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National Geo Ready to Spin Brand Into Gold

Oct 20, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In the coming months, National Geographic Channel will look to improve its brand image-but not as other cable networks of its size have done.
Unlike other midsize cable networks, National Geographic Channel’s problems don’t stem from a lack of brand-name recognition. It’s got plenty of that. What the network doesn’t have is awareness among viewers that the brand is not only a popular magazine but also a cable network.
“When we ask viewers, `Do you watch National Geographic?’ they say, `Oh sure, I watch it all the time … on Discovery,”’ said Steve Schiffman, executive VP of marketing for National Geographic Channel. “We get that a lot.”
The good news is TV viewers see the National Geographic name as the premier place for content, Mr. Schiffman said. But the 50 million-subscriber, 3-year-old cable network needs to be much more than that. Viewers may know the National Geographic name through TV specials or through the “National Geographic Explorer” series on MSNBC, but that’s about all.
“What we need to do is make people realize there is a dedicated channel, a destination, and to get people to move away from thinking it’s just a genre of content,” Mr. Schiffman said.
The channel recently hired Union, a New York boutique advertising agency that will roll out the campaign by early 2004. The Food Network and the NFL are two of Union’s clients.
Viewership research commissioned by National Geographic determined its target viewers are called “new enthusiasts”-those who don’t want to be talked down to and don’t want sensational programming. These viewers want to learn and be entertained about other cultures.
This doesn’t necessarily mean being more hip or cool in any current TV network model.
“`Relevance’ is a good word,” Mr. Schiffman said. “We need to be more relevant.”
“The name recognition and recognition of quality is pretty high, but the acknowledgement that it is a stand-alone cable channel doesn’t seem to have the same cachet,” said Bill Carroll, VP, director of national programming, for Katz Television Group, a New York sales rep company. “The way you get buzz is by having something that is distinctive and unique.”
One way National Geographic is trying to do that is with a reality series called “Worlds Apart,” which started Oct. 6. The show follows the adventures of American families that go to live with indigenous tribes in, for example, Kenya or Papua New Guinea.
National Geographic will walk a fine line as it grows. Typically, one problem a cable network encounters in the process is it broadens into programming arenas that don’t truly represent its brand. “You’ve got to be very careful,” said Rino Scanzoni, president of national broadcast for Mediaedge:cia, New York. “If you go off-brand and you have some problems, if they start doing dating shows, they are in trouble.”
There are no fears that the network will become more like the racier channels associated with Fox, its current majority owner. Fox owns two-thirds of the channel; the National Geographic Society owns the other third. When it comes to programming, marketing and general operations of the channel, executives said, decisions are made jointly.
National Geographic Channel did well in the TV advertising upfront marketplace this past June-doubling its overall advertising take and raising prices by mid-teen increases in costs per thousand.
“We also doubled our sellout level [during the upfront],” said Rich Goldfarb, senior VP of advertising sales for the network. “Automotive continues to be our No. 1 category.”
He said the network has added dozens of new advertisers, including T-Mobile, Acura, Intel, Honda, GE Corp., Land Rover, Cisco Systems and Mastercard.
Media agency executives said National Geographic is primarily an adults 25 to 54 network-which puts it the company of many other networks, both cable and network.
“You can play in a lot of arenas; you have a broad customer base,” Mr. Scanzoni said. “You can play with automobiles, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals [advertisers]. [But] there are a lot of places to go [to reach 25 to 54 viewers]. You are competing with everybody.”
National Geographic has done its share of cross-platform and sponsorship marketing deals with consumer products companies. Duracell is a producer of a U.S. version of a BBC series called “Explorations,” which began airing last month and will run through November. Mr. Goldfarb said Duracell also bought a media schedule.
While no specific product placement exists in the show, its on-air graphics allude to Duracell. For instance, on-air icons featured the positive and negative symbols seen on batteries.
T-Mobile is the official provider of cellphones for the daily news show “National Geographic Today.” The telecommunications company gets on-air credits as well as product placements in the show when on-air talent uses its phones.
As with any growing media company, National Geographic has inked many print and TV cross-platform deals as well.
As part of its upfront deal, Microsoft Corp.’s MSN messenger online service will be used in “Worlds Apart” beginning in 2004. The software company’s “Realizing Potential” campaign also will link up with a new overall company initiative that focuses on young explorers, called “Emerging Explorers,” which will have print and TV editorial components.
National Geographic Channel started relatively late as a cable network-well after the likes of Discovery Channel. Still, National Geographic is making quick gains. Since last year ratings have improved 35 percent, while the number of subscribers has risen 30 percent. The competition isn’t just Discovery and A&E. “We are competing across some 100 channels,” Mr. Schiffman said. It isn’t only nonfiction programming.”