Nets wake up to expansion possibilities

It goes way beyond the screen....

It goes way beyond the screen.

Watching, listening, wearing and playing – this is what TV networks and specialties expect viewers to do with their brands these days.

The more sophisticated TV-based brand extensions – where ancillary products such as videos, CDs, games, books, Web sites, clothing, consumer products and movies are spun off from the original brand – are becoming prevalent right now, but the idea behind them is as old as branding itself. ‘Brands can help sell other brands,’ says Dave Ballingall, VP of marketing for SportsNet. ‘I’m very much a believer in that.’

It’s no surprise that Ballingall, who originally comes from a packaged goods background (nine years with Nestlé Canada), would support the notion that a solid brand is the best environment in which to enhance an advertiser’s message. But he’s not alone. It seems that every TV and cable network these days is desperately trying to extend its brand so that it has more resonance with viewers and advertisers alike. Creating a pervasiveness – where a brand’s extensions drive tune-in and vice versa – is the goal. It’s a strategy that is critically important in the crowded television environment.

‘It’s not like television was 20 years ago when there were four channels and the loyalty went really deep,’ says Ballingall. Today’s TV network needs to be where its customers are – or it risks losing them altogether.

For its part, SportsNet has just announced a syndication deal in which regional radio stations will broadcast SportsNet branded newscasts. ‘We’re spring-boarding from our brand to become a sports department for radio stations across the country,’ says Ballingall.

The deals have not yet been signed but the emphasis will be on stations that fit into the personality profile of the SportsNet audience. SportsNet is seeking a young, fun, passionate and irreverent positioning for its sports broadcasts.

Along with the radio endeavour, SportsNet has a Web site that complements the TV offering with a regional focus. The specialty has also just launched a daily online newsletter that links back to the site.

But it won’t stop there. For inspiration, Ballingall says he looks towards networks in the U.S., which have been leading the TV brand extension parade. A property like Fox Sports, for example, has an energy and style that is uniquely its own and immediately identifiable, he says. ‘They’ve established a feel for themselves so people tuning in know what to expect.’ That’s the higher branding ground for which SportsNet is aspiring.

On the whole, cable networks such as SportsNet actually have a built-in advantage over less focused national broadcasters like Fox when it comes to brand extensions. Because they feature niche programming, they have a much easier time crafting a brand identity and sticking with it through extensions.

New York-based kidcaster Nickelodeon is a textbook case. Originally just a kids channel, the Nick empire now includes Web sites, several kids magazines, books, CDs, consumer products of all kinds (including bestseller Nick Slime) and even a movie-making arm, which has already fathered a slew of films, including two Rugrats flicks. These extensions are so well developed that the whole revenue structure for Nick has changed: TV advertising is now just one of many income sources.

Regular networks, on the other hand, have a tougher challenge. They tend to have a stable of brands, which are associated with distinct programming blocks or properties, rather than a brand that identifies the overall network (for example, see ‘Content dictates extensions at CBC’ on page B14).

Still, while Canadian nets Global and CTV have yet to establish strong, multimedia brand extensions for sports, kids or lifestyle blocks, Fox, which created successful extensions for such properties as Fox Sports and Fox Kids, shows that when it’s done right, the payoff is enormous.

Doug Yates, SVP of marketing for Fox Kids and Fox Family, knows this only too well. Fox Kids is only on the air for 14 hours a week, so it’s critical that brand extensions successfully drive traffic, he says. ‘We don’t have the luxury of always being there – kids have to find us.’ And, unlike many of its cable counterparts, Fox Kids is not ‘on’ as soon as a button is pressed. If kids aren’t aware of the programming schedule, they’re just as likely to tune into Fox programs such as Divorce Court or Cops as they are Digimon.

Trust marketing-savvy Fox to go into the endeavour with its eyes wide open. Before it even launched Fox Kids programming 10 years ago, it went about collecting names for a Fox Kids Club, according to Yates. Members of the club – which today number five million (more than all the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides across the U.S. put together) – receive a free quarterly magazine.

