Pollo Loco bets ‘Apprentice’ is something to crow about

Times Staff Writer

On Sunday night, Donald Trump will go loco.

That’s when the New York developer and his television show “The Apprentice Los Angeles” will descend on Mexican chicken chain El Pollo Loco Inc.

This week’s challenge for participants: marketing a new chicken bowl entree.

“Being a small regional brand, this type of opportunity is great to get national exposure,” said Karen Eadon, chief marketing officer of the Irvine-based company. The 359-restaurant chain is looking to market its name as it launches a major expansion in New England and in the South.

On the weekly NBC show, contestants compete to survive in a different business or marketing challenge each episode. Losers are dumped with Trump’s trademark dismissal: “You’re fired.”


The eventual winner gets a one-year paid apprenticeship with the real estate executive and impresario. The five previous seasons were shot in New York; this year, the locale is Southern California.

Businesses such as El Pollo Loco pay as much as $1 million to insert themselves into the story line of an episode.

For their money, these companies get what professor William H. Crookston of USC’s Marshall School of Business calls a third-party endorsement -- one often far more valuable than a simple product placement or television commercial.

Restaurants are a popular source of business scenarios for “The Apprentice” because “their operations can be exciting and entertaining,” said Mark Burnett, one of the executive producers.

In previous seasons, “Apprentice” contestants created a 30-second jingle for an Arby’s chicken menu offering, sold Outback Steakhouse steaks at a Rutgers University football game and developed a hamburger for Burger King.

“We come up with things that we think will fit the show, and our business development team tries to find a partner to work with,” Burnett said.


The partners typically pay an “insertion” fee, commit to spending money to promote the segment and often agree to purchase commercials, he said.

“But the deals can vary -- there are no hard-and-fast rules,” Burnett said.

El Pollo Loco doesn’t plan to use any of the ideas the contestants come up with. Executives of the chain haven’t even seen an edited version of the episode.

The company, which has restaurants in seven states, has become adept at this form of advertising. It was part of two episodes of the NBC reality show “The Biggest Loser” last year.

Eadon declined to reveal the fees El Pollo Loco paid for its place in “The Apprentice” on Sunday. But advertising experts say fees can range typically from about $400,000 to $1 million or more.

Sometimes this form of advertising inside a reality television program has unexpected results.

Domino’s Pizza Inc. paid $1 million for placement in an “Apprentice” episode two years ago.


In the show, teams competed to create a pizza for the chain. The company also had Trump promote its American classic cheeseburger pizza in commercials during the episode.

“This led to some tremendous exposure for us, and it made Domino’s a really cool brand,” said Tim McIntyre, spokesman for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s.

“ ‘Saturday Night Live’ even did a parody of the Donald Trump cheeseburger pizza commercials.”

But at the same time Domino’s was buying its placement on the show, rival Papa John’s International Inc. purchased time on 64 NBC affiliates in major markets nationwide for a 30-second commercial of its own.

Papa John’s used the time to pitch its meatball pizza in a commercial that asked viewers why they would eat a pizza “made by apprentices when you can call the pros at Papa John’s.”

Allowing Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John’s to grab a slice of Domino’s “Apprentice” pie ranked as one of the biggest advertising gaffes of 2005, trade journal Advertising Age said.


McIntyre, however, said Domino’s investment didn’t backfire.

“We thought it was funny that Papa John’s wanted to advertise on a show that was 28 minutes about Domino’s,” he said.

In “The Biggest Loser,” contestants vie to see who can lose the most weight during the season. In two episodes last year, producers wove El Pollo Loco into the plot as an example of where they said overweight people could find healthful quick-service food.

“Part of the underlying ethos of the show is for contestants to learn how to survive and make good eating decisions in the real world. So we incorporate a restaurant into each cycle of the show,” said Mark Koops, a co-executive producer.

The Subway sandwich chain and Cheesecake Factory Inc. also have made appearances on the series.

But as with anything on television, the success of placements depends on how many eyeballs the series is attracting. Once a runaway hit, “Apprentice” faces stiff competition on rival networks this season and has seen its viewer numbers fall about 17% from last year.

Could viewers be telling Trump and the companies that pay to be in his show, “You’re tired”?