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Lessons from the TV brand builders

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25 July 2016

Red Bee md, Andy Bryant and executive creative director Charlie Mawer on the 20 key rules of TV marketing, promotion and design

At a recent pan-European conference of TV marketers and creatives, we were invited to summarise 20 key points from our new book The TV Brand Builders: How to win audiences and influence viewers. Based on interviews with 50 leading practitioners of TV marketing, promotion and design across 8 countries, the book runs to 344 pages, so the challenge was how to distil it into 20 simple highlights and insights. To reflect the ever-changing nature of our industry, we asked the assembled delegates to suggest the final two lessons.

So, where to start? Well, we kicked off with an optimistic sentiment from one of our interviewees, AMC’s EVP of Marketing Linda Schupack: ‘I am very privileged to be working in what many have called the new golden age of television.’ Our TV Brand Builders are generally positive about the future of the industry we’re all lucky enough to work in.  Despite many recent voices of doom, that optimism extends to the outlook for TV channels. Lesson 1 is believe in TV channel brands. The marketers we talked to recognise the ways in which we, as human beings, cope with excessive choice and how a distinctive TV channel brand can still act as a curatorial filter and provide the short cuts we all need to help us make decisions.

They also believe that TV channel idents still have a role but (lesson 2) it’s important to keep channel idents fresh. One of the channels with the most distinctive personalities is BBC Two. To build on that and keep BBC Two relevant our team has continued to refresh the pool over the past year across programming as diverse as Wimbledon tennis, wildlife documentaries, snooker and a season of programmes about India. In the US, where traditionally idents have not been widely used, we were interested to see that comedy channel TBS recently launched a diverse set of new logo IDs, with their creative director quoted as saying that the art form had ‘fallen by the wayside’ and was set to make a comeback.
Our book research underlined the extent to which channel brands are ‘shapeshifting’, so lesson 3 is to break the traditional rules of interstitial content. Notable examples include MTV’s radical reinvention of their on-screen presentation to adopt what they called a social media aesthetic and the dramatic way in which Channel 4 broke their own brand rules late last year and freed up their famous 9 blocks.

Moving from TV channel brands to promoting drama, not surprisingly this is one of the longest chapters in the book and we could fill several articles with that material alone, but we have picked out the three lessons that struck us the most. The first is this:  unravel the helix of a drama. We talked to FX Networks’s inspirational marketing head Stephanie Gibbons and she described to us the way she and her team work closely with showrunners like Ryan Murphy to understand the underlying themes they thought about before their fingers touched the keyboard. ‘Unraveling the helix’: taking the drama apart strand by strand, understanding the subtexts, the protagonists, the foreshadowing. This approach to marketing dramas produces stunning key art and original promos for shows like Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story.
Lesson 5, again from the drama genre, is to give viewers a glimpse of the future: landing a question at the launch of a series that might be 24 episodes or 7 seasons away from being paid off. When we approach any long-running drama, it is these underlying questions that keep an audience engaged. ‘What is the island?’ (Lost). ‘Will Nucky Thompson be brought to his knees?’ (Boardwalk Empire). ‘Will Don Draper ever be unmasked?’ (Mad Men). ‘Will Gregory House ever cure his own demons?’ (House). When AMC launched the 7th and final season of Mad Men last year they created a specially shot promo featuring all of the main characters on the move. Travelling, restlessness, the search for something, moving on. Resolved in one simple thought: ‘It’s all up in the air’ – a promise that the final season would free itself more than before from the confines of Madison Avenue to set the characters on one last quest. The search for happiness or, if not happiness, at the very least contentment.

Our final lesson from the book on promoting drama is to follow the 3-act structure.   Storytelling gurus like Robert McKee and John Yorke will talk and write at length about the 3-act structure of films, but having interviewed some of the world’s best practitioners in TV drama promotion we thought it worth talking about the 3-act structure in drama trailers. Even if it’s just at an instinctive level, or even to know about it so you can subvert it. This is the 3-act structure for most drama trailers:
-    Setting the stage
-    Presenting the dilemma
-    Intensifying the challenge.

