Characters Welcome, Passion Required by Sheila Shayon July 22, 2011
How USA Network moved from being one of the highest-rated cable networks in 2005, but with no discernible brand identity, to the very definition of “Characters Welcome," is a lesson in casting a wide net, courting a diverse audience and delivering with passion.
Back in 2005, original series like Monk and The Dead Zone aired alongside World Wrestling Entertainment matches, the annual Westminster Dog Show, and U.S. Open tennis coverage on USA.
With no connective tissue to their programming schedule, USA remained an inscrutable television destination until a new tagline, “Characters Welcome,” became the heart and soul of an identity that established the NBCU-owned cable network as a top TV brand.
Since 2006, network hits such as Monk, Burn Notice, Psych, White Collar and Royal Pains brought climbing ratings that put USA at the top of the cable list alongside ESPN, TNT and Nickelodeon.
Today, it’s the #1 network in basic cable, seen in over 102 million U.S. homes, with ad revenues that topped $1.08 billion in 2009.
Chris McCumber, now co-president of USA Network, oversaw the conception and implementation of the “Characters Welcome” identity transformation developed with Minneapolis branding agency Mono.
“We've become a passions brand,” he toldAd Age. “If you can build a passion and build on what your consumer loves, if they're passionate and trust in the brand, it's more powerful than anything else. When we looked at USA, initially we didn't think we could do a passion brand because it was so broad. Niche networks are good at what they do because they're very specialized. With USA, if you cut off one part of the brand or programming, it's a big problem for your business plan.”
Some of the digital marketing touchpoints that helped solidify its brand identity:
This year’s Character Project, in partnership with RSA Films and brothers/directors Ridley and Tony Scott, commissioned eight filmmakers to explore the theme of character from their individual perspectives.
“The beauty of independent film is that it offers the opportunity to tell stories with both personal significance and universal resonance,” said McCumber in a press release. “Through the Character Project short films we celebrate not only the unique perspectives of the filmmakers and characters, but the American experience in all its richness and diversity.”
The Character Project films, all available at characterproject.usanetwork.com, range from documentary to narrative to animated format, but are all focused on three fundamental American values: progress, connection, and passion.
Duck, by Jakob Daschek, is about Emmanuel, a ten-year-old boy with a crippling fear of being touched, transformed by a seasoned trainer in a local gym.
Perfect, by Amie Steir, chronicles Anne’s wedding day and the imminent arrival of her beautiful and successful sister Sara, leading up to bestowal of a mysterious wedding present that releases Anne from her “perfect” sister’s shadow.
The Dude, by Jeff Feuerzeig, follows Jeff Dowd, the iconic central character in the Coen Brothers' cult film The Big Lebowski, as he travels to annual Lebowski Fests around the country.
“As storytellers, it is part of our DNA to share the stories that make people interesting through the lens of our unmatched roster of directors,” said Ridley Scott. “USA Network is an ideal partner because they also specialize in bringing to light the distinct tales of unique characters.”
USA launched the Character Project on May 13th, via an online hub, free video-on-demand programming on cable TV, iTunes, mobile platforms, syndicated widgets, and social media, with Lexus CT Hybrid as the presenting sponsor.
Directors’ cuts of and commentary on each film, as well as behind the scenes interviews and photo galleries are all part of the extensive marketing campaign, along with a ten-page gatefold in Vanity Fair.
Now that the launch has been played out on USA’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, we spoke with Alexandra Shapiro, USA’s SVP, Brand Marketing & Digital to get more insights into the social impact of the Character Project.
What's the reaction to the films so far - and how do you track it?
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. As with every campaign we monitor video views online, word-of-mouth, press reactions and social chatter.
How have you leveraged social media to integrate these projects?
We have incorporated social sharing functionality into the site with each film. Additionally, we used the USA Network (Facebook) fanpage and Twitter feed to promote every stage of the initiative. For the container screenings, we created a contest with Four Square to incentivize people to check-in at the various locales.
To what do you attribute such success with such a broad reach in a time of increasingly splintered audience?
I can only hope that the independent films we created resonated emotionally and intellectually with the audiences we reached online, on-the-ground and on our air. Time will tell, but early tracking suggests audiences are engaging in meaningful ways.
Any surprises along the way?
We were pleasantly surprised by the fact that while the films worked well independently, they also worked so beautifully as a collective. This made marketing the overall initiative a lot easier.
What's 'out-of-character' or 'not welcome' for USA?
Intolerance, bigotry, hatred.
The digital strategy makes USA a case study of building a trademark through ‘character’ ratings, strategic partnerships and a ‘brand filter,’ commented Bonnie Hammer, President of NBC Universal Cable, to Wired:
“For USA, it’s three things: Is there a slightly flawed but likable lead character? Is there a strong drama with a dollop of humor? Is it blue skies? I mean that literally and figuratively. Exterior shots showing blue skies add a levity and brightness to each show. You also have to be able to describe it in a single sentence: Royal Pains—it’s Marcus Welby in the Hamptons.”
Sheila Shayon is a senior media executive with 25+ years in television and new media including expertise in programming, production, broadband, start-up models, creative and branding strategies, digital content and social networking.
Shayon has worked for HBO, Time Warner Cable and Wisdom Television. She graduated Magna Cum Laude, University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in Communication from the Annenberg School for Communication.
Currently, as President/Founder of Third Eye Media, a New York-based multimedia production company, Shayon works with online brands to combine editorial content and social networking applications.
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