As seen on TV

Reality Television can make stars out of everyday grocery products.

When Toronto entrepreneur Anya Kats created MooMoo Bars, a low-calorie dairy snack inspired by cuisine from her native Estonia, she knew she needed two things to make the bars a success: investors and customers. To get the former, she headed on to Dragon’s Den, the hit CBC show where contestants pitch their big idea to a panel of top Canadian businesspeople in the hopes they’ll buy in. Kats got the money–$150,000–for 40 per cent of her company, Dairylicious. But to her surprise, the show also hooked her up with customers.

Within hours of her Dragon’s Den appearance airing, Kats started getting emails. The first batch, about 100, came from the Maritimes. As the show rolled across Canada’s time zones, the numbers grew. Kats recalls one western viewer who wrote, “I’m in some village beside Edmonton. Where do I go to get your product?”

Advertising everyday products on TV is not as effective as it used to be. Consumer packaged goods companies are now focusing more on social media and in-store shopper marketing programs to drive sales. However, in an interesting twist, some companies are discovering the value of reality TV. Not only do consumers watch reality shows in droves, some shows allow people like Kats to talk at length about their product’s benefits. The result: the products, not the people, are oftentimes the shows’ true stars.

No reality show has been quite so effective at giving products exposure as Recipe To Riches. On the Loblaw-sponsored Food Network show, contestants vie to have their recipe turned into a real-life President’s Choice product. “Every week there’s a new product, so there’s anticipation to taste it,” says Laura Gaggi of the Toronto ad agency Gaggi Media. People watch the show, see the winning recipes and then can go to a Loblaw’s store to buy them and try them, Gaggi says. And if they don’t see the show, Loblaw certainly reminds them via ads in its flyers: “Miss this week’s episode?” a recent Real Canadian Superstore flyer asked. “Find out who won the savoury snacks category in-store today!”

Recipe to Riches has taken product- driven shows to a new level. But according to York University marketing professor Alan Middleton, it’s still part of an age-old dance between brands and TV. “In the 1950s you used to have shows on TV about products.” Then came the 30-second TV spots, which ruled advertising for decades. Now, says Middleton, “advertisers think maybe we should go back to whole shows–not necessarily built around the product, but the benefit of the product.”

Producers definitely seem to be coming up with more shows centred around grocery items. This fall, the Lifetime Network in the U.S. picked up Supermarket Stars, in which chefs compete to get their food creations on grocery shelves. Meanwhile, the Discovery Network has parlayed its Dirty Jobs show into a line of Dirty Jobs–branded cleaning products.

For upstart brands, reality TV is particularly appealing. John Rowe, of Charlottetown’s Island Abbey Foods, also went on Dragon’s Den to find investors for his Honibe honey drops. He walked away with a $600,000 investment and a $400,000 loan in exchange for 35 per cent equity in his company. But Rowe also saw his appearance as a way to drive sales. “We didn’t have the marketing budget of a Kraft, Unilever or P&G. The show could give our brand unparalleled exposure.”

He was right. Honibe’s website got 30,000 visits in the 24 hours after the eightminute broadcast in January 2011, compared to 6,000 per month previously. The number of retailers that sold the product, meanwhile, doubled (though winning the prestigious industry award, the Sial d’Or, in Paris around that same time might also have helped).

The effectiveness of reality TV to sell groceries long-term remains to be seen. TV ads can launch a food product overnight, but a series is expensive to produce. Loblaw Companies hasn’t revealed the impact of Recipe to Riches on sales and there are clearly hurdles. “I’ve tried every product on Recipe to Riches,” says Gaggi, “but I was disappointed with the taste of some of them, and some were expensive.”

With Season 2 of Recipe to Riches now airing, guess we’ll just have to watch and see.

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