2006.

License to shill

KFC also has done more traditional product placements recently on TV shows “The Good Guys” and “Running Wilde,” but the integration on “Community” was a more concerted effort.

Heim said that episode resulted from an ongoing relationship between KFC and the network, in which KFC’s network sales group decides which shows will carry the chain’s ads, and KFC’s marketing directors occasionally reach out to writers of different shows to find good opportunities for integration.

“It’s a give and take certainly, but we’ve done multiple integrations, and that one turned out to be the best,” he said. “It’s a matter of dialogue. You need a little bit of luck for [your partners] to embrace the brand like the ‘Community’ writers did.”

Heim did not disclose the terms of the product integration deal.

When attempting humorous integrations, brands could be the butt of a few jokes, Heim said, but KFC “has never been burned” by TV writers. In fact, one “Community” character pulled off a plug for the chain’s newest sandwich with a wink: “The press is here. I’m trying to buy us some time with these Doublicious sandwiches, but they thought I was doing product integration for KFC.”

“You can only force so much in there, and frankly, you don’t want it to seem forced, like, ‘Uh oh, here’s a commercial message,’” Heim said. “But when they make fun of the Doublicious, it’s in keeping with the comedy. We don’t want dialogue to be stilted, and that fit perfectly.”

the scene

Other restaurants have scored important integrations without affecting the characters’ dialogue, as Maggiano’s Little Italy recently achieved with its Nov. 17 tie-in with ABC’s comedy “Modern Family.” The episode’s opening and closing scenes were filmed in a Los Angeles location of Maggiano’s, where the Pritchett family celebrates son Manny’s birthday. But while the brand’s logo and signage are seen during the show, the restaurant’s name is never mentioned.

Michael Breed, Maggiano’s director of marketing, said the show’s writers approached the restaurant for the integration.

“The writers were working on the episode and needed a place for Manny to celebrate the birthday party,” Breed said. “They said, ‘We need a place like Maggiano’s,’ and one of the writers said, ‘Why don’t we just shoot it at Maggiano’s?’ For us, it spoke to the strength of how well the brand connects in people’s minds to celebrate special occasions — a huge compliment.”

The use of its Los Angeles restaurant for filming was Maggiano’s only investment in the product integration, and they were still able to seat guests in other areas during the shoot, Breed said. While Maggiano’s signage is on display at points in the episode, including the penultimate scene when the family’s four cars nearly crash outside the restaurant’s front entrance, none of the characters mention Maggiano’s by name because that would have required the brand to buy a TV ad during the broadcast, Breed said.

While buying a spot to reinforce the product placement didn’t make sense for 45-unit Maggiano’s, which doesn’t advertise nationally, Nielsen encourages its clients to pair placements and ads because “audiences are primed and less likely to DVR through a [restaurant’s] commercial because they’ve encountered the brand in the show,” Kaplan said.

The other small screen

While Maggiano’s didn’t buy an ad, the brand tried to capitalize on the “Modern Family” tie-in through other marketing tools, namely e-mail and social media, so more fans would watch the episode live or on their DVRs and online-streaming sites.

“There’s a lot more life to that kind of integration than there used to be,” Breed said. “We just wanted to make sure we leveraged this opportunity through every channel we had and could use.”

Before the episode aired, Maggiano’s alerted everybody in its e-mail database to the air date. The chain posted similar notifications on Facebook and Twitter, where special trivia contests ran during the episode’s airing, awarding gift cards for correct answers.

“With social media, it was perfect to go talk about the episode and get even more engagement,” Breed said.

The number of viewers a placement gets on the TV show is one of two important pieces to calculating an integration’s return on investment, Nielsen’s Kaplan said.

“The other is resonance, or how well it impacts the user from a branding perspective,” he said. “Often the size of audience and their engagement aren’t correlated. More than anything, it’s dictated by program quality itself. On cable, for example, shows on TLC or Bravo can’t compete with the bigger broadcast shows. But those are the kind of shows — smaller, but with a more dedicated, loyal audience — that generate the biggest amounts of placement.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected]

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