YTV wins kids with beasts, bugs and branding

'Anyone with half an eye and an arsehole, as the expression goes, should recognize that they've done something pretty impressive,' says president of Toronto-based Youthography, Max Valiquette, about YTV.

‘Anyone with half an eye and an arsehole, as the expression goes, should recognize that they’ve done something pretty impressive,’ says president of Toronto-based Youthography, Max Valiquette, about YTV.

Asked what the net does well, people in the industry inevitably point to three things: The first is YTV’s seamless branding, not only on the air, but also on the Internet, in print, and through its live tours and events. The second is its well-developed kid-friendly positioning, summed up by the ‘Keep it Weird’ tag. The third is the net’s recognition that it has to talk with kids, not at them.

While YTV has stuck to these three defining principles pretty much since its inception, this last year saw them polished to the point where there seems to be universal agreement that YTV is the top kid-media outlet in Canada.

‘Clearly, in terms of the competitive category that they operate in,’ says Doug Newell, SVP, media buying operations at Toronto’s Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell, ‘YTV has understood its consumer better that the competition, and it has communicated a unified brand identity better than the competition.’

The numbers bear this out. According to Nielsen Media Research Canada, YTV is the overall number-one channel for kids aged two to 11 in Canada, it has the number-one after school kid programming block (‘The Zone’), and the highest weekend morning ratings for kids.

Despite saturation (YTV is already available in over 8-million Canadian homes) and an increasingly competitive kids’ media environment, the overall tune-in share for Corus kid properties (YTV and Treehouse TV) has grown by 5% this year to date versus the same period last year. Not only that, but YTV’s most recent brand extension, its BigFunPartyMix CD, rocketed way past expected sales: the first CD sold more than 150,000 units since its February, 2000, launch, and the sequel CD, launched last March, is already topping 100,000 units.

Other positive indicators include the fact that the net gets over 100,000 e-mails a year from kids, airs 17 of the top 20 kid shows in Canada, and was rated favourite station overall by kids six to 11 in a Tandemar Research study commissioned by the net last November.

Sales wise, YTV is experiencing annual revenue growth in excess of 10% and, perhaps even more importantly, the net is continuing to persuade companies that have never before marketed directly to kids in Canada to join their roster of partners and on-air advertisers. In the last year alone, 12 new clients, including such companies as Weston, Fererro (Nutella) and Swiss Chalet, have joined YTV thanks to the sales department’s Kidfluence program.

The people behind these accomplishments include VP of marketing Susan Schaefer, creative director Dolores Keating-Mallen, director of marketing Laura Baehr and director of co-marketing Tim Cormick. YTV is somewhat unique in that much of the marketing is not only planned but also executed in-house, and Schaefer is quick to point out that ‘the magic behind YTV’ is largely the result of a wealth of creative talent across its departments.

Schaefer herself, who joined YTV back in 1998, comes from the consumer packaged goods world, as does television president Paul Robertson and Corus CEO John Cassaday. She says that her 10-year stint at Cadbury ‘was a great training ground for marketing and branding, because in that world, the brand is king.’

YTV is well known for pushing the envelope through such endeavours as its annual PsykoBlast concert tour (which went national this year), its ‘Weird on Wheels’ promotional tour, its Whoa! magazine, and its CDs. But perhaps YTV’s invasion by the Yokomites this past spring best shows how the net puts its tripartite approach of seamless branding, wacky/fun positioning and audience interaction into play.

‘Yokomites are these little green bugs – robotic, 3-D CGI animated bugs,’ says Schaefer, ‘and they invaded the network. So kids would be watching TV during ‘The Zone’ and all of a sudden a little bug would go running across the screen. And then it intensified until the bugs were actually eating away the corner of the shows.’

The hosts played it up, asking the kids to help them rid the net of the animated pestilence, and soon thousands of e-mails were pouring in with suggestions. ‘It was a really interactive idea,’ continues Schaefer. ‘It finally ended up with the story finishing via a comic on the Web site.’

But the net took the idea a step further. ‘I remember the week that the Yokomites were invading,’ says Schaefer, as she might about a termite problem at home. ‘Some kids were coming in for a tour. So we had individuals from our creative department dress up like mad scientist exterminators, and they joined the kids in the hallway for the tour, and signs were put up saying ‘Quarantined Area’ and there was yellow caution tape. So it was really bringing the idea to life for the kids.’

It’s hard to imagine any other net going to such lengths to make a fantasy come to life for its viewers, except for perhaps MuchMusic, which Valiquette points to as another leader in marketing to youth. The two nets also share a willingness to experiment, and both seem set on spinning off as many brand extensions as they can. But Valiquette says that both nets largely also understand the need to take things one step at a time.

‘At the beginning, when you’re YTV, you’re just importing TV shows, and if you import shows that people want to see, then they’ll tune in. But eventually YTV ends up standing for good youth programming, so it can start building its own shows,’ says Valiquette

He suggests that the recent failure of the evening branded block for teens, ‘Limbo,’ can be attributed to YTV not following its own secret to success. In other words, the net should have focused more on the programming to begin with, leaving the branding until an audience was already in place. Luckily, YTV seems to have realized this.

‘Branding to teens is a really tough thing,’ says Schaefer. ‘It’s really hard to capture that group and we really believe that what we’ve got to do is just offer up some shows that teens will love, like Buffy. That’s the approach we’re now taking with teens.’

Pulling in teens is just one of several goals the network has its eye on for the coming months and years. While maintaining a disciplined focus on the net’s core six to 12 demo, Schaefer says the YTV will be introducing some changes this fall, including tweaking the weekend block and the Web site. After school block ‘The Zone’ has already been refreshed through the addition of host Sugar. Formerly heard on Toronto radio station Kiss 92, Sugar’s squeaky voice and four-foot figure have already won kids over, as attested to by over 7,000 fan e-mails.

Other areas YTV will likely explore include more brand extensions, which the net will move into ‘cautiously,’ interactive TV, and a radio station (YTV has already applied once for a license, unsuccessfully). Some day, the net may even take another crack at consumer products (YTV inked a deal with Hasbro for some puppets, plush and a board game a couple of years ago, but the products have since been discontinued).

‘As far as products and licensing go,’ says Schaefer, ‘you need the big properties, you need the shows to be able to do that. So we’re continuing to create Canadian shows, but we’re not going to extend any into licensing until we think we have a property we think will make it.’

Even then, the net wouldn’t go it alone: Schaefer notes that Corus’ recent acquisition of Nelvana brings some ready-made licensing expertise into the fold. ‘It’s great to have them as a sister company,’ she says, ‘because that’s a strength that they can focus on, more than us.’