USA Network: 25 Years: Forging a Better Bond

Jun 27, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

USA Network is trying again this month to make a name for itself.

The 25-year-old channel has announced plans to publicly unveil a new branding campaign on-screen July 8, but it has been teasing viewers and the media with snippets for weeks. The campaign, highlighted by a new logo and a “Characters Welcome” tagline, is designed not only to promote USA’s original programs but to employ the shows’ stars as marketing tools to forge a new relationship with viewers.

The network began setting up viewers for the change with brief announcements in the second-season premiere of “The 4400” in early June. Reporters and advertisers received a sneak preview at a June 20 press event, while the rest of the world gets a gander this week, courtesy of a national trade and consumer ad campaign estimated to cost about $8 million.

Executives at USA, perennially one of cable’s highest-rated networks, have for years danced around the conventional wisdom that they needed to establish a strong brand statement. As one of the few remaining general entertainment services on cable, USA looks more like a broadcast network than a traditional niche cable channel.

“We have done a great job at marketing and promoting and coming up with these great original shows, but we have never taken that extra step of telling people what USA is and what we stand for,” said Chris McCumber, the network’s senior VP of marketing and brand management.

Gone is the channel’s longstanding American flag logo, replaced by a new trademark in which the “S” in “USA” becomes a window that Mr. McCumber said can reflect individual characters and show “what’s going on at the network,” he said.

“In our research, our viewers told us adamantly to ditch the flag, and we could not agree with them more,” he said.

Mr. McCumber said USA viewers love characters such as quirky detective Adrian Monk (“Monk”), played by Tony Shalhoub, and alien abductee Maia Rutledge (“The 4400”), portrayed by Conchita Campbell. The trick, he said, is to figure out a way to get viewers to extend that favorable impression to the network that delivers those personas into their homes.

Focusing a marketing campaign on fictional characters is a bit of a departure for a cable programmer, which typically would attempt to build an image around a programming genre. The lack of a definable style is at once USA’s strength and perhaps one of its greatest weaknesses.

“We decided that rather than focus on one genre, which niches us down and excludes people, we wanted to talk about our general entertainment roots in a way that not only gives the network an identity [but] gives people a reason to have a relationship with the network,” Mr. McCumber said.

Independent Atlanta production artist Todd Fedell came up with the design for the new logo. Mr. Fedell was formerly VP and creative director of USA Network’s in-house design group.

USA will back the on-screen changes with a direct mail blast targeted to key ad sales clients, cross-promotional spots on other NBC Universal channels and a national print advertising campaign coordinated by the network’s media agency, Media Kitchen in New York.

A redesigned Web site will play a key role by encouraging viewers to build their own online character community by posting personal videos, photographs and music.

“We really don’t see all of this as a great change,” Mr. McCumber said. “We are simply building on the success that we have had. It’s not an about-face, it’s something that will be familiar to our viewers, but will be better.”

While Mr. McCumber and USA Network President Bonnie Hammer tout “Characters Welcome” as USA’s initial attempt at a branding statement, there have in fact been others over the years, yielding varying degrees of success.

In 1993 USA launched what was at the time described as its “first-ever brand image campaign,” which carried the tagline “Escape With Us.”

“There comes a time when you have to step out and portray an image to the public. You have to carve out an identity,” former USA marketing chief Andy Besch said at the time. The network committed about $5 million to that effort, which included the purchase of prime-time ads on NBC, commercials in a handful of syndicated shows, some local spot TV buys and movie theater ads.

Three years later the network kicked off a short-lived “USA Studios” campaign meant to underscore USA’s commitment to original shows. On-screen announcements developed around a movielike theme and purported to take viewers behind the scenes of popular shows such as “Duckman” and “Silk Stalkings.” Kay Koplovitz, the network’s founder and CEO at the time, described the campaign as a way to “punch through people’s consciousness so that they know we’re here.”

A year later, however, a group led by media mogul Barry Diller acquired the network and the “USA Studios” campaign faded to black. Mr. McCumber said the “Characters Welcome” campaign would have much more staying power.

“This is an ongoing process,” he said. “Years from now, we want this to remain a living, breathing part of our network.”