Bravo’s Top Chef Crammed With Integrations This Season

Toyota, Kraft, Cigna, Chase Sapphire Preferred among sponsors

Turn on Top Chef this season and you may see a prominently featured Toyota Corolla, a branded spot during a commercial break with the show's performers showcasing Philly cream cheese—or a throw to the show's website, where Cigna's "Go You" campaign and Chase's Sapphire Preferred credit card appear in webisodes.

Yes, that's a lot of branding to work into a single program. "It's a delicate balance," admits Jamie Cutburth, vp of partnership marketing for Bravo Media.

The show (which returns for season 11 tomorrow at 10 p.m.) has become a major anchor program for Bravo, as well as a big deal in the culinary world. Sister show Top Chef Masters gets traction from viewers tuning in to find out what happened during the Restaurant Wars episodes or any of the series' other dramas, and the multi-show, multi-platform approach gives Bravo a lot of room to leverage advertisers across different iterations of the series.

Part of that balance is knowing where to feature each partner: Toyota, Chase and Kraft are directly integrated into the body of the program, but all also have non-linear integrations and spots during the commercial pods.

"We've been involved basically since the inception of the show," said Dionne Colvin, national media marketing manager for Toyota. "It started out as the traditional sponsorship/product placement opportunity and has evolved into a whole-side platform program." It's a good fit for the brand—for years, Bravo's pitch to advertisers has been its audience of affluent women, and the demo is very significant in the new car market. So Toyota is landing everywhere the Bravo brand can reach, which includes quite a few different places: "We have vehicle integrations, which [have] worked really well for us," Colvin said. "We have the prizing aspect (yup, they're giving away cars). We're in the Last Chance Kitchens webisode. We're also in the BravoNow app."

Bravo is also flexing Zeebox and its PlayLive platform with Top Chef for the first time this year—yet another place where integrations will play a large part. PlayLive is somewhere between a chat room and a Twitter feed for fans who want to comment on the show's happenings while it's going on. As it's being broadcast, network techs grab the better comments and run them during the show. It's a bid to increase engagement, of course, but it's also an incentive to watch the show live—and thus keep precious ratings points from slipping over to DVR.

There are other encouragements to watch live, too: among them, the Top Chef Home Edition (which sounds significantly better than the Jeopardy Home Edition). "We have everything in there from passive gaming to challenges, created both on-air and digitally," said Cutburth. "Fans have the opportunity to come in and create challenges based on what's happening in the program," and of course, be rewarded for their creativity live on the air. And that one's branded to Kraft's Recipe Makers.

Ultimately, while the drive to live viewership is a major part of this year's integrations, Top Chef is making it a point to cover all the bases—the online programming (including a "prequel" following the casting process with Padma Lakshmi, branded to Cigna) has gotten significantly more complex, as well. NBCU is good at this kind of thing—USA's social TV strategy has made it possible for the network's fans to fill more or less every waking hour with new content—and it's also more crucial than ever for advertisers to reach out to consumers in ways distinct from the traditional spots-and-dots buys that are becoming avoidable and avoided.