A perfect example is HBO’s launch campaign for True Detective, while our own team’s launch trailer for BBC One’s dramatisation of War and Peace also follows that structure. First we set the stage (life is full of love and laughter), then we present the dilemma (the first hints of war a third of the way through) and finally we intensify the challenge: ‘In the shadow of war, can young lives shine?’

Let’s move from drama to look at highlights from chapters covering the marketing of TV comedy, entertainment, children’s programmes, factual and sport.

Based on our research and experience, comedy is the hardest of all genres to promote, but we were struck by some new trends emerging in comedy promotion, where the talent themselves are freed from the constraints of their show and allowed out into the real world to showcase themselves…to Be Funny. So, for example, the team at Showtime’s House of Lies realised that they had a whole cast of genuinely funny people, so they put together a live tour of improv comedy as a promotional vehicle. 

Similarly, for NBC’s Undateable, Bill Lawrence the showrunner thought it would be a great ratings booster to go on a grass roots comedy promotional tour. This is something we hadn’t seen before in 20 years as a way of launching comedies and so lesson 7 is to take comedy on the road.

Lesson 8 is also inspired by the comedy genre: sell shows with snackable content. Last autumn, when there was a massive shuffling of the guard within the late night line-up in the US networks, the job of replacing the extremely popular Craig Ferguson on CBS’s The Late Late Show was given to someone largely unknown in the USA: British comedian James Corden. Corden and fellow exec producer Ben Winston are super smart: really the first generation of TV execs to get the power of social video as a marketing tool. And they realised that their audience was not an audience that would stay up to watch their show – between midnight 30 and one - it was an audience that consumed their TV in snack size over lunch the next day. So they formatted the entire show around sections that would be desirable in a YouTube environment. Content as marketing collateral. Not just random clips of shows…properly thought through for a millennial audience. Adele and Corden in Carpool Karaoke has a viewing audience as we write of over 110 million.

A natural follow-on point from the role that YouTube and video search must play in any marketing organisation is to talk about the particular challenge facing children’s brands and this leads to our 9th lesson: go where kids go. Children’s channels have to rethink marketing to reach their audience, and our work with brands like DreamWorks and CBBC over the last year has been a lot to do with strategic consultancy about commissioning and scheduling in the on demand, searchable, externally hosted free for all that is YouTube. Subscriber numbers for well known brands’ YouTube channels (Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, even Disney) are currently dwarfed by sites like FunToyzCollector, stampylonghead and LittleBabyBum, so it’s time for kids’ TV brands to get on the front foot, both with marketing and distribution.

Talking about getting on the front foot, it’s clear from our book research that marketing is taking a bigger and bigger role at the heart of TV organisations and the logical end point is lesson 10: the opportunity to refresh shows with marketing-led ideas. An area that we talk about in the book being a particular promotional challenge is big glossy entertainment shows. Every year they come back and, give or take a new judge, there is nothing new to say. Well, in the US, they are starting to let marketing in on the formatting of shows, and nowhere is this more clear cut than in ABC’s blockbuster Dancing with the Stars. Every year the public get to vote off one couple per week by choosing their favourite dancers, so ABC thought…what if half way through the show we let the viewers decide on something more structural - who dances with who…and completely throw things up in the air. Another great example is CBS’s Survivor, which successfully handed over the selection of the entire cast of one season to fans. Programme making driven by marketing thinking.

Our next lesson is to work with the best collaborators. We were struck by a recent conference presentation in LA, when the superb FX Networks team talked about their extraordinary campaign for Every. Simpsons. Ever. This was a massive stunt on FX’s sister channel FXX where, for the first time, every single Simpsons episode and film would be shown back to back…a mind blowing 552 shows continuously. On one slide the FX team thanked the numerous external suppliers they worked with to deliver the campaign. They are unquestionably the best in-house marketing team there is, but it’s a sign of strength that they are confident enough to go outside for the best specialist thinking on any given brief.

