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Staples moves into The Donald's office

Staples Inc. to The Donald: You're hired!

Tonight the Framingham office-supply chain will be at the center of NBC's ''The Apprentice," giving the five remaining would-be apprentices the task of inventing an office product that makes it easy for people to clean up their clutter.

The latest in a string of companies to pay for ''The Apprentice" treatment this season, Staples is counting on the nearly 45 minutes of prime-time network airtime to get the company's message across that it's a store that makes life easy with a new generation of office products.

'' 'The Apprentice' has become such a pop culture phenomenon," said Stacie Bright, senior communications marketing manager for Unilever's Dove soap. ''The show is a real chance to create buzz and awareness for a new product."

Dove's Cool Moisture Body Wash was featured on an earlier episode, and even though Donald Trump's minions failed at the task of creating a TV commercial for the new product, Dove emerged a winner. The soap brand debuted its own ad for the body wash before the episode's final boardroom scene. ''Apprentice" watchers then flocked to Dove's website after the episode, generating 3,000 clicks per second and signing up for 400,000 free samples.

Advertisers dream about the kind of demographics ''The Apprentice" delivers. It is the most-watched show on television among highly educated households with incomes of $75,000 or more, according to NBC. With 14 million viewers each week, it routinely ranks in the top 10 among 18- to 49-year-olds.

No one involved in the show will say how much it costs to get the starring company spot, but it has been reported that companies pay an estimated $2 million to $2.5 million.

At today's prices for network airtime, that's the equivalent of eight to 10 30-second spots. Compare four to five minutes of commercials to being featured on an hourlong primetime show (minus roughly 15 minutes of commercials) and being on the show seems a real bargain.

But as the show crosses over from entertainment into infomercial, Geoffrey Klapisch, vice president of Boston advertising and marketing consultants Fulgent Media Group, said the value of that $2 million wanes.

''Advertisers underestimate the sophistication of viewers today," Klapisch said. ''Sure you're getting a high-profile position and imbedding yourself into the show's storyline.

''But the more it's done, the more it becomes a part of the woodwork."

This season, real estate mogul Trump decided to pit college graduates (known as the Magna Corp. or the Book Smarts) against entrepreneurs with no more than high school diplomas (aka the Net Worth Corp. or the Street Smarts). In each episode, the winning team survives to see another week on the show while a member of the losing team gets called to the boardroom to hear Trump's trademark, ''You're Fired!" The last surviving apprentice gets to work for Trump.

Sometimes the companies featured got more than air time. Last week's star company, General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac, not only sold out its first 1,000 Solstice Roadsters the day after the episode, it is using the winning team's brochure at Pontiac dealerships nationwide. Home Depot Inc. rolled out the winning team's idea of building a storage box to raise awareness of its in-store, how-to clinics.

''The Apprentice" approached Staples more than a year ago to discuss the possibility of developing a task for the show. At the time, the company had just launched Invention Quest, a contest to come up with new ideas for office products. The winner would receive a cash prize of $25,000, and royalties on any sales of the product.

The contest was part of the company's growing focus on Staples branded products. Known in the industry as ''private label," an in-house brand allows retailers to cut out the middle man, sell a product for less than a national brand, and reap more profit.

In the past year, Staples branded products have grown to 15 percent of total sales, or more than $2 billion in sales, from 13 percent. The company has begun rolling out new packaging, casting aside the all-red Staples design for red, blue, and gold packaging intended to convey the distinction of a leading national brand.

With a research and development budget that is now in the millions of dollars, the retailer is jazzing up office basics like retractable pens with color and design; developing paper that can be used in both laser and inkjet printers; and introducing products like its One-Touch Stapler, which drove a 40 percent increase in its stapler sales last year.

By getting on ''The Apprentice," Staples would not only promote its private-label brand but also call attention to its focus on innovative office products that rivals won't have. Staples will begin selling the winning product from tonight's program online immediately after the show and in select stores tomorrow.

Its secret is being held so closely that the product isn't being shipped to stores until the last possible moment.

Though Staples executives know what the product is -- the episode was filmed in November so they had four months to develop and manufacture it -- they aren't talking.

On the day of the shoot, Staples executive vice president of marketing Shira Goodman and president of its US stores Demos Parneros flew into New York on the first shuttle out of Boston and began filming with Trump at 9 a.m. The entire episode was filmed by the end of the following day.

''There was no makeup, no lines, no nothing," Goodman said. ''If we weren't in the scene, we don't know what happened."

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com.

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