Star of the Show

A hit on Extreme Makeover, Sears now looks for bigger parts

Sears got a surprising reaction when it began placing its products on ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition..
Now the retailer, one of the nation's largest and oldest,
wants an even bigger piece of the product-placement business.

Sears inked a deal last month with Los Angeles-based entertainment marketing company Norm Marshall & Associates (NMA) to explore ways of replicating its arrangement with the Sunday-night home-improvement reality series.

The retailer is no shrinking violet when it comes to advertising. According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, Sears, with $41 billion in revenue in 2003, spent $1.5 billion for advertising, $500 million of that on television.

Product integration by Ford and Coke in American Idol
may have inspired countless marketers to reach for similar opportunities, but Sears spokesman Ted McDougal says the retail giant wants to aim for greater levels of integration.

Not only does Extreme Makeover
feature Sears brands like Kenmore, Craftsman tools, and Land's End (which Sears now owns), but the retailer itself is a character on the show, helping people solve problems and providing the good life to deserving people. "We signed on with NMA," says McDougal, "to create more opportunities for that kind of meaningful positioning."

Although Sears stresses that it seeks only logical and authentic venues for its branding and product-integration initiatives, there are pitfalls, to be sure.

"Major marketers always need to be careful about attaching their brands to entertainment properties," says Arthur Anderson, principal of the media consultancy firm Morgan Anderson. "The equity of a show can go up down, and, when you're closely aligned with it, a marketer's fortunes can rise and fall in tandem." For example, if American Idol
been a flop, Coke would have been hurt by the association.

Sears considers it a risk worth taking. To minimize the risk, however, the company turned to NMA. The entertainment marketing agency has been putting advertisers and Hollywood together for 25 years and thinks it knows how to strike the right balance between shilling and showmanship.

"Sears is doing some exciting work in the entertainment space with ABC, and we want to provide a larger strategic platform for them," says NMA President Devery Holmes. "They have a series of famous brands and tremendous heritage to build on. We're able to look for opportunities for all of these touch points from Sears' product line: DieHard, Craftsman, Land's End, or just the brand name itself."

NMA will scout TV and film projects where Sears can fit in, while also putting out the word in the creative community that Sears is ready for its close-up, should any producers be working on anything retail-related.

"We want to develop quality, strategic opportunities," Holmes says.

"We realize that a feature film is going to take nine to 18 months and the TV upfront is in May," she adds. "We're going to take our time and find the right project. It needs to be organic. It's not a commercial; it's a creative environment. You've got real people or celebrities interacting with the brand. As long as it's not gratuitous, everyone wins. You don't want someone to just launch into the company's tagline out of nowhere. We're there to make sure the situation is handled organically and with subtlety."

ABC's Extreme Makeover
was the retailer's first major foray into entertainment marketing earlier this year. Since then, Sears has closely aligned itself with other Disney properties. In mid April, the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based retail chain began a sponsorship, negotiated by WPP Group's MindShare, of the ABC Family Channel's Friday-night movie series through next year.

As part of its involvement with the movie package, Sears products will be featured as part of series of vignettes lasting a total of eight minutes over the two-hour program and focusing on topics ranging from home improvement to fashion in various settings. The first one aired April 16, featuring plugs for several Craftsman items.

Negotiations on the sponsorship began last fall. Sears had been looking for a Friday-night venue to drive weekend shoppers into its stores, McDougal notes. Meanwhile, ABC Family execs were wondering what they could do to make the network's planned film series stand out and be more appealing to marketers.

"This show was equally created by us, Sears, and MindShare," says Laura Nathanson, executive vice president for ABC Family Sales. "Sears wanted something to feature its products for Friday nights. We already planning on doing a movie series and wanted to see what we could do to be a little different. It was a blending of all of our initiatives."

Says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, vice president and director of Starcom Media Group's SMG Entertainment, who helps put deals like these together, "Some companies have been late to the game of product placement and integration, and right now, companies are taking careful steps to use this in more strategic ways. In the past, this process was about working with the prop masters to fit the brand into the background. Now," she adds, "companies like Sears are trying to move to the foreground so that it's integrated in a more seamless way and moves the storyline onward."

Advertisers are exploring their options, quickly. The survival of the 30-second commercial is under assault by personal video recorders like TiVo, notes Prof. Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

"I don't think the 30-second spot is going to go away in the near future, not even in the next decade, but the writing is on the wall," Thompson says. "The best solution is to go back to where TV began: Advertising agencies bought entire hours or half-hours; they named the shows. The Milton Berle show, the first big hit, was not named after him. It was called the Texaco Star Theater. So there may one day be a Sears Comedy Hour."