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Here's How Brands Can Make a Splash on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

B-to-B, CPG and 'disruptive' companies poised to thrive

Brands that have avoided late night could shine on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. John Paul Filo/CBS

CBS is just a week away from the launch of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, which it hopes will shake up the late-night landscape in more ways than one.

Colbert's Sept. 8 debut includes George Clooney and Jeb Bush, but two of his other premiere-week guests are drawing the most attention from advertisers and marketers: SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk on Sept. 9 and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Sept. 10. "It really is innovative. It speaks to our culture of how techonologists and disruptive thinkers, disruptive CEOs, are now the new celebrities," said Max Lenderman, CEO of creative agency School.

Those types of guests promise a show that is unlike any other in late night and one that in turn might be attractive to brands that didn't previously embrace 11:30 p.m. shows (Exhibit A: New York Life, which has been the exclusive advertiser for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert's website). And that should continue—CBS says there has been interest from a broader spectrum of advertisers. Prominent categories include automakers, entertainment companies, restaurants and tech brands.

As Colbert's debut approaches and he aims for a younger audience than David Letterman's, Adweek asked advertising and marketing experts to weigh in on how the show could attract new advertisers to late night—and what brands should do to make the biggest splash.

Ready, set, disrupt!

Much like his first-week guests, Colbert should hold appeal for brands that want to be "disruptive" or innovative. "If you want to look fresh and you want to seem like you're culturally at the cusp, I think this is a great place for a brand to play," said Lenderman. "It's a great opportunity for an established brand to try to reinvent itself with a new campaign."

Or to make a statement by responding to a guest. "When Elon Musk is on, would Chevy, Ford or any other car company want to proactively co-opt it and run some ads that are directly responding to the guest that he has on?" said Lenderman. "That could be a really interesting play in terms of how you want to get your brand out vis-a-vis the noncelebrity, more business guests that he has on."

Welcome, B-to-B—and CPG

Look for B-to-B marketers to take an interest in the Late Show. "The really smart ones are noticing—guess what, these are still consumers. Just because it's B-to-B doesn't mean they're not C, and they're not home at night watching television," said Pitch president Rachel Spiegelman. "[Given the] income, engagement and intelligence level [of Colbert's audience], I have a feeling we'll see a lot more B-to-B."

And consumer packaged-goods brands, too. "I think CPG-type companies that may have not aligned themselves as much with late night might be able to take a different stance," said Jeff Daniel, senior media director at Upshot. "I think of the 'Wonderful Pistachios' [campaign] that Colbert is already aligned with, and I look at that as intelligent humor. It's not slapsticky; it's got an intelligent wit about it. CPG-type companies might be willing to take more of a risk in trying to have a little bit more clever advertising versus outright promotional or more mainstream-type messaging and reach that smarter, more curious type of consumer."

A safer spot for integration

Brands considering Late Show integrations should find themselves in safer hands with Colbert than other late-night hosts. "There would be more comfort with a Colbert than maybe a Fallon, who is more about slapstick and skit comedy like the looseness and the palling around that Fallon does with all the celebrities," said Lenderman. "There's a little bit more danger of things going off the rails or your brand not reading as well. But I think with a Colbert you have a sense of more sophistication and a different kind of wit that plays better from a marketing perspective than just pure comedy." 

Everyone loves Colbert—and his supporters

While other hosts have at least some detractors, Lenderman said, "Everyone wants Colbert to succeed—he's that likable." He added that even Jimmy Fallon didn't have this level of goodwill when he took over The Tonight Show last year. "It's very hard to find anything negative about Stephen Colbert, and that's another really great reason why a brand would want to tag along," Lenderman said. "People want him to succeed—and they will reward the brands that help him do that—and so earlier on is better than later on. The moment is now for a brand to jump on that bandwagon and be the supporter that people want him to have."

Think beyond late night—and beyond television

Now that late night is as much about the clips that go viral the next day as it is about who is watching that night, brands should keep that in mind as they look beyond just the linear buy for The Late Show. "It's not just going to be about your 30-second spot that airs during Colbert when Elon's on," said Spiegelman. "It's going to be about the clip of whatever Elon's saying, and then your commercial is in that break or somewhere near that pod, and then that clip is shown online the next day. How does your digital content connect with what you showed the late-night audience on TV? Trying to figure out storytelling between the two devices or the two screens is going to be something that the really smart and forward-thinking brands and advertisers will do, especially for Colbert, because his digital clips will likely spread wider than just the value of the entertainment or the laugh."

And this is something that Late Show advertisers rarely had to consider with Letterman, who never embraced digital and viral video the way Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have. "Brands that may not have seen that opportunity with CBS—let alone Letterman—now they're going to see that. So, brands that have built a stronger digital presence and want to put out a message that strikes curiosity and gets folks on their phones to Google search right away to learn more or to engage somehow will also likely see their advertising on his digital extension," said Daniel.

Take a risk—if it's right for your brand

Advertisers can move quickly to be a part of the conversation, especially on a wide-ranging show like Colbert's. "Smart comedians and smart commentators talk about everything, and, frankly, advertising and marketing are just as much a part of the cultural conversation as politics are, as finance is, as travel is. And so they were just really smart to jump on that and say, 'Yes, I'm going to integrate a politician into my storyline. Yes, I'm going to talk about what's happening in China. I'm also going to talk about this ad that everyone else is screaming about online, and I'm going to do it in an organic way,'" said Spiegelman.

But that approach won't work for all brands. "Sometimes there are corporations who can't handle that wit, so you have to be both flexible in time and honest with yourself about what consumers think of you," Spiegelman said. "If you're a fun packaged good or an auto company or a service company, go for it. If you are a financial company or an insurance company, or maybe you're involved in something that might not feel so good in people's lives, be careful."

Spiegelman praised Arby's good-bye ad during Jon Stewart's last week on The Daily Show as a "smart play" and a way to stay in the conversation.

Up-and-comers, it's time to up and come

The Late Show could also be attractive to lesser-known brands looking to break through with consumers. "This audience that Colbert attracts is naturally curious, and so there might be the opportunity for little-known brands, or brands that haven't totally broken out, to really hit a stride by reaching an audience where learning the new thing is appealing to them," said Daniel. "So, that's another angle that they're trying to play—to attract those advertisers that may have shied away from investing heavy dollars in late night because the older demographic might not be so much into the innovative or tech space, for example, but these guys would be."

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