Moving from comedy to factual, lesson 12 is to harness the power of ‘day and date’. One of the biggest trends in global TV marketing over the past year or so, driven by the twin demands of global access to social networks and combatting piracy, has been the growth of so called ‘day and date’ launches, in which programmes air across the world on the same day, date, and in some cases at the same time. In the factual world, where it is increasingly difficult to land ‘must see moments’ compared with sports or entertainment, for example, the sense that the world is watching is still a powerful one. We talked to Liz Dolan, CMO of Fox International Channels, about the launch of Cosmos - A Spacetime Odyssey  – which not only aired globally on the same day and date, it aired across the whole Fox and National Geographic family, simultaneously. So, a huge positive in terms of giving an event status and grandeur, but that has to be weighed up against the fact that often local scheduling might see Skywire Live or T Rex Autopsy Live airing in some parts of the world in the middle of the night.

Turning to the promotion of TV sport, we have to mention what we consider to be the greatest campaign in the history of our industry: EPSN’s This Is SportsCenter.  Created by the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy and now running for over 20 years with over 400 spots, it illustrates perfectly our 13th lesson: think like a sports fan. The basic principle is a spoof observational documentary series set in the channel’s Connecticut headquarters, where sports stars work in mostly menial roles alongside the channel’s genuine presenters and backroom staff. Born out of a superbly simple manifesto pledge – ESPN isn’t a large network, it’s a huge sports fan - the campaign is structured to allow for constant refreshment and endless topicality. Furthermore, its speed and flexibility to respond allows scope to deal with the mood swings of those irrational and emotional fans. 
Here’s just one example. Immediately after the 2015 Super Bowl social media exploded with reaction to one weird and particular thing - the dancing performance of one of Katy Perry’s backline from her half time show. One of two dancers, dressed as sharks, was hopelessly out of time and living in their own happy space. Katy Perry’s ‘left shark’ quickly became a massive meme, so within a couple of days ESPN had a promo on air featuring two of their top SportsCenter anchors, dressed in the authentic costumes. We won’t spoil the punchline for you.

In the final section of our book we consider social media and the future of TV marketing. Lesson 14 is to create social buzz with live experiences. Here’s a great example from Bravo in the US, a channel that really understands the power of social. To launch a new show called Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce they spray-painted luxury sports cars with messages from scorned women – ‘we’re over’, ‘you suck’, ‘I’m leaving you’. They put the cars on tow-trucks and drove them round the streets of Manhattan. In the words of Bravo’s top marketer Ellen Stone, from our interview with her, the social media reaction was insane.

When Channel 4 in the UK launched their drama Humans, which is about artificial intelligence, they initially ran a campaign on TV with no branding launching a new brand of artificial humans called Persona Synthetics. And they created a real flagship storefront in London’s main shopping district, where you could interact with the synths and supposedly place an order to buy one of your own, long before they revealed that this was in fact a campaign for a new drama. Again, this generated millions of social media impressions.

Those last two examples showed clever ways to use live experiences to drive social media coverage, but one of the biggest things we learned from our TV Brand Builders about social was that, for established shows, the only place to start is the core fans. That might seem counter-intuitive. Surely the show’s biggest fans will always tune in? Yes, but they are also the people who love the show the most, so lesson 15 is to treat fans as friends and build your social media marketing out from them as your focus. For example, when AMC launched the final season of Mad Men they created the Mad Men Fan Cut, an online project in which the original pilot episode was cut up into short sequences and then offered to fans to ‘claim’ them, shoot their own home made versions and upload them to YouTube. The result was a lovingly crafted cut of the first episode, created by – and, in many cases, starring – Mad Men fans. Only a true friend of the show would go to this much trouble. (The official Fan Cut may be geo-blocked in your region but a YouTube search will reveal many examples of the fans’ contributions).
Our final lesson about social media is that TV brands shouldn’t be afraid to join the conversation. If you try to control social it will eat you up. The smartest TV marketing teams keep a close eye on what is being said about their brand and respond in the same spirit. A great example is from truTV in the US: as they would admit, not the world’s best known channel. As a result, every year when they screen the March Madness college championship they know that thousands of basketball fans are going to tweet comments like this: ‘What channel is truTV?’, ‘and now begins the long, perilous journey to find what channel truTv is on’ and many less polite comments.

