Reinventing the brand-building wheel

For many years, marketing was considered a dirty word in television circles. Creators and dealmakers alike rebelled against the adoption of ideas and jargon formulated in the world of fast-moving consumer goods. But today's crop of TV execs knows that a coordinated brand strategy is the key to maximizing the potential of any asset - whether it's a character, show or channel. And just as important, they know that creativity and marketing aren't mutually exclusive.
March 1, 2003

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For many years, marketing was considered a dirty word in television circles. Creators and dealmakers alike rebelled against the adoption of ideas and jargon formulated in the world of fast-moving consumer goods. But today’s crop of TV execs knows that a coordinated brand strategy is the key to maximizing the potential of any asset – whether it’s a character, show or channel. And just as important, they know that creativity and marketing aren’t mutually exclusive.

There’s such a persuasive logic about this approach that many leading companies in Europe and North America have reorganized their executive ranks into brand teams. One of the most recent converts is London-based HIT Entertainment, which used its absorption of Gullane last year as an opportunity to revamp along brand lines. Following his appointment to chief marketing officer last year, Matt Bostwick implemented a global review of HIT’s brand strategy that resulted in a newly formed Global Brand Team that will lead brand management units across Europe, the Americas and Asia.

‘We had been functionally organized along lines of business – video, publishing, consumer products, production, broadcast sales, etc.,’ says Bostwick. ‘The problem with that is that even with very competent people in all of those areas, the focus tended to be on our partner on the outside.’ While fostering partner relationships is essential to any business, ‘nobody was really thinking about the end consumer as much as they needed to be, nor were they taking a more holistic view of the relationship between our properties and the consumer.’

Bostwick claims that the term ‘brand’ has taken on negative connotations in the entertainment industry related to policing, exploitation and over-commercialization, but his definition is directly linked to the value a property holds in the consumer consciousness. ‘There are a lot of properties out there that used to be brands and have gone back to being properties,’ notes Bostwick. ‘A brand has an active, dynamic relationship with consumers,’ which necessitates a proactive management and sales structure.

So now, instead of one or two traditional licensing executives managing HIT’s relationship with Hasbro, there is a Bob the Builder brand manager that Hasbro can use as its pipeline to all things Bob – product development, TV sales, production, video distribution – as both parties focus on the brand’s forward growth.

In Europe, brand business directors Katie Foster (previously HIT’s U.K. and European consumer products director) and former U.K. and international marketing director Hayley Fraser Mackenzie will lead the brand management teams. Foster is responsible for Bob the Builder, Rubbadubbers, Pingu, Fireman Sam and Art Attack, with Fraser Mackenzie tackling Thomas the Tank Engine, Angelina Ballerina, Barney, Yoko! Jakamoto! Toto! and Oswald.

State-side, HIT’s brand breakdown runs along similarities in style, property positioning and associated partners. Thomas the Tank Engine may be blue and boy to Angelina Ballerina’s pretty girl pink, but together the two brands – which are both specialty-oriented – present a complete, ‘something for each gender’ package for consumers. Live-action, music-centric brands Barney and the Wiggles sit side by side in the U.S. structure, as do Bob the Builder and Rubbadubbers, which share a common production studio (HOT Animation), style (stop-frame animation) and master toy licensee (Hasbro).

Meanwhile, since breaking away from Disney two years ago, L.A.’s DIC Entertainment has increasingly focused on positioning properties like Strawberry Shortcake, Speed Racers and Madeline as brands. Director of brand marketing Jedd Gold says ‘you have to have a brand strategy to leverage your properties across all revenue streams. For every show, we have a high-level meeting in which we identify the essence of a property and build a brand bible around it. After that, every department knows what it needs to do to maintain brand consistency and integrity.’

One of the first organizations in Europe to talk about TV properties as brands was London’s BBC Worldwide, which signed up a raft of career marketers in the early ’90s to manage properties across a range of genres. In kids, the first show to get this treatment was Ragdoll’s preschool phenomenon Teletubbies, closely followed by Tell-Tale’s Tweenies. Mike Dee, head of preschool intellectual property management at BBC Worldwide, was Tweenies’ first brand manager. Today, he is responsible for six brands – including Andy Pandy, Bill & Ben, Little Robots and The Fimbles.

