Brand promotion: Screen Test

In the first of two features on branding, Joe Lepper takes a look at how charities attempt to place their logos, posters or collection boxes on films and television. Next week, Mian Ridge looks at protecting charity brands.

When Katharine Hepburn threw Humphrey Bogart's Gordon's Dry Gin overboard in The African Queen, she started an advertising revolution.

Since the 1950s, product placement has become a vital marketing tool, from the appearances of Jaguar cars in the James Bond film Die Another Day to the high-profile promotion of the French cognac Courvoisier in Busta Rhymes' 2002 song Pass the Courvoisier.

But it's not only these giants of the commercial world that are gaining exposure. There is also a raft of opportunities for the UK voluntary sector, which a number of savvy charities are exploiting.

David Barker, head of communications at the British Heart Foundation, is a firm advocate of product placement. He describes it as "a useful tool in the armoury of PR".

"Take, for example, a can of beans in a shop on a soap opera," he says.

"Will its presence on the screen make people rush out and buy it? The answer is, of course, no. But product placement is not about that - it's about continued awareness."

Building brand awareness is particularly important to charities. "We are the fourth-largest charity in the country and we need to maintain that brand awareness," says Barker.

Because of this, the charity is in regular contact with producers and designers, particularly on soap operas. It claims successes on EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale, among others.

According to Barker, posters have been the biggest attraction for programme-makers, with the charity gaining coverage on what might be the holy grail of TV product placement - the 48-sheet outdoor poster display on EastEnders' Albert Square.

A spokeswoman for EastEnders says the production team has a steady stream of products, including collection boxes, badges and posters, sent in by charities. The majority, however, will never be seen.

Those that succeed, she says, do so because they appeal to the producers' sense of realism. The British Heart Foundation managed to secure the large outdoor advertising space in Albert Square because the charity really does use such sites. Charities have also been known to get their posters displayed in the soap's doctor's surgery, and certain characters have worn charity badges.

"EastEnders is about real life, so we need to have posters in the background and collection boxes in, say, the Vic," adds the spokeswoman. "And characters such as Dot and Jim would wear poppies. It benefits us, too - we need these props and it's far easier to use charities' products than design our own."

Barker agrees that charities should be strategic about how they approach producers with their products. "You need to plan well in advance," he says. "If you are launching a campaign next week, and you are seeking to get promotional material on a soap, then it's too late because they film quite a long way in advance."

The RSPCA is another charity that uses product placement. "It's ad hoc," says Rebecca Ralfe, public relations officer at the association. "Sometimes we submit products; at other times people will call us."

For example, the producers of BBC children's drama The Stable called the charity's press office to ask for promotional merchandise to use in the show's veterinary scenes.

Until three years ago, the RSPCA was more organised with its product placement, even employing a specialist agency, Production Profiles. But this approach was relaxed when budget cuts began to bite.

The annual retainer fees charged by such agencies are beyond many in the sector, but some still believe the benefits an agency can offer, such as strategic planning, monitoring of successful placements and improved relationships with set designers, are worth the outlay.

The Disabilities Trust is one charity that employs a product-placement agency. James Rye, the charity's external affairs director, was also involved in product placement when he was PR chief at Scope. He warns those seeking to exploit opportunities that success is finite.

"I've found that placement of a particular brand tends to have a three-year lifespan," he says. "It builds up during that time, peaks and then drops away because designers want other brand names."

Steve Read, managing director of product placement firm 1st Place, says the key to successful placement is understanding production schedules and the needs of producers. "A soap opera will film six weeks in advance, but some of the major crime series will be six to eight months," he says.

"The key is to look at the creative side of the programme and work out how your product can fit in to make the show more realistic."

He adds that 'flashing light' shows such as The Bill and Casualty are particularly good for charities.

Although Read concedes that the cost of hiring firms such as his on annual retainers can be prohibitive to charities, he says there are cheaper ways to seek help. 1st Place, for example, operates an online prop service, www.freeprops.co.uk, for about 800 set designers in TV and film. It costs about £60 a month for businesses and charities to place an image of the product they are offering producers, along with a description and contact details.

Another way to gain an audience of millions for your merchandise is to use celebrity endorsement to lever news coverage. The NSPCC is one charity to do this; the World Cup-winning England rugby squad regularly wore its Full Stop badges, obtaining coverage on news and sports programmes.

It is also possible to negotiate with product-placement firms for lower rates. Joe Keenan, managing director of Production Profiles, says the RSPCA was charged reduced rates because of its charitable status.

This can make quite a difference. Darryl Collis, director of product placement specialists Seesaw, says his typical annual retainer fees start at about £18,000. But a source at one charity that uses a placement firm says annual fees for charities can be as little as half that amount.

