Brandtique: Sonic

At last spring's Discovery Networks upfront, sales chief Joe Abruzzese spoke about the advantage an advertiser can gain from what he termed "strategic product integration." Then, he plugged the benefits of slotting a brand in a show and trying to drive home recognition with an adjacent ad or billboard.

"Recall goes off the charts when viewers see an ad, accompanied by a product featured in that show," he said.

The sales team at Turner apparently has been effective lately at persuading marketers about the worthiness of that one-two punch, with a run of recent examples. The latest came on the Sept. 4 episode of the occasionally funny but well-acted TBS comedy "The Bill Engvall Show."

Fast-food chain Sonic offered up the combination as one of the show's characters entered a scene holding up a bag and drink from the self-proclaimed "America's Drive-in." Later came a "brought to you by" billboard with the voiceover delivering Sonic's recognizable tagline. (It was one of the top product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX.)



Were any recall scores high enough to cause a Sonic boom?

Hard to say. However, this may be a textbook example of why marketers like the one-two punch so much. If a viewer misses them once, it's hard to miss them twice. So even with a flawed product placement, a billboard that follows makes a brand message hard to miss, if not digest.

Why was Sonic's product placement flawed? It smacked of the old model where a brand could have been attached to a burger wrapper just because the inventory was available. That's far from the much-ballyhooed new era, where in deference to consumer savvy, product placement that's "organic" to a scene or has a clear raison d'etre is said to carry the day.

In this case, the teenage Lauren (Jennifer Lawrence) could have entered with delights from any chain from A&W to White Castle. There was nothing in the storyline, plotline, scene, conflict, conceit, etc. that called for a bag and drink from Sonic.

Was it well executed? So so. "Lauren" held the food and drink up for the cameras to capture as well as a spokes-model would. And she delivered a "Sonic" mention in the dialogue somewhat humorously.

When asked where she's been, "Lauren" dismissively says: "Uh ... Sonic"--with "Beavis & Butt-Head" tone--wondering why that wouldn't be exceedingly obvious from the bag and drink she's holding with the Sonic logos.

One way the "Engvall Show" and Sonic do work together that probably wasn't on the front burner--for either the marketing side or from the viewer perspective--is that it offers a link between a family-friendly, anti-edgy, inoffensive, riskless comedy that could have gotten a 30 share 50 years ago and a chain founded in 1959 that makes a nod to the drive-in institution of yesteryear. The show features something close to the quintessential All-American family in '59, while Sonic offers carhops, root beer floats and cheese/chili dogs known as "Coneys" (even though its roots and corporate headquarters are in Oklahoma).

Actually, with its quirky barrage of TV ads (the company says it spent $85 million this year on cable), Sonic has more edge than "Engvall." And the marketer does try to offer up some retro-chic and straddle the line between the days of beans and franks and the South Beach Diet. To wit: It offers wraps, but one of them has Fritos, chili and cheese along with the lettuce and tomato.

Nonetheless, viewers uninterested in sociology who may have cruised by "Lauren" modeling the Sonic bag likely took notice of the brand when the billboard appeared and voiceover offered up "brought to you by Sonic ... It's not just good, it's Sonic good."

Striking a chord with a viewer once, if not twice, may indeed be enough to be Sonic good.

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