In essence, says Dee, a brand manager is the focal point of all commercial activity surrounding a show. ‘It’s not a hierarchical structure – it’s more like being the hub of a wheel, with information flowing both ways between the brand manager, domestic broadcaster, producer, regional offices, merchandising, publishing, TV distribution and home entertainment.’

The benefits of this set-up are three-fold, he says. Firstly, ‘it gives the company a coordinated approach, so everyone is facing in the same direction. That’s not just about brand positioning, but also logistical details like product release dates and consistency in product design.’

Secondly, the brand manager provides a point of contact for partners, whether they be independent producers, licensing agents or retailers. ‘It can be pretty scary trying to find your way around a big organization, and appointing a brand manager is a way of facilitating that process.’

Finally, says Dee, brand managers can take a long-term view of a property. ‘We look at where the brand could be taken in a year’s time and identify themes that could be amplified at some point in the future.’ This ability to blue-sky is crucial given the day-to-day demands that preoccupy most operational departments.

Gerry Donahue, managing director of London-based Carlton International’s consumer products division, is a former ad agency man who introduced a brand-led approach to the licensing and merchandising part of Carlton’s business three years ago. Before that, ‘we were organized along category lines – which led to a situation where people were focused on one area like apparel, but lost sight of the overall brand picture.’

Like Dee, Donahue has seen direct benefits in shifting kids properties like Mopatop’s Shop and Thunderbirds to a brand-led model. ‘The same people are involved with a property from its pre-launch marketing through to its post-transmission evaluation.’

Not only does this make it easier to manage a property, it can lead to real savings. ‘We link our marketing investment with that of our partners, which means we aren’t spending money on the same things,’ says Donahue. ‘I also think licensees like being able to provide feedback on a coherent plan.’

Aside from cost-savings, Donahue says the brand approach can amplify the impact of each partner’s marketing spend: ‘We can make sure that PR, promotions, press inserts, TV and outdoor ads are staggered instead of coming in a glut. This maintains consumer awareness and extends the lifetime value of a property.’

Although Carlton’s brand strategy resides within consumer products, it plays an active role in the overall rollout of a TV show, stresses Donahue. ‘On each property, I’ll sit down with the TV sales people to ensure we have a strategy in place for each territory we launch into.’

Entertainment Rights’ director of marketing and global brands Len Dunne has also put in place a brand-based model for wholly-owned properties like Postman Pat and Basil Brush, as well as for those where rights are shared – such as Merlin the Magical Puppy and Little Red Tractor.

As explained above, much of this brand science has been lifted from traditional marketing. But Dunne – a former Hasbro man – warns that it has to be applied with greater sensitivity in the content business. ‘You can’t lose sight of the fact that this is fundamentally a creative business. That forces you to be more flexible than if you were launching products or services.’

Sensitivity to creatives is only one area where brand managers must tread softly. With home entertainment and consumer products accounting for 90% of turnover during HIT’s last financial year, it’s easy to see why so much emphasis is placed on holistic brand strategies. But this has to be balanced with the decisive role TV plays in the international rollout of properties – a role which explains why some distributors license their shows to leading broadcasters for such small fees.

TV also provides comfort for partners, says Dunne. ‘Retailers and licensees view TV as crucial to their efforts. So it’s important for me to have a strong two-way relationship with ER managing director Jane Smith, who has great expertise in distribution.’

Whether the brand guardian sits above TV distribution or within consumer products is irrelevant as long as the dialogue between the two is transparent and ongoing. So it’s not surprising that L.A.-based Mainframe USA has appointed Joy Tashjian VP of worldwide sales and marketing, a remit that adds international and domestic TV distribution for properties like Tony Hawk’s Feasters and Betty Boop to her existing licensing activities. And Tashjian will also oversee VP of domestic sales and creative development Alisha Serold, whose remit includes program development in North America.

HIT is also conscious of the need to strike a balance between brands and TV. Although its recent structural shake-up has seen the departure of TV sales chief John Morris and senior VP of consumer products Holly Stein, David Jacobs – the newly installed New York-based brand business group senior VP – has a track record in both consumer products and international TV.