The magazine, which averages about 40 pages and is advertiser-supported, features games and editorial that revolve around Fox Kids shows and stars, he says. ‘It helps us extend the experience.’

The magazine also ties into the Fox Kids Web site (www.foxkids.com), launched in 1995 and consistently ranked as one of the stickiest sites for the target market, thanks to its plethora of games, all revolving around Fox Kids properties. While games attract kids, the critical component is that they also tie into the overall brand. ‘Our brand is about action/adventure and prankster comedy,’ Yates says. ‘Games fit well into that identity.’

To take it a step further, both the magazine and on-air programming feature regular game passwords that kids can use online to enhance the experience. For example, a password might provide players with a bonus turn or even take them into another game altogether. Fox marketing executives picture their target audience, who enjoy being ‘in the know,’ showing friends what they can do online with the passwords.

Yates says that the key to any successful extension is to ensure that it’s consistent with what’s happening on the network. When the company re-branded the Web site two years ago, using iconography to represent different themes or subjects, the look was carried through to the magazine, for example. ‘It’s very important that all extensions work as a unit,’ he says.

Licensing is obviously huge with Fox, which broke the mould with Saban’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the 1980s. ‘That’s pretty much what the company was built on,’ says Yates. Now, the organization has an entire floor of its New York offices devoted to its consumer products division, he says. Everything you can possibly imagine is spun out from that floor and tied into its various hot programming properties, like Power Rangers and Digimon.

However, there is such a thing as over-extending – and diluting – a brand. ‘The system for Fox, so that it doesn’t over-extend itself, is to remember the audience,’ says Yates. Having a presence on TV, online and in magazines makes sense, as does adding in any products they can fit in a kid’s room, he says. But that’s where it ends. ‘These businesses exist for the sole purpose of supporting the mother-ship, which is our network,’ he says.

Television must lead the way when considering brand extensions, agrees Walter Levitt, VP of marketing for Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting, the parent company of History Television and HGTV. ‘It starts from what we have on TV,’ he says. ‘The question then becomes: Where else can we reach them and extend our brand?’

In HGTV’s case, there is obviously a Web presence (www.hgTV.ca), but regional home and garden shows are also a natural fit. By maintaining a significant presence at such events, HGTV ensures that it’s reaching its target audience. ‘We take the HGTV TV brand and experience to our customers,’ he says. HGTV personalities also play a big role in nailing down the brand’s personality at these shows.

At History Television, the brand extension has been taken to the skies. For the past four years, Air Canada flights have showcased History properties from various theme nights. For example, Monday night travellers enjoy vignettes from 20th Century Mondays, while Tuesday fliers can tune into excerpts from Ancient History Tuesdays. The specialty’s target audience is upscale and curious Canadians (skewing male) – so it’s no surprise that many of them are frequent travellers. The other bonus is that the passengers are essentially a captive audience.

Another hot History property that’s ripe for extension is Pioneer Quest, a popular quarterly reality show featuring four brave souls trying to survive using tools and appliances from the 1870s.

‘The company decided to launch a Web site for the show which takes the experience one step further,’ says Levitt. Viewers can log on to the site (pioneer.history.ca) to find out more about the ‘pioneers,’ get updates on how they’re faring, cast votes on various hot topics and even pass on survival tips, he says. Visitors can also register for weekly e-mail newsletters. ‘It’s all about taking the TV brand and putting it into a different medium to move the audience forward.’

The company has also published its first branded book, The Canadians. Based on the network’s original biography series, the book is clearly a History Television extension and even features a foreword written by the series’ narrator and host, Patrick Watson.

Levitt says that in the broadcasting world, as everywhere else, it’s all about brand. The key, as always, is to ensure that any extension doesn’t just make business sense – but common sense. ‘You start from the original brand and you seek permission from the target audience,’ he says. ‘We need consumer approval.’