From the start, Fox's "American Idol" has had some of the most popular kids on the marketing playground in its corner. Coca-Cola, Cingular (now called AT&T) and Ford all jumped in as the show's sponsors in the first two seasons, and have stayed the course. And as it turned out, those affiliations were only the beginning for "Idol" - whose brand is now said to be worth $2.5 billion a year - and the advertisers who love it.

"Tying in with credible blue-chip brands, being in stores, commercials and so many places is actually a sign that a brand has arrived," notes Tom Meyer, president of entertainment marketing firm Davie-Brown Entertainment. "Companies that have been doing movie marketing tie-ins for years haven't done TV because it hasn't had the same heft as movies. 'American Idol' has achieved that status of being a megastar as big as a movie."

Over the past six seasons, "Idol" has featured top-tier advertisers and
struck deals with a growing number of licensees and promotional partners that have put the show's brand on everything from chocolate bars to potato chips to slow churned ice cream. A deal is also pending to include "Idol" with into McDonald's Happy Meals. All by themselves, the three on-air sponsors generate a windfall for Fox of more than $30 million each for a package that includes TV spots and integration throughout the season.

Combined, the love that advertisers show "Idol" makes the brand big enough to rival tentpole films and top sporting events as one of the industry's most sought-after marketing platforms. Notes Keith Hindle, EVP FremantleMedia Licensing, North America, "We believe our three integrated marketing deals are the biggest deals for any TV show in the world outside of the Olympics."
Jean Rossi, president of Integrated sales and marketing for Fox Entertainment Group, notes that the three sponsorships amount to an opportunity for Coke, Ford and Cingular to "associate with what is in essence a mini-Super Bowl each week in terms of reach and potential."

But of course there is much more to "Idol" than just on-air sponsorship. Kellogg's Pop Tarts brand pays a hefty sum every year as the presenting sponsor of the "American Idol" tour that takes place after the season ends. And deals with 45 U.S. licensees, up from three the first season, yield retail sales of $65 million a year and put the "Idol" name on shelves at toy, apparel, music and video game stores. Recent deals announced by FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment include six new off-air promotional partners including Nestle chocolate bars and Pringles potato chips. Brands are said to be spending more than $1 million each for the rights to feature "Idol" on their packaging.

"They realize they have a golden goose and they're going to lay as many golden eggs as possible without hurting themselves or the brand," confides one entertainment marketer.

Still, it's a fine line. Slapping "Idol" logos on millions of packaged goods, in thousands of restaurants, or as part of numerous media campaigns risks overkill with the public, which can be quick to turn on a brand once the saturation level has been reached. Mark Brittain, head of commercial, "American Idol" at 19 Entertainment, says they're not there yet.

"If people watching the TV show go to retailers and see the 'American Idol' logo, it adds to the huge excitement of 'American Idol' and makes it an even bigger event than it already is," he asserts. "It really does reaffirm 'American Idol's' place at the heart of the fabric of American life."

So far, he's right. Marketing and branded entertainment experts concur that Fox, FremantleMedia and 19 have in fact done an exceptional job of protecting the franchise. The limit on in-show integration to three blue-chip advertisers is a key component, they say; viewers now see the longtime sponsors as an integral part of "Idol."

Three was the magic number, says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vp and entertainment director of Starcom USA, who notes that the show experimented with having more integration partners such as Old Navy and Subway in its second and third seasons, but quickly backed off. And Fremantle and 19 executives say they have turned away many more potential marketing partners and licensees than they have made agreements with.

"We have not grown this program to hundreds of licensees and have kept it to three very simple criteria," says David Luner, SVP interactive and consumer products for FremantleMedia Enterprises, North America. "Every licensed item we do has to involve music, role play or lifestyle. It was a conscious decision from the very inception not to do a licensing deal unless it enhanced the brand in some way. We're looking at this as a long-term piece of the 'American Idol' franchise, not short-term revenue."

By contrast, many tentpole films and even hit TV properties like fellow Fox show "The Simpsons" frequently have hundreds of licensing partners.

Marketers indicate that Fremantle and 19 have also been savvy in partnering with iconic brands that bring their own credibility to the show, and cautious about monitoring and limiting both on-air integrations and off-air marketing campaigns.

"They're very protective of their brand so it's not abused or degraded or marginalized by the brand partners," says Mike Malone, VP at entertainment marketing firm Alliance. "There are a lot of rules and regulations; things we can and cannot do."

The brands themselves claim they are only too happy to oblige, and proceed with caution. "The last thing we want is Coke sticking out there in a way that isn't right for the show or for us," says Katie Bayne, senior vp for Coca-Cola brands.
And as far as "Idol's" new off-air promotions go, six is considered quite a small number of partners compared to the lineups of major sporting events or tentpole films. Marketers say consumers actually welcome the tie-ins for the most part, especially if they offer up "Idol"-related bonuses such as chances to win free tickets to the finale, "Idol" merchandise or opportunities to further interact with the show. And Hindle insists the tie-ins are helping to turn "Idol" into a year-round property.

While it is too early to tell which of the new promotional partnerships will be the most successful, there is clear-cut consensus that Cingular has reaped the greatest benefits of the integration partnerships. Unlike Coke and Ford, Cingular's integration generates significant revenues from the show, as viewers are invited to vote via text messages every week. Cingular also offers its customers "Idol" downloads, ringtones and this season, video of bad auditions and performances the day after they air. "Idol" videos have already become the most popular offering on Cingular's video service, company reps note.

"Cingular is also getting an indication as to whether they're really reaching consumers because they can count the number of downloads," says Phil Branch, director of operations for entertainment marketing firm Set Resources. "They can quantify how successful it is. You can't always do that with promotions."

Last season 64.5 million "Idol" text messages flew across the Cingular network, up from 7.5 million the second season - the first time Cingular was fully integrated into the show. "We use Idol as a way to get people to trial new products," says Dave Garver, executive director of national marketing and sponsorships for Cingular. "We started with text messaging, then downloadables, ring tones, graphics and now we're using it to message the availability of mobile video." Cingular even gets "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest to aid in its rebranding efforts, providing the show's only fully scripted moments.

Ford and Coca-Cola's integrations are not as obviously successful, but clearly have had a significant impact on the brands, if for no other reason than the massive reach of the show. This season, Ford is using the show as a platform to launch a new vehicle, The Ford Edge. "(The vehicle) needs to get awareness and we know 'American Idol' can deliver that," says Myles Romero, director of Ford Global Brand Entertainment. "It speaks to how relevant the show is to us from a marketing and messaging perspective."

Coca-Cola, meanwhile, hasn't done too badly for itself either. Largely due to "Idol," Coke is the most frequently-placed brand on network television. "Just the sheer volume of the integration is incredible," says Bill Hilary, president Magna Global Entertainment. "It's probably one of the best-known and biggest integrations ever."

According to "Idol" execs, the show's many advertiser associations are not harming it at all - as evidenced by "Idol's" powerhouse ratings - and in fact, have most likely helped the series get where it is today.

"Idol has stayed as strong as it is because of the sponsors' involvement and the collaborative marketing support," says Fox's Rossi. "It actually enhances the show."