One of the challenges in entertainment is building a brand. On the theatrical and home entertainment side, the titles change and it can sometimes feel like you are starting from scratch with each new release. Disney may have a leg up on everyone else because of their overall brand and audience recognition, but often even that doesn’t work (see JOHN CARTER, SORCERER’S APPRENTICE.) On the network side, unless your programming is all about the same thing – like food, home and garden or cartoons – you often have to rely on marketing your shows as mini-brands. Sometimes you can get away with promoting comedy night or reality night, but with those, its hard to differentiate one network from another. USA Network has overcome that challenge and has been doing well since they established their core with Characters Welcome in 2005 and have been expanding on it ever since.
Perhaps it started with the syndicated airing of MONK episodes – a heavy character piece starring Tony Shalhoub – was one of their most-watched shows. They not only focused on the strong character theme in their marketing, but in their programming. With a string of original shows featuring strong characters, starting with PSYCH in 2006, through to other shows that were light on drama and heavy on character (BURN NOTICE, IN PLAIN SITE, ROYAL PAINS, SUITS) – not only did the audience know what they would find, it was clear what the network executives were looking for in both original programming and syndication. With the emphasis on character, it isn’t totally about programming fads or copycat programming.
That consistent, clear direction works throughout its marketing as well. Wayne Friedman talked about network branding in his blog yesterday, focusing on the non-scientific polling of his wife. When he asked what her favorite network is, she took a moment to scroll in her mind through all the programs from disparate networks, hemmed and hawed, and ultimately stated, “No, wait. It’s USA. It’s about the characters. The shows are fun and light.” Friedman was right that her response is derivative of the network’s content and tag line, but much more of it comes from their consistent messaging and experiences in their marketing extensions – and it goes even further than that…
Everything ties to character. They have won awards for their digital extensions of the theme and keep pounding away at the character moniker throughout their messaging. So, that consistency alone should be enough, but they leverage the messaging to actually go above and beyond in ways that help their bottom line.
They extend the theme into non-profit and PSA territory in a way that’s organic and meaningful. They have shown the spotlight on characters that make a difference through their Character Project – a series of short films – and in their PSAs under the Characters Unite campaign.
The PSA series has been USA’s campaign against prejudice and racism and promoting tolerance and acceptance. An interesting point is that they are able to involve celebrities that are not even on their network for the cause, bringing in different viewers than usual. One key example is the involvement of NFL players though the network has no NFL connection. There is even a city-to-city tour going on right now that brings celebrities around to live events as part of a national storytelling tour.
In the end, they leverage every opportunity to prove that Characters are Welcome and key to their existence. It helps across the board as everyone knows what they are getting then they either go to watch shows or sell them to the network. It is certainly easier for a more pointed network to pull this off than a broadcast network that needs to be broad in its nature. The same could be said for studios that have to have somewhat of a broad output of properties. What stands out is that USA not only defined a tag line, but a governing rule of thumb for their entire being. The campaign has been going for 7 years and does not seem to have any signs of stopping. You’d be hard pressed to find another example of that overall branding success for a network or studio. In doing so, USA overcame the inherent challenges in branding entertainment and even took it a further step beyond.