A Sweet Media Buy

Unlikely partnerships aren’t uncommon in our business. BlackBerry, a staple among executives, partnered with Facebook last year to introduce the downloadable Facebook application now being used by countless professionals to stay connected to the seemingly youth-oriented social site. Google and VOIP (define) competitor Skype started working together a few years ago to monetize Wi-Fi services. There are few surprises anymore where joining forces to further business success is concerned.

Except, perhaps, when it comes to fashion.

As revealed last week on a new episode of Bravo TV’s reality program “Project Runway,” candy king Hershey’s signed on to have the show’s competing fashion designers convert its brand and products into trendy runway looks. Hershey’s branded pillows were transformed into bubble skirts. One dress was made almost entirely of Twizzlers candy, going so far as to employ its convenient string shape as fringe, proving that the most unusual of bedfellows can, in fact, a fruitful marriage make.

Certainly marketers are no strangers to reality TV, as evidenced by the scores of brands that have lined up to have their products showcased on popular shows. “Survivor” saw dirty castaways win sparkling baskets of Procter & Gamble products, while “The Apprentice” helped launch several new products, including a new Burger King burger in 2005. The integration of products into reality shows , sometimes called branded entertainment, ups the odds that consumers will get the marketing message they might otherwise miss in the TV spot format.

Still, though we don’t know who instigated it, I’m sure some persuasion was needed to help both “Project Runway” and Hershey’s stakeholders envision how this improbable marketing relationship would work. But work it did, infusing the show with fun by eschewing fashion convention.

“Project Runway” and Hershey’s alliance followed the familiar formula of editorial integration, traditional TV advertising, and online exposure. In addition to placing commercial spots throughout the televised show, the brand sponsored the Online Challenge section of the show’s microsite at BravoTV.com. There, the show’s fans are presented with their own design challenges for a chance to win branded prizes, which in this case included Hershey’s chocolate.

To leverage an investment of this magnitude, Hershey’s also introduced licensed “Project Runway” content on its brand site. Visitors can access a dedicated section to view behind-the-scenes photos of the sweet design challenge.

Hershey’s no doubt had additional impetus where this partnership was concerned: the impending arrival of Valentine’s Day, already represented in virtually every major retailer in the country. The holiday wasn’t mentioned in conjunction with the show, but Hershey’s is now more likely to be top of mind for fans when they shop for their Valentine’s treats.

So many of these media partnerships are as much about timing as about the synergy between brands. The time of year helped bring about this integrated partnership, just as the desire to launch a new burger product likely prompted Burger King to partner with “The Apprentice.”

Even if the timing is perfect, there’s the challenge of sustaining the audience’s interest (and patience). They’ve come for the content, after all. If that’s too diluted with marketing imagery and ulterior motives, the sponsoring brand stands to suffer more than the content provider.

Hershey’s was able to strike this elusive balance with its television presence and limited exposure on the show site. It could have done more, plastering its chocolaty goodness throughout. Instead, it weighed its objectives (which presumably included increasing exposure prior to one of its hottest sales seasons) with the benefits of a combined, though restrained, television and Web presence.

The brand clearly considered the potential pitfalls of overexposure to a consumer group that, frankly, would be an odd choice under any other circumstances. It recognized that the audience’s interest in its ads would have a short life span before shifting back to fashion and beauty, where it belongs. Hershey’s took the best that branded entertainment has to offer by aligning itself with an unexpected partner to create consumer buzz and increased its value by doing so at a fortuitous time.

The brand many not have style. But when it comes to media buying, there’s no question that it has good taste.

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