Forget idents: promos should rely on the talent

TV channnel identities and station promos need to be really in tune to win viewers, says Bruce Dunlop
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The Independent Online

To some, branding is firmly in the "bullshit baffles brains" category of life, something that entrepreneurs use to dress up mediocrity so that people will buy it. Just ask Gerald Ratner. It's only in recent years that businesses have begun to talk more about the value of brands and to realise that consumers will spend more on brands that can be trusted. Consequently, brand value can be a real asset to the company balance sheet.

To some, branding is firmly in the "bullshit baffles brains" category of life, something that entrepreneurs use to dress up mediocrity so that people will buy it. Just ask Gerald Ratner. It's only in recent years that businesses have begun to talk more about the value of brands and to realise that consumers will spend more on brands that can be trusted. Consequently, brand value can be a real asset to the company balance sheet.

I would argue that branding cannot ever be about pulling the wool over people's eyes, and that the best branding always favours the facts. We know this very well in television - you can't afford to over-promise on a channel or programme brand or promotion, otherwise the viewers will lose faith in you and turn to someone else. Sam Chisholm, the former Sky boss, said that he could look at a channel for an hour and tell you how well it was managed: try it, it's not that difficult.

I was at Sky in the 1990s and we had to make a virtue of no original programming and lots of cheap American imports, so we developed a hard-hitting policy about promotion. Being an Australian, I was very used to the American style of competitive programming, competitive promotion and branding that was going to get you where you wanted to go (being taken seriously in Sky's case). This was our point of difference to the relaxed and complacent style of British broadcasters; the war had begun.

I had the job of promoting the first ever pay-per-view sporting event in the UK - Frank Bruno vs Mike Tyson. We had a real problem here - we had to convince UK viewers to pay to stay up into the early hours of the morning to watch a boxing match that was a foregone conclusion. So we concentrated our efforts on the hopes and dreams of boxing fans all over the UK that Bruno could do what no one else in the world had been able to. By the time the match was on air we'd persuaded 600,000 subscribers that Tyson was about to meet his nemesis, making it still one of the biggest, one-off pay-per-view events in UK television history.

That's what great branding can do - help your audience believe in your product, even if they know it's not as great as it should be. For the record, Frank went down bravely in three.

There's a lot of debate in TV about which is most important, the channel brand or the programme. Is Channel 4 more important than Big Brother, especially now it splits coverage with its little sibling, E4? That's why I believe the way forward for TV branding is to feature content within the branding, a seamless marriage of spin and truth.

You can't get more honest about your brand than putting your product at the heart of your communication, that way consumers know exactly what they're getting. We've been doing this for years in TV and we call them promos, carefully crafted 30-second spots for Law & Order that finish with a tag telling us it's on Hallmark on Friday at 10pm. It's content used to sell the channel, and the channel clearly signposted as the place to find the content.

One of the best TV branding examples in recent times was the balloon over Britain idents, the wonderful images the BBC used to evoke British pride and by association pride in the BBC. The demise of this particular branding device illustrates one of my key branding theories - the "KISS" principal, "Keep It Simple Stupid". When the balloon was simple it worked, when it got complicated, by trying to introduce ethnic imagery, ie the Notting Hill Carnival, the balloon became secondary, the idea became complex and the idents lost their charm, and consequently their value. More recently, the new Channel 4 identity is much talked about because it's new and it's different, two key elements in branding, but technical wizardry doesn't necessarily sell, and I'm not convinced that the idents reflect the core values of the channel.

More impressive, perhaps, is the E4 branding which takes a stand through it's absurdity; a band of 1970s musicians who show just how incredibly flexible TV branding can be and, what's more impressive, is that the tone of voice set by the idents is carried through every piece of on-air communication. All the purple pieces fit together to give the viewers a clear idea of the character of E4, and that is good branding.

Remember that branding reflects the programming; it doesn't work the other way around. Today the Five rebrand is beautifully simple, reflecting tiny slices of life we can all relate to, and while I'm impressed that Five recently got a huge shark to physically chew up its logo off the coast of South Africa, this may be the first step that takes them out of their clearly defined space and back a few steps into the "adventure programme... adventure ident" scenario.

I won't dwell on ITV, as we created their current identity, but this branding means business. It's what we've called "Grafting", replacing the time spent on spinning idents with short programme snippets, designed to excite viewers about what's up next, and to me that works in a 400-channel environment. ITV2 is another great example of the channel identity and station promos working together to create a totally focused brand. We've done the same with our own channel, Real Estate TV, which does what it says on the tin - as most TV brands need to these days.

Meanwhile, Sky One has opted for pretty pictures on air rather than anything that could have got to the roots of their brand; a new haircut when what they needed was brain surgery.

The current Nip/Tuck posters are evocative, eye-catching and have an attitude that puts them up there with the best; they need this same attitude running through their brand from top to bottom. Sky One vacated the space it created and dominated in the early days with Ibiza Uncovered and a tits-and-bums Sun mentality which it pioneered, and has now plunged into the crowded "legitimate" market, sacrificing what it had to be the Johnny-come-lately of mainstream television.

It was a serious clash over branding that caused me to leave Sky, because it thought lots of individual brands would be more effective than a single umbrella brand, and Sky spent record amounts branding each channel using an American design agency. Fortunately Sky is back to popular thinking and the current glass Sky logo is the new umbrella brand.

Good branding is the light that guides us, the glue that unites us, the flag that represents us and an attitude that makes us unique. But most of all it should express essential truths about us. Get it right in any business and the bums on the seats will belong to punters who believe in you as much as they believe in your product. That's the truth about branding.

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