How the Unlikely Alliance of Ovation’s ‘Versailles’ and Fiat Benefits Both Brands

Creative thinking leads to seamless execution

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There's a sexy, lavish new series coming to cable TV, set in the 17th century, that brings a distinctly modern style to the story of King Louis XIV and his royal court outside Paris.

But as contemporary as Versailles may be, don't expect the Sun King to hop behind the wheel of a Fiat, though the brand is the exclusive auto partner for the 10-episode show airing on the Ovation network.

The partnership between period piece and marketer is playing out in branded content and behind-the-scenes vignettes that weave together the attributes of both, with nary an in-show product placement.

It's part of a trend on television where fantasy, sci-fi, period, animation and unscripted series are increasingly creating what might on the surface seem to be unlikely pairings with brands.

For Versailles, which centers on the 28-year-old French ruler and his impossibly beautiful courtiers, there's a focus on design, art and fashion, along with the obligatory palace intrigue, backstabbing and bed-hopping. (Think The Tudors with less gore.)

"Even though it's a period piece, there's nothing stodgy about it," said Liz Janneman, Ovation's evp, network strategy. "It's a fashion-forward modern classic with a twist for a cultured audience."

As it happens, Fiat sees itself the same way, with the partners collaborating on nearly 100 pieces of content that promote both the show and the carmaker's new 500X crossover sports utility vehicle. Those will include exclusive set visits, deep dives with show creators and historical perspectives, but no Fiats ferrying corseted characters.

The alliance with Fiat, which is also sponsoring the limited-commercial, two-hour premiere on Oct. 1, isn't about "the literal connection" but the thematic one, Janneman said. Putting two such bedfellows together is "more challenging, but the result is more interesting," she said.

Versailles is one of many such examples where marketers might have thought there was no room for them but found instead, via some creative thinking, that even surreal-world shows can include brands.

These are what Kevin McAuliffe, branded content veteran who now heads Francis Productions, calls "contextual opportunities" that match a TV property and a brand with "similar belief systems."

He said, "It's been an evolution, but brands are less about integration now and more about connecting with a message. You're driving value instead of just being exposed."

Geico has used costume-clad marauding men to intentionally comic effect for its recent ties to History's action drama, Vikings, and Fitbit chose an appropriately creepy zombie theme for its link with AMC's massive hit, The Walking Dead. Ford sidled up to The CW's time-traveling superhero show, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, and Fox's comic-based Gotham with commercials and digital shorts featuring the series' actors.

The marriage doesn't even have to be within the same species or galaxy, said Marc DeBevoise, CBS Interactive president and COO, who noted that he's considering contemporary brands as partners for the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery.

Or it could be closer to home. Discovery Channel's Harley and the Davidsons, set at the turn of the 20th century, linked with Budweiser for its recent run, which included both branded heritage spots and meticulously recreated bottles and signage for the miniseries itself.

Newsy shows like TBS' Full Frontal With Samantha Bee don't naturally lend themselves to marketer integration, so the cable net's content partnership team worked with Facebook Live and AT&T for a 10-minute behind-the-scenes look at the satirical current-events series. And a deal with Seventh Generation had comedian Maya Rudolph taking over a 90-second ad pod to sing about the company's chemical-free tampons and feminine-care products.

Even animation is ripe for marketer ties, with Adult Swim's Rick and Morty showrunners creating a bunch of anthropomorphic cheeseburgers for a co-branded spot with Carl's Jr. and Hardee's. "Clients don't necessarily want to be in existing content; they want to make their own or partner with us to do that," said Dan Riess, evp, Turner Ad Sales content partnerships and co-head of Turner Ignite. "There are fewer one-off product placements and more ongoing partnerships. The results aren't intrusive, and they can be repeatable and scalable."

Turner is one of a number of networks cutting back on ad clutter, shortening its commercial breaks in favor of such branded entertainment. NBCUniversal has done the same with a notable deal earlier this year with American Express for a leap year stunt that replaced ads with custom-created content in shows like Blindspot, Late Night With Seth Meyers and The Voice.

Industry mavens expect to see more of these alliances, as a fresh wave of high-concept, Westerns and futuristic fare hit the network and cable schedules and brands want the association with fresh, potential breakout content.

"Partners want to connect with the ethos of a show, not have someone hold up their product and talk about it," Riess said.

This story first appeared in the September 26, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.