Contestants on Songland have been showing off their songwriting skills on the NBC series this summer, penning original tunes that have caught the ear of recording star-guest judges like John Legend, Kelsea Ballerini and the Jonas Brothers.
But this week the competitors have a new client: Jeep and its top marketing exec, Olivier Francois.
The automaker is embedded throughout Wednesday night’s episode, with Francois helping to choose the winner, whose work will be featured in a new ad campaign.
Jeep execs wanted to “reinvent the notion of placement” by weaving its brand into every part of the competition while steering clear of unscripted TV tropes like logo slapping and product displays.
“It’s an organic placement, so there’s no Jeep on set. That would’ve felt unnatural,” said Francois, CMO of Jeep’s parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. “Instead it’s a one-hour conversation about Jeep’s values like freedom, adventure and Americana.”
The week’s guest judges from the Nashville country band Old Dominion recorded the winning song for the commercial, which will premiere at the end of the episode. (No spoilers, but the winning songwriter also appears as a character in that 90-second spot. It’s the first time Old Dominion has ever recorded a song its members didn’t write themselves, the band says during the show).
NBC execs, who also lined up an on-air and shoppable TV deal with Roli as the show’s “official instrument partner,” said such integrations help connect brands with engaged viewers.
“We see audiences lean in where they don’t see a difference between the advertising content and the entertainment experience,” said Mark Marshall, NBCUniversal’s president of ad sales and partnerships. The Jeep integration “will live beyond the branded episode, promising the partnership and the winning song lots of longevity.”
While the show’s mentors—Shane McAnally, Ester Dean and Ryan Tedder—help the competitors hone their songs each week, the Jeep episode added another layer to their challenge. As it happens, several of the contestants’ songs were stripped down and slow paced.
“They told great stories that would really work in the Old Dominion world, but there was no way a ballad was going to work for a Jeep campaign,” said McAnally. “We had to reimagine all of the songs and the way they were produced.”
That led to numerous back and forth exchanges during the hour about Jeep’s brand DNA and attributes, which Francois considers far more valuable and appropriate for the venue than a discussion about car features or sticker price.
Francois, a music lover who’s often involved in the brand’s alliances with artists, said he was looking for a big, anthemic tune with shades of Queen from the Songland foray. He relied heavily on the series’ songwriter-mentors, who he called “100% qualified to craft the sound” to fit Jeep. “I had three of the best music producers in the world shopping for me,” he said.
The marketer has backed Songland since the show’s May debut, running its massively popular two-minute spot, featuring OneRepublic’s version of the Star Spangled Banner, in the first episode. The ad, one of the “Big Game Blitz” teasers launched on digital in the run-up to Super Bowl LIII, quickly logged 106 million views. It had never aired on TV prior to Songland.
Tedder, OneRepublic’s singer and Songland mentor, introduced Francois to the show’s creators and helped start the talks that eventually landed Jeep in the episode.
It was important to avoid the kind of placements common in many unscripted series, like the Coke cups that were ubiquitous on American Idol for more than a decade, Francois said.
“We normally don’t do paid placement,” he said. “Our goal is authenticity.”
Jeep doesn’t expect to sell “thousands of cars the next morning,” Francois said. Instead, he thinks the connection to Songland will “seed the brand in a very effective way,” especially with millennials and other young, entertainment-loving consumers.
The marketer could’ve taken the winning song and used it as the soundtrack for existing content, Francois said, but decided to design a commercial from the ground up that’s “inspired by the song.” The result is “like a little music video,” from director Joseph Kahn, whose resume includes previous Jeep campaigns as well as music videos for Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Eminem.
Jeep recently launched a music-centric campaign with three original tunes from Avengers actor and singer-songwriter Jeremy Renner, who also stars in the spots. The brand, working previously with Imagine Dragons, X Ambassadors and other pop artists, prefers to introduce new material rather than license existing songs, Francois said, which feels “like borrowing someone else’s identity.”
In the few months it’s been airing, Songland has already catapulted a few of its winners into the spotlight. They’ve written songs that Legend, Ballerini, Black Eyed Peas and the Jonas Brothers have recorded and released, with chart-topping results.