Lessons for Tesco: brands that star in reality TV shows have a mixed record

LONDON - Tesco is not the first brand to feature in a TV show, nor will it be the last, but the pursuit has its risks.

For brands, perhaps due in no small part to the vanity of their respective marketing directors, the allure of being the 'star' of a TV show has often proved irresistible, so Tesco's decision to co-operate with a Dragons' Den-style reality-TV series is perhaps not that surprising (Marketing, 13 February).

From easyJet's co-operation with ITV's Airline and the BBC's annual The Apprentice competition offering the prize of a job at Alan Sugar's company Amstrad, to the RSPCA's link with Animal Hospital, TV schedules are littered with examples - not all successful - of brands allowing TV cameras to film some of their more intimate moments.

The attraction is predicated on the potential of having a free communications vehicle. For broadcasters, who describe the formats as 'observational documentaries', the appeal is also clear; the public is fascinated by the workings of big companies and the fly-on-the-wall-style shows are simple and cheap to produce, with no actors' salaries to pay.

Mark Eaves, managing director of content specialist Drum, claims that there is a growing trend for production companies to target UK brands. 'The resource and access they offer is valuable; the editorial needs the brand,' he says.

What is unusual about the Tesco example is that it has allowed its name to appear in the title of the show, which starts next month on Five. Breaking into Tesco follows a series of unknown food brands as they attempt to gain a place on the supermarket chain's shelves; the premise of the show is that the brands pitch to the store's buyers and the winner's product is listed in Tesco.

Reputation management

For the supermarket, the perceived benefits are clear; despite its success, Tesco remains something of a pariah, dogged by accusations that it squeezes its suppliers dry. When it comes to the brands appearing on the show, even those that fail could still benefit from airtime exposure and the possibility that they may be picked up by Tesco's rivals.

Richard Clothier, managing director of dairy brand Wyke Farms, says that taking part in such a programme would have appealed to him when his company was in the early stages of its development. 'We would have loved to show people the full farm-to-fork process and, of course, pitching to the supermarket is a key part of the process.'

But the question remains as to whether it will make compelling viewing. According to one food buyer, the answer is no. 'I wouldn't watch it. Who wants to listen to a load of Tesco buyers pontificating in a room? That's not entertainment. It would probably wind people up to see the Tesco team at work, they are pretty tough,' he says.

Therein lies the rub. Nicky Buss, client services director at ITV, understands brands' desire to get closer to content, but points out that in non-advertiser-funded programmes, under Ofcom rules, brands are not afforded the editorial courtesy they otherwise would be. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that brands and their representatives end up looking foolish in the name of entertainment.

Luke Johnson, ironically enough the current chairman of Channel 4, is a case in point. When he was running the Signature restaurant chain, he famously agreed to work in the kitchens of one of its Belgo chain of restaurants for

a show entitled Back to the Floor. Unfortunately, it didn't go well - when asked to chop onions, Johnson famously tore off his microphone, told the film crew to 'screw your programme' and stormed off.

Similarly, The Royal Opera House found itself the object of ridicule when petty management squabbles were exposed in its appearance in the BBC documentary The House. However, as Tess Alps, chief executive of commercial TV marketing body Thinkbox, points out, awareness levels rose dramatically, resulting in increased box-office sales.

That said, Alps adds that there are a number of caveats brands need to consider before agreeing to appear in a TV programme. 'It is so easy to get these things wrong because they come back and bite you on the bum,' she says. 'It is also difficult to do integrated communications around them or leverage them. Mostly, there is positive stuff, but brands need to remember that it is not a crafted communication - they need to make sure they do their homework.'

So while it may be attractive when TV production companies come knocking, brands must be fully aware of the terms of engagement and the potential pitfalls of such uncontrolled brand exposure.

Data file: Brands on TV
  • Airline (easyJet)
  • Animal Park (Longleat House)
  • Animal Hospital (RSPCA)
  • The Apprentice (Amstrad)
  • Make Me a Supermodel (GQ)
  • The House (Royal Opera House)
  • Driving School (BSM)
  • Holiday Reps (Club 18-30)
  • The Cruise (easyCruise)
  • The Armstrongs (uFit)

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