Much accomplishment

Surprised? Trust us, look again. At 21, MuchMusic remains one of the most agile, relevant, tuned-in and beloved brands in the country. It's partly a

Surprised? Trust us, look again. At 21, MuchMusic remains one of the most agile, relevant, tuned-in and beloved brands in the country. It’s partly a by-product of keeping pace with its target market: It’s hard to not be cool and innovative when you’re reaching out to sometimeish teens. But it’s also because of the brand’s seamless ability to connect, engage and even challenge this target market so convincingly that it’s been awarded strategy’s overall Brand of the Year.

From brand experiences (ever try manoeuvring down Toronto’s Queen Street during one of its events?) to brand extensions like MuchPhone and Razer, to jumping into the world of digital media with the abandon of, well, a teenager, while not forsaking its identity, you’d be hard pressed to find another brand that hits those buttons so consistently and skilfully. And with fickle teens no less.

‘It’s become one of the pre-eminent Canadian youth culture icons,’ says Mike Farrell, partner at Toronto agency Youthography. ‘[Much] has become a destination as well as a media outlet. [Its Web site] is a destination…and it’s launched all these different subbrands, and new products so all of this adds up to a very healthy brand.’

Stellar as well. Take the Much phone, for example. First launched a year ago, it’s sold double initial projections. ‘It’s been a powerful tool because it’s all about access to MuchMusic and evolving our relationship to let [the audience] get closer,’ says Roma Khanna, SVP content of MuchMusic’s owner CHUM TV. ‘The idea that Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen come to Much and if you have a Much phone you’re getting exclusive clips, audio and video – things that you just can’t get anywhere else – that’s something we can offer our audience and something they want from us.’

Its shop.muchmusic.com Web site, which launched in 2004, has sold more than 1.5 million downloads of ringtones and screen graphics, which, they claim, makes the site Canada’s top online destination for wireless content. Partnering with Sony BMG Music Canada and Universal Music Canada, they’ve created ‘TrueTones,’ which gives them licences necessary to offer teens the actual versions of songs from their favourite artists.

‘The ringtone store has been a huge success for us,’ says Khanna, who until recently was the head of CHUM’s interactive division. ‘It’s largely driven [by the sale] of ringtones, but we’re seeing increased interest in games, video clips and photographs. We don’t market [those options]…but people are finding it and downloading it.’ And given the synergy Much has with its audience, the brand handlers are certainly taking notes.

That’s because interactivity has became a hallmark of the brand. Taking cues from its audience, and even tossing around words like ‘respect,’ have been key to the brand’s continued success. ‘[We] understand how fickle they are, how quickly they change. [We have] a respect for that,’ says David Kines, VP music and youth channels. ‘We’re not afraid to change quickly either. We can turn on a dime…. One year Power Rangers are cool and the next year they’re not. [Youth are] like that with their TV and media. We’re not afraid to roll with that.’

Listening closely to its audience, and interacting with them is a brand value Much has managed to perfect with such shows as Much on Demand. But it has also taken it to a whole new level with the launch of TV channels and brand extensions Razer and PunchMuch. The former, specifically targeted at 12-24s, is being packaged as a youth lifestyle destination. It allows viewers to program, host and select shows. The latter is an all-request music video service that lets viewers request videos, and participate in on-screen SMS chat and polling – all from their wireless phones.

‘[Accessibility] is what we are,’ says Susan Arthur, director of marketing, CHUM Television. ‘Accessibility through interactivity, programming, brand extensions. It’s my favourite way to describe how we’re different from our competitors.’

Inviting the audience in and having them believe that their opinion matters is something that the brand, and CHUM overall, has been doing since its inception, says David Kirkwood, EVP television and sales marketing. ‘The perception on the part of the viewers is that the place is run by them, that their peers have taken it over and they run it…and to a certain extent that’s true. Rather than using research to determine what’s cool and playing it, we’ve hired the VJs and producers who have their finger on the pulse of this culture.’

Instincts have driven the decisions at the station for years – and it’s worked – but plans are in the works to more effectively tap into the goldmine of a database that is the Much e-mail subscriber. Recently 2,600 Much viewers aged 12 to 34 have agreed to be a sounding board. They’ll be asked everything from their thoughts on what they saw on-air, to the types of contests they would enter. First tested last year, the online research panel was officially used this summer to get feedback following the MuchMusic Video Awards. They’re ‘on-call’ 24/7. In exchange they receive incentive products.

