Discovery Channel has partnered with an iconic American brand for its new scripted miniseries, Harley and the Davidsons, but it's not the one you would expect.
The miniseries—which debuts Monday at 9 p.m., and looks at how Milwaukee's Walter and Arthur Davidson and their pal Bill Harley created Harley-Davidson at the turn of the 20th century—features an integration with Budweiser, but not the motorcycle company featured in the title.
In addition to creating period-appropriate bottles and signage, which appear in all three parts of the miniseries (airing on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday), Budweiser also teamed with Discovery for a branded heritage spot promoting the program.
The branded spot, which is Budweiser's first for Discovery, airs on Discovery Channel, Velocity, Science and Animal Planet through Sunday. "It really gives you a flavor of what the miniseries is about," said Ricardo Marques, vp of Budweiser. "And also shows you a couple of the cool integrations we did."
Harley-Davidson, the subject of the miniseries, declined to partner on the project. "They're not involved in an official capacity. I think they were appropriately reticent," said Rich Ross, group president of Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and Science Channel. "We collaborated with them to be able to see their archives and museum, which they were very gracious to open. But they run a company and are hyper-concerned about their brand, as I am about mine, and we wouldn't give them any okays on scripts or the series."
Even though the company isn't officially involved—meaning Discovery isn't able to promote the series in Harley-Davidson dealerships or other properties—Ross said he thinks they'll be happy with the miniseries. "I've said to them, 'This is an homage to one of the great American stories. The three leads are heroes, they did things that are extraordinary, you will be proud,'" said Ross. "And if they sell more motorcycles, it doesn't make me a cent."
Budweiser, however, was happy to step in and partner with Discovery on the project. "These are two iconic brands that are part of the American fabric for many decades. They've captured the imagination of fans across different generations," said Marques of Budweiser and Harley-Davidson. "These two brands make sense together."
While Budweiser has done other period-specific integrations in films, "it's nothing that would compare to this level of integration and detail," said Marques. "We went to great lengths, we worked with our brand historian back in St Louis, to go through all the archives to make sure we added as much detail as possible."
The integration caps Budweiser's "America is in Your Hands" summer campaign, which included a limited packaging design with "America" replacing "Budweiser" on its 12-oz. cans and bottles. "With the miniseries launching on Labor Day, we can't think of a better way to end the summer than by raising a cold one to an iconic American brand like Harley-Davidson," said Marques.
Discovery's Scripted Evolution
Beyond its partnership with Budweiser, Harley & the Davidsons also represents an evolution for the network under Ross, who arrived in January 2015 and quickly announced an "aggressive" push into scripted content.
Discovery previously dabbled in scripted fare once, with 2014's miniseries Klondike, but Ross is assembling a more ambitious and consistent slate of scripted shows. Following Harley, Discovery will air Manifesto, which chronicles the 18-year hunt for the "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski. Ross said his scripted series will adhere to Discovery's "brand values" of science, technology, history and exploration.
"One of the pillars of the brand is history. And I think history is very hard to tell obviously in an unscripted world," said Ross. "That was where I wanted to lean in. I love the stories behind the history that you think you know, because the viewer that we have is obsessed with curiosity. You're watching going, 'I didn't know that. I didn't know the first African-American dealership in the country was a Harley-Davidson.'"
Ross has high hopes for Harley and the Davidsons, given the popularity of Discovery shows like Street Outlaws, Misfit Garage, Fast N' Loud, Fat N' Furious and Diesel Brothers. "Our gear programming on Discovery is beloved. We're the No. 1 Monday night on cable, so I know that our guys—and broader than that, our audience—loves it," said Ross.
But he also has an eye on Discovery's bottom line, and scripted series like Harley command higher CPMs from advertisers than the network's usual unscripted programming. "But it was important for me to do scripted series that people felt were connected to our brand and not fliers, because then people will be reticent to spend any money, much less more money," he said.