Collis suggests one reason for the reduction in rates is that charity clients are desirable to agencies. "To have a charity client shows that you work on a good range of products," he says. "It looks good and helps the portfolio."

For any charity seeking to get involved in product placement, it is important to be aware of the strict regulations laid down by the media regulator Ofcom. This covers commercial television; the BBC is governed by its own similar code.

Both Ofcom and the BBC define product placement as including a product in return for money, which is strictly banned. However, Ofcom's regulations do allow "a reference to a product or service where it is clearly justified by the editorial needs of the licensed service. This is not product placement, but no undue prominence may be given to the product or service."

The BBC code says: "BBC programmes need to reflect the real world and, from time to time, references will be made to commercial products and concerns. However, programmes must never give the impression that they are endorsing or promoting any product, service or company."

It therefore helps, when contacting programmes, not to use the phrase 'product placement' but to argue that the product could enhance editorial needs and reflect the real world. Keith Bradbrook, deputy director of communications at the NSPCC, says programme makers "would say 'props' rather than 'product placement'".

Producers interpret these codes in different ways. EastEnders is happy to admit that it takes charities' products to heighten the sense of realism.

But a spokesman for ITV's Coronation Street claims the producers' interpretation is far stricter; they are not involved in placing products in any way, including those from charities.

The spokesman says: "A charity is a business and we can't support it.

We work under strict guidelines laid out by Ofcom and we are not allowed to do it." He adds that the Rovers Return is possibly the only pub in the country not to have a collection box - if a poster is required in the background, a fictional slogan will be used.

Despite these protestations, a number of charities, including Age Concern and placement firms such as 1st Place, claim to have successfully placed items on the soap. The spokesman concedes some charity products do slip through the net. For example, some cast members once wore pink ribbons during a recent Breast Cancer Awareness Week campaign, but were subsequently reprimanded. He also concedes that the occasional poster might appear in the background on some location shots - but "never for more than three seconds".

Keenan of Production Profiles gives assurances that firms such as his work hard to ensure they comply with Ofcom and BBC codes. He says: "It's not like the US, where big brands can pay to appear on shows such as Sex and the City. We operate under guidelines, don't pay for coverage and get no guarantees our items will be used. All we can do is hope they are.

We are a valid extension of PR and marketing."

Although there are no guarantees, charities can improve the chances of their brands appearing before an audience of millions by taking the time to talk to producers, understand their regulatory constraints and view product placement as a part of strategic campaigning efforts.

CASE STUDY: THE DISABILITIES TRUST

The Disabilities Trust has hired product-placement firm NMG to provide strategic advice and monitor the charity's brand appearances. The firm also estimates the equivalent advertising cost and stores and catalogues merchandise.

Last year, the charity negotiated more than 65 appearances of its branded products, mostly collection boxes and posters. Two thirds of these were on EastEnders, where the collection box makes regular appearances in the Queen Vic and Ian Beale's cafe. Other programmes in which the products have featured include ITV soap Emmerdale, Channel Four's Hollyoaks and Shameless and the BBC's Eyes Down, Byker Grove, The Lenny Henry Show and Doctors.

The trust has also taken the step of redesigning its posters specifically for TV and film appearances, with the amount of small text reduced. The deal with NMG also included contact with designers on films such as Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Bollywood musical Bride and Prejudice.

The charity is reluctant to disclose the amount it pays NMG, but it is understood that with the coverage gaining an advertising equivalent value of £747,000, this is a substantial return on the charity's annual investment.

"Product placement is part of the broader strategy to heighten awareness of the brand," says James Rye, director of external affairs. "What it provides is cost-effective reinforcement."

CASE STUDY: CLIC

CLIC, which recently merged with Sargent Cancer Care for Children to become CLIC Sargent, scored some notable product placement successes in 2004 - at no extra cost to the charity.

At the start of the year, it benefited from a corporate link-up with vacuum manufacturer Dyson, which named a product CLIC after the organisation and donated part of the profits to the charity.

Placement agency 1st Place then secured coverage of the CLIC-branded cleaner on the BBC drama Cutting It. A poster promoting the charity appeared on a hospital wall in BBC's Holby City.

The charity has also carried out its own product placement efforts in-house, off the back of its annual Awareness Bears promotional merchandise campaign. The bears featured in hospitals and shops in December, and the charity passed them on to producers at a variety of shows, including EastEnders, ITV's The Bill and five's Family Affairs.

"We are a novice at it really, but it doesn't take much effort or cost," says Sarah Talbot-Williams, head of communications and campaigning. "It's all about planning, finding out what their production schedules are and seeing how we can fit in."

She adds that, as a relatively small charity, "exposure such as this is vital".

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