Not only that, he reports to Charlie Caminada – a COO with distribution expertise. Like BBC Worldwide’s Dee, Caminada is clear about the need for a matrix relationship between the different business lines, describing HIT’s New York operation as ‘our new business hub, which will allow us to operate in closer proximity to leading companies in broadcast, publishing and consumer products.’

A central vision for a brand is essential. But it can look distinctly out of touch when transplanted into a foreign territory. Careful decisions must be made about how a property is presented and whether it can be targeted at a different demo. ‘In the case of Basil Brush, it was a big step for us to develop a sitcom around him in the U.K.,’ says Dunne. ‘As we enter into new territories, we’ll need to make more tailored decisions about placing him.’

Dee concurs, stressing that knowing when to defer to local expertise is essential. ‘In Germany, the Tweenies’ dog Doodles has a gruff bark. But we were persuaded by our people on the ground that this was the right way to go with the character. This kind of relationship management is an important part of a brand team’s job.’ HIT also acknowledged the importance of this dimension by appointing former StudioCanal exec Jill Hutchins as director for Germany.

The kids sector’s pragmatic approach to branding is also evident in other ways. For a start, there’s a very big difference between introducing a brand framework to a mature property like Postman Pat (ER) or Thomas the Tank Engine (HIT), and to a new concept like Little Robots (BBC Worldwide) or Rubbadubbers (HIT).

4Kids International chairman and CEO Al Kahn says this is one way in which the TV sector is unique. ‘Traditional brand strategy is usually about winning market share points from rivals. But in this business, you need a flexible enough approach to handle a show’s rapid rise in popularity or subsequent life cycles.’

Kahn claims to have fostered a brand-led environment for eight to 10 years. On bigger properties like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Ultimate Muscle, one person is responsible for the performance of a brand. Newer or smaller properties are managed as part of a portfolio – but this doesn’t make the branded approach any less important. ‘New properties need someone who is responsible for their development,’ says Kahn, ‘otherwise they can suffer because other shows in a stable are hotter. You don’t want to damage a show before it can prove its potential.’

While emphasis on branding is important, it’s crucial to remember that brands don’t exist in isolation from other commercial considerations. Changes in the economic market, ownership structure and the style of programming your company deals in are all factors that can affect the extent to which you adopt a brand-led strategy.

For example, as a public company with an output arrangement with Fox in the U.S., 4Kids has two factors compelling it to keep a steady flow of new brands coming through each year. To a lesser extent, HIT faces similar pressures from its shareholders.

At the same time, 4Kids has become more cautious about the rights it acquires. ‘We used to want worldwide rights on everything,’ says Kahn, ‘but the international market is much tougher now, so we only acquire North American or English-speaking rights on some shows.’

The downside to this is that control of a brand is divided between two or more parties. But the upside is that you can lay your hands on some great properties. In 4Kids’ case, for example, the recent news that it has secured North American rights for TV-Loonland’s Cramp Twins is a classic win-win. 4Kids gets a proven show, while TV-L gets access to the prized Fox Box slot via 4Kids. With 52 episodes produced or in development, this partnership reduces risk for 4Kids and could transform TV-L’s U.S. business.

Corporate ethics also have an impact on brands. Although Sesame Workshop has sought to grow powerhouse brands like Sesame Street, Dragon Tales and Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat, ‘we are not entirely driven by commercial branding,’ says VP of project development Anne Gorfinkle. ‘We want our properties to be commercially successful, but we are also focused on building properties around programs like literacy and fitness.’

As a result, the lead executive on a property is called a project manager rather than a brand manager, since developing a pro-social agenda may often be a priority over issues like product release in Europe. ‘You also have to remember that for us, a key source of funding is public bodies, so we are servicing two very different groups of interests,’ says Gorfinkle.

The good news for Gorfinkle is that it is possible to use mature brands like Sesame Street to achieve social objectives and generate commercial revenues. Individual characters can be introduced into local versions of the show to tackle issues like conflict resolution or AIDS awareness without altering the spine of the show.

At other companies, the approach to branding depends on the volume of content owned and produced. Germany’s EM.TV, for example, has a dual approach. While it markets individual titles like Creep School, Poochini, The World of Tosh and What About Mimi?, it also needs to find a way of exploiting a catalogue that consists of 26,000 half hours of kids content.