‘It’s another way for a couple of thousand people to be connected to us in a relevant way,’ says Arthur who is heading the project and says the response rate is an unheard of 100%. ‘It’s an opportunity to have access to our viewers… [Moreover] it provides us with a framework on a balanced research level. We can go to clients and say ‘look, this is official research,’ which is new for us.’

And more and more, clients a.k.a. marketers, want to get in touch with Much. Case in point, bigwig P&G has signed up to be sole sponsor of the MuchMusic VJ search, which has been transformed into a nine-episode reality television series that will also run on sister station Citytv. It’s a very big deal for the brand. ‘[We've been doing] the VJ search forever,’ says Arthur. ‘[But] for 26 weeks all of our guns have been focused on the VJ search as a CHUM priority. That’s what’s new. And that’s the opportunity for P&G.’

Of course the show will also get the ‘Much-spin’ in the form of a big wireless component. For example, when competitors are voted off, instead of disappearing until a final ‘reunion’ show, they’ll share their opinions online or through a wireless platform, says Khanna. ‘[Viewers] will be able to get updates on their phone as well as video clips of things they’ve missed,’ she adds. ‘Yes, the show…is the central hub of the story, but when you start adding these other layers, you [go] deeper.’

Going deeper with advertisers can be a source of some consternation although. ‘Everything we understand about the Much viewer suggests that they are not resistant to commercial integration,’ says Kirkwood.’ They just need it to be clever.’ And that line between clever and conspicuous is one that they never lose sight of, says Kines.

‘That’s a topic of probably hourly debate,’ he says. ‘We’re constantly trying to make sure that we’re plugged into our audience and what they’re doing and what we think they want to be doing next. It’s a constant gut-check going on back and forth in the programming, marketing, press and sales departments to find that line so that [we come across as] cool and credible…and sell them a little product at the same time.’

Less of a concern, it seems, is the pending return of MTV Canada with deep-pocketed CTV behind it. ‘It’s something you pay attention to, you have to,’ says Khanna. ‘[But] we’re feeling really confident. We have content that really resonates with the audience. I’ll put that up against MTV globally any day of the week.’

But competition for their target market, says Kirkwood, hasn’t only come in the form of a similar TV station. Video games and even shows like The Family Guy and The Simpsons are considered rivals, he says. But the station’s consistent audience numbers prove that they continue to get it right. ‘Our numbers have either held or grown through myriad competitors,’ says Kirkwood. ‘When we began MuchMusic there was only TSN. [Since then] we’ve continued to grow our audience numbers and our brand.’

‘People in Canada love MuchMusic,’ says Khanna. ‘They love us not because we’ve been the only ones in this game; they love us because we do it well. Our focus is not on the competition, our focus is on the future.’

And increasingly, the future is about getting friendlier. ‘The evolution of what you’ll see from MuchMusic in the future, both near and far, will have at its core this idea of really connecting with the audience and connecting with them on their terms, but also [about creating a] place where they can come and connect with each other,’ says Khanna. That might translate into leveraging community blog spaces (already at Muchmusic.com), which they can currently update from cellphones, by somehow allowing them to share that content with each other wirelessly. And with 3G cellphones expected on the market as early as this Christmas, she says to expect more video over phones. Additional models of MuchMusic cellphones will also be ready for the Christmas push, with both a snazzy, high-end and more affordable offerings. And not to be overlooked: video games, now outgrossing the movie industry annually – and growing.

‘[We're starting to] see where it fits with our strategy and our audience,’ she says.

Because, at its heart, and a big part of what makes the Much brand a winner, is its ability to embrace change.

‘Five years ago, who was going to be carrying a Blackberry on their vacation and checking e-mails?’ says Khanna. ‘Now look where we are. You don’t always know how it’s going to take off. And with the youth audience, as long as you’re hitting the core and you’re connecting them to each other and to the brand values that they want and the content that they want, god knows what’s going to be the next big thing.’

Guaranteed MuchMusic will figure it out.