So in 2015 the channel decided to launch a preemptive strike by introducing the hashtag #HaveUFoundtruTV. They set up a social war room during March Madness and crafted individual responses to people posting those comments on social media – e.g. ‘congrats, you’re the 10,000th person today to tweet that joke’ – in a way that showed they got the joke. They reached over 32 million people with this campaign – not bad for less well known network.

In the final chapter of The TV Brand Builders we attempt the challenge of making predictions about the future of TV marketing. One of the key observations from our interviews is that, in a world of new competition from online TV, we believe it will become more and more important to (lesson 17) feed your masterbrand. It is going to become a world of fewer, bigger, better…and broadcasters are going to find it more difficult to maintain portfolios of many different individual sub-brands. Both FX in the US and Channel 4 in the UK are examples of networks that have channels and services targeted at different audiences under the banner of an overarching proposition. For FX it is Fearless and for Channel 4 it’s Born Risky. In both cases these propositions are intended to work across the whole brand portfolio. Now, saying your masterbrand is “fearless” or “born risky” means that you have to prove it by taking risks with your marketing, as Channel 4 have proved in recent years with their brand communications. A recent example is their ‘True Colour TV’ film.

The growth of online streaming is changing the TV landscape and the new on-demand brands are exploring new creative territory. Lesson 18 is that, in this new world, it will become more and more important to give your on-demand brand a personality. In the early years most on-demand services have all looked and felt like generic aggregators, but Netflix and Hulu in particular are working hard to differentiate themselves and develop their own brand personalities.

Most readers are probably aware of the Netflix campaign from a couple of years ago based on the line ‘Watch Responsibly’. Well, last year they took this a stage further and encouraged viewers to ‘Binge Responsibly’. If you watched more than two episodes back to back, stars from some of their leading shows, like Michael Kelly from House of Cards, appeared, encouraging people to go outside…or take a break or eat some food. Really smart thinking from Netflix, demonstrating that they understand the role they have come to play in popular culture. We talked to the marketers at rival on-demand service Hulu and they also recognise that success in this market isn’t just about winning the arms race to the best library of content.  They recently launched a campaign with the line ‘Come TV With Us’ to show that they love TV as much as their subscribers. Faced with new competition like this, broadcasters with on-demand services need to be thinking about developing brand personalities that work consistently across all platforms and all devices.

For our last two lessons we looked beyond our book The TV Brand Builders and sought insight at the pan-European conference we were speaking at.  Many sessions underlined the seismic change the TV industry is undergoing and two thoughts struck us in particular. The first was inspired by Jill Gray, Head of Facebook’s UK Creative Shop:  to use her words, ‘optimise for feed.’  She showed a clip from what is thought to be the world’s first ever ‘motion picture’ – a locked off camera on workers streaming out of the Lumière factory in 1895 - and eloquently made the point (with just a hint of exaggeration) that creativity for Facebook’s News Feed is roughly at the same place now as creativity for moving images was back then. Emphasising in particular the creative potential of Facebook’s 360 Video tool, Jill challenged the assembled TV marketers to tailor their work much more to the ways in which our audiences are now consuming content in a multiscreen world.

Our 20th and final lesson was drawn (with some relief for the authors of a book with ‘TV’ in its title) from a panel session called ‘Why Do We Still Call It Television?’ Illustrious future media gurus from Swisscom TV, Sky Italy and Telefónica debated the near-term impact of such things as content in the cloud, predictive search, content discovery and user experience but concluded, emphatically, that we’ll still call it TV.  That panel discussion reminded us of one of our favourite quotes from our book.  As the US essayist and journalist Michael Wolff wrote in his book Television is the New Television, far from being trampled by digital challengers TV has become one of the fastest-growing business sectors, where consumers and advertisers are prepared to pay for ‘the influential, the prestigious, the culturally significant, a business and medium of value, need, originality, and exclusivity’. And TV marketers will continue to play a big role in creating that value by bringing big audiences to hit shows and building distinctive and powerful TV brands.

The TV Brand Builders: How to win audiences and influence viewers by Andy Bryant and Charlie Mawer was published by Kogan Page on 3rd April 2016.



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