Brands Take the ‘American Idol’ Stage

NEW YORK Each season there is only one American Idol. But the real winners may be the show’s loyal sponsors.

Almost since its inception, the show has maintained strong ties with three main benefactors: Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T (previously Cingular). Those brands have reaped a level of promotion on the show that is unrivaled in recent TV history.

“We work very hard to deliver what the sponsors want,” said Keith Hindle, evp, licensing, Americas for the show’s producer Fremantle Media. “We look at the overall feeling of the show in terms of tone and approach, then more specifically at what are the actual parts within the show that can have an organic integration of a brand.”

Coke might be getting the most for its investment. The soda company got in on the ground floor in 2002 for a reported $10 million, though its deal, like all sponsorship agreements, is renegotiated each year. In 2008, Idol was listed by PlaceViews, Billboard parent company Nielsen’s product placement service, as the top show for product integration, with 2,000 Coke occurrences for the season. In addition to the prime placement of Coke cups in front of the judges, the company gets to furnish the stage’s “Red Room” however it likes.

“We’ve primarily done Coke, but when we launched Coke Lime, for instance, we switched over,” Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling said. “We’ve done contests where consumers have been able to create their own judges’ cup designs and the winner was featured on the show.”

Ford has used its Idol connection on TV, in print, online and in dealer showrooms. This year, Ford — which is given access to the Idol contestants for weekly promotional videos — wanted to highlight its “think” technology that lets a driver speak directly to a car. The show featured the contestants being shuttled around in a Ford equipped with the technology and fit it into several videos.

“When we started eight years ago, it was more or less a traditional media buy,” said George Rogers, who heads the ad agency group handling the Ford account at JWT Team Detroit. “Over the years we’ve been at the forefront of turning it into a true branded-entertainment integration property.”

Some fans have griped about the amount of product placement on the show. But series reps aren’t concerned. The show added a fourth sponsor this season, Apple, in a deal that puts the Idol performances exclusively on iTunes.

Show creator Simon Fuller won’t supply specifics, but he said the Apple deal isn’t very lucrative by his standards. “It’s not one of our more important deals financially, but it’s something we enjoy,” he said. “iTunes is a great brand. And Idol is still predominantly a music show.”

As long as the show continues to deliver its unique audience, brands will clamor to be associated with it.

“We’re always looking at other ways we can effectively allow consumers to engage with the brand,” said Mark Brittain, 19 Entertainment head of commercial for Idol. “It’s a year-round franchise. We’re in this for the long game, and it’s going to continue growing.”

But there is a limit.

“You can only integrate a certain amount,” Fremantle Media USA CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz said. “Our airtime is limited.”