Instead of trying to turn it all into individual brands, EM.TV has built an umbrella programming brand called Junior. The beauty of this approach, assuming that the content is up-to-scratch, is that it can perform a consumer-oriented and business-to-business role.

The ultimate goal may be to get a branded block on air, but the business-to-business benefit is that buyers can enter into volume deals with a through-the-line partner with a clearly-defined market position. In October, for example, EM.TV licensed 300 half hours to German kidcaster KI.KA, reinforcing a co-production and programming agreement that EM.TV and ZDF signed in 2000.

Commenting on this deal, Matthias Schulze, managing director of Junior.TV and head of content/marketing, says: ‘EM.TV can meet the needs of broadcasters on a long-term basis with its varied library and flexible client concepts. [We can also] share input in setting up events on- and off-air and arranging joint Internet activities.’

The subject of property brands takes on an interesting dimension when they belong to a vertically integrated outfit. In the case of New York-based Viacom, for example, the development of individual brands is not the be-all and end-all of the company’s business. ‘First and foremost, Nickelodeon is a U.S. and international channel operation,’ says Kathleen Hricik, executive VP of international program enterprises at MTV Networks International. ‘A key priority for us is to produce great shows that our target audience will want to watch on television, regardless of whether they can go on to have some commercial value off-screen.’

Of course, this is not to suggest that broadcast and ancillary exploitation are incompatible. Indeed, Hricik points out that an increasing priority for Nick is to develop properties that entertain kids across media platforms. ‘We need to be conscious that our audience is as likely to see a movie or play a computer game as they are to watch TV. But not every show lends itself to integrated franchise management.’

And in the case of shows that can be developed as entertainment franchises, there is really no set model. ‘SpongeBob SquarePants is one of our biggest hits ever in the U.S. and has generated a huge ancillary business there. In that case, television led the rollout,’ notes Hricik. ‘The key is to have the necessary franchise management structure in place when a show begins to exhibit its potential. Then the aim is to create a strategic link between all business lines.’

Of course, the beauty of Nick’s position is that it does not always have to wait and see if a show is a hit. In the case of Jimmy Neutron, a franchise strategy – encompassing Internet, film and television distribution – was put in place from the outset. ‘The long-term strategy for a property like Jimmy Neutron involves working with free-to-air broadcasters, but the advantage we have is that we can launch a property on our own platforms,’ says Hricik. BBC Worldwide is in the similarly fortunate position of being able to launch kids brands via its domestic networks.

For Hricik, success with the existing portfolio means Nick can expand it in two ways. Firstly, the company is planning on assembling a European team to handle the rollout of properties on the ground. Secondly, it has begun to collaborate on third-party properties. A good example is animated series Yakkity Yak. Co-produced with Australia-based Kapow Pictures and Studio B out of Vancouver, Canada, MTV Networks International owns all distribution rights outside of Canada and Australia.

Large media companies like Viacom, Disney and Time Warner can pretty much extend brands in any direction they choose: TV series like Rugrats have been used as the launchpad for movies, which then re-ignite licensing activity. Disney theatrical films like Tarzan and Beauty and the Beast have provided spin-off TV series and direct-to-video sequels, as well as kick-starting consumer products. And Cartoon Network’s wholly-owned characters have been used in broadcast sponsorships, on packaged goods and as characters in digital interactive games.

All of this places an even greater premium on the role of brand guardian since the more a brand is stretched, the greater the risk it will be devalued. That said, it’s important to know the difference between devaluing and reinventing a brand.

At present, there’s great emphasis on revamping properties with strong legacy attributes such as Scooby-Doo, Pingu, Postman Pat, Winnie the Pooh, Noddy and Thunderbirds. This is also an issue for DIC, which is riding high with Strawberry Shortcake: ‘People are responding well to Strawberry,’ says Gold. ‘The key has been to keep the warm feelings people have about the property, but make it relevant to today’s audiences. That’s where an effective brand team plays a pivotal role.’

As a more general observation, Gold warns that patience is sometimes the key to brand-building. In some cases, the skill is to get to market quickly in response to heightened consumer demand. ‘But usually you don’t build a brand overnight. It may take a while for a property to catch on with consumers – and then it’s all about continuing to work towards the right market opportunity.’

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