Celebs, Brands Partner for Special Projects

Emmy-winning actor Brian Baumgartner, best known as the lovable simpleton Kevin on NBC’s sitcom The Office, can play a mean game of golf. Sometimes. He’s in a rut right now, though, and needs to psyche himself up for a major charity tournament.

Enter elite athletes like L.A. Laker Pau Gasol, New York Yankee C.C. Sabathia and baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith to whip him into shape. Subway restaurants sponsor the action, and Hollywood-branded entertainment shop Content & Company wraps it all up into a TV special.

The result, a one-hour show dubbed Golf Therapy: Life, Lessons and the Pursuit of Par, will launch in the coming weeks online, on Subway’s in-store flat screens, across social media and cable TV channels. It also aired on NBC Sports prior to the U.S. Senior Open on Aug. 1.

Golf Therapy comes on the heels of a number of talent/marketer alliances that show how closely the two worlds have started working together on original, brand-backed entertainment. The brands themselves share top billing in some of the projects, and other times their only role is willing investor.

Stars like Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, who opened the advertiser-friendly production company DumbDumb, have made short videos for Wrigley’s Orbit gum. Fellow Arrested Development alum Tony Hale starred in a Web series backed by Nestea. And 90120’s AnnaLynne McCord popped up in AT&T story-based online vignettes. Eastbound and Down’s foul-mouthed star Kenny Powers, also known as comedian Danny McBride, recently launched a profane short on FunnyorDie for K-Swiss, and Lisa Kudrow’s Lexus-sponsored Web Therapy, now in its third season online, will soon become a TV series on Showtime.

Cozy star/brand relationships, far from being criticized as sellouts, are seen as beneficial for both parties, industry veterans said.

“Artists and entertainers are becoming brands themselves, and opportunities like endorsements and branded content are part of building out their careers in many cases,” said Carol Goll, head of global branded entertainment at talent agency International Creative Management. “And brands are looking for more appealing, authentic ways to capture a consumer’s attention.”

Golf Therapy is “a heightened Barbara Walters interview” spiked with comedy and improv, Baumgartner said, where he gets tips from sports stars about shaking up his mind-set to improve his game. (Example: he takes a leap, literally, on a balance beam). As a lifelong sports fan and head of his own 3-Bees production house, Baumgarten came up with the basic idea but needed a sponsor to bring it to life.

“We’re creating a new, experimental form of TV,” he said. “I got to follow my own creative vision 100 percent, and Subway showed that it supports quality entertainment.”

As for a $5 foot-long cameo? “There’s not one Subway sandwich in this piece,” he said.

Instead, the special has Subway endorsers like Sabathia, Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin and New York Giants lineman Justin Tuck helping Baumgartner pull out of his slump. Its NBC airing, paid for by Subway as part of an overall ad buy with the network, also contained commercials for the brand starring those athletes.

The ultimate goal wasn’t face time within the show, said Tony Pace, Subway’s CMO. The chain already has that with the network’s hit weight-loss series, The Biggest Loser, various sports franchises and dramedy Chuck. The aim was to make a bold statement outside traditional advertising.

“We were involved from the moment of inception, which meant we had a hand in molding the content,” Pace said. “Some brands see these deals as blue moon stunts, but we think they’re the next level of integration. We plan to do more of them.”

Golf Therapy peeks under the helmet, so to speak, giving fans the up-close view they crave of pro athletes, he said, personalizing those on Subway’s roster. It also puts the marketer in league with a popular actor whose show is well watched by a desirable young demographic.

The special, which could show up on NBC Universal cable networks, will be sliced up for Webisodes, distributed on Facebook and other online channels, and will air in Subway locations. Athletes who co-starred have been using their own social media outlets like Twitter to promote the show.

Producing and placing Golf Therapy on NBC cost the equivalent of three commercial spots, Pace said, and Subway also shot additional footage with its endorser athletes at the same time, making those dollars stretch even further.

“The entertainment is designed to live on multiple platforms,” said Stuart McLean, CEO of Content & Company. “The property has legs going forward that makes it worth multiples of the investment.”