Topic of branding is red-hot at CTAM

Jul 30, 2001  •  Post A Comment

If anything was heard more than the C-word at last week’s CTAM Summit in San Francisco, it was the B-word.
“Convergence” may be the cable industry’s Holy Grail, but “branding” is the tool advertisers will rely on ever more in the coming wired world.
The broadband future will bring not just all manner of video on demand but also a choice among literally thousands of channels, if prognosticators like Barry Schuler, America Online’s chairman and CEO, are right.
With consumer choice and control expected to expand exponentially as broadband and other nascent technologies such as personal video recorders take hold, branding-not surprisingly-has become a familiar touchstone in a changing world for advertisers, marketers and consumers alike.
Brands are “sustainable competitive advantages,” said Steven Schiffman, executive vice president of marketing for The Weather Channel, who, with his colleague Kiera Hynninen, the channel’s vice president of consumer marketing, taught a CTAM Master Course on branding at the Summit.
“As you get more technologies, the brand actually becomes more critical,” said Mr. Schiffman, who came to the cable industry from Kraft Foods, where he was a senior brand-management director. Kraft is the largest branded food and beverage company headquartered in the United States and the second largest in the world.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Schiffman has strong, informed opinions about which networks are branding correctly and which are not. When it comes to branding, research is crucial, and “going with a gut call about who the consumer is can be very, very dangerous,” he said.
CNN Headline News is one familiar cable brand that’s rebranding, and Mr. Schiffman warned that CNN, which has to contend with all-news cable competitors Fox News Channel and MSNBC, has to “worry more about the base brand CNN as opposed to worrying about its offshoots, like CNN Headline News.”
Mr. Schiffman distinguished between “utility” brands and “identity” brands.
“Utility is more generic, easily copied; [it doesn’t] really resonate necessarily with consumers,” he said.
On the other hand, “identity is more like what ESPN has done. ESPN isn’t about sports scores; it isn’t about breaking sports news. What ESPN is about is being a sports fan. So Fox Sports can go on [the air], CNNSI can go on, local and regional sports programs can go on, but ESPN still stays strong. Why? Because [at ESPN] they understand that the brand ESPN is more about relating to fans and being fans themselves and having their on-camera people be fans than it is about providing up-to-date sports information, which is a commodity, a utility.”
Utility brands offer a functional relationship to the viewer, with the promise of providing useful information; the problem, though, is that a competitor always can come along who is even more useful. So ultimately, Mr. Schiffman said, utility is “death” for a brand. On the other hand, identity brands have an “emotive” relationship to the viewer. They offer the “promise of an experience” and a feeling, and they inspire loyalty in the face of competition.
As for CNN and its traditional promise of breaking news first, “Just being first doesn’t cut it,” Mr. Schiffman said. “It’s how do you create this connection with consumers in such a way that when competition comes in there’s still a reason why a consumer wants to turn to you.”
CNN has to “find the sweet spot,” he said, “with programs that really have an impact on what consumers really care about, and not define themselves necessarily as breaking news, the world news leader.”
Another cable channel with a pressing brand concern is the Fox Family Channel, about to be rebranded as ABC Family under its new owner, The Walt Disney Co. “The Disney brand is a hell of a lot stronger brand than the Fox brand,” Mr. Schiffman said, “because the Disney brand means family entertainment. Of course, Fox doesn’t.”
Disney “gets branding,” Mr. Schiffman said. Disney “means family fun,” so when the company’s movie division wanted to make action films and more adult-themed pictures it created new brands-Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures-as vehicles for them.
Ad-supported cable networks that also “get it” include TNT, recently rebranded under the promotional tagline “We Know Drama.” “But it gets kind of dicey when they start showing NASCAR,” Mr. Schiffman said. “So the question is, do consumers think that NASCAR is dramatic?”
Viacom gets it too. In Mr. Schiffman’s view, the Viacom acquisition of BET was all about acquiring a strong “identity” brand. “That was really the distribution and the brand that Viacom spent $3 billion for,” Mr. Schiffman said. “It wasn’t the programs.”
Other cable networks that know and exploit their brand value include HGTV, Nickelodeon, The Game Show Network and, of course, his own Weather Channel, according to Mr. Schiffman. Networks can “monetize” the value of their brands, he said, by developing “promotional programs that … allow an advertiser to borrow that equity of the brand, so they’re not just buying media from you, they’re buying a relationship with your consumers that watch your network.”
How important are brands in Mr. Schiffman’s view? “Long-term, you’d rather have a great brand [than a hit show],” he said. “`Survivor’ lifts CBS, but it should be the other way around.”