20 Lessons from the TV Brand Builders (Part One)


At last month’s PromaxBDA Europe conference in Barcelona we were invited to summarize 20 key points from our new book The TV Brand Builders: How to win audiences and influence viewers

Based on interviews with 50 leading practitioners of TV marketing, promotion and design across eight countries, the book runs to 344 pages, so the challenge was how to distil it into 20 simple highlights and insights.  To reflect the ever-changing nature of our industry, we asked the assembled delegates to suggest the final two lessons (of which more in part 3 of this post).

So, where to start?  Well, we kicked off with an optimistic sentiment from one of our interviewees, AMC’s EVP of Marketing Linda Schupack: ‘I am very privileged to be working in what many have called the new golden age of television.’ Our TV Brand Builders are generally positive about the future of the industry we’re all lucky enough to work in.  Despite many recent voices of doom, that optimism extends to the outlook for TV channels.  Lesson 1 is believe in TV channel brands.  The marketers we talked to recognize the ways in which we, as human beings, cope with excessive choice and how a distinctive TV channel brand can still act as a curatorial filter and provide the short cuts we all need to help us make decisions.

They also believe that TV channel idents still have a role but (lesson 2) it’s important to keep channel idents fresh.  One of the channels with the most distinctive personalities is BBC Two.  To build on that and keep BBC Two relevant, our team has continued to refresh the pool over the past year across programming as diverse as Wimbledon tennis, wildlife documentaries, snooker and a season of programmes about India.  In the US, where traditionally idents have not been widely used, we were interested to see that comedy channel TBS recently launched a diverse set of new logo IDs, with their creative director quoted as saying that the art form had ‘fallen by the wayside’ and was set to make a comeback. 
Our book research underlined the extent to which channel brands are ‘shapeshifting’, so lesson 3 is to break the traditional rules of interstitial content.  Notable examples include MTV’s radical reinvention of their on-screen presentation to adopt what they called a social media aesthetic and the dramatic way in which Channel 4 broke their own brand rules late last year and freed up their famous 9 blocks.  

Moving from TV channel brands to promoting drama, not surprisingly this is one of the longest chapters in the book and we could fill several blog posts with that material alone, but we have picked out the three lessons that struck us the most.  The first is this: unravel the helix of a drama.  We talked to FX Networks’ inspirational marketing head Stephanie Gibbons and she described to us the way she and her team work closely with showrunners like Ryan Murphy to understand the underlying themes they thought about before their fingers touched the keyboard. ‘Unraveling the helix’: taking the drama apart strand by strand, understanding the subtexts, the protagonists, the foreshadowing.  This approach to marketing dramas produces stunning key art and original promos for shows like Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story.

Lesson 5, again from the drama genre, is to give viewers a glimpse of the future: landing a question at the launch of a series that might be 24 episodes or 7 seasons away from being paid off.  When we approach any long-running drama, it is these underlying questions that keep an audience engaged. ‘What is the island?’ (Lost). ‘Will Nucky Thompson be brought to his knees?’ (Boardwalk Empire). ‘Will Don Draper ever be unmasked?’ (Mad Men). ‘Will Gregory House ever cure his own demons?’ (House).  When AMC launched the 7th and final season of Mad Men last year they created a specially shot promo featuring all of the main characters on the move. Travelling, restlessness, the search for something, moving on. Resolved in one simple thought: ‘It’s all up in the air’ – a promise that the final season would free itself more than before from the confines of Madison Avenue to set the characters on one last quest. The search for happiness or, if not happiness, at the very least contentment.

Our final lesson from the book on promoting drama is to follow the 3-act structure.   Storytelling gurus like Robert McKee and John Yorke will talk and write at length about the 3-act structure of films, but having interviewed some of the world’s best practitioners in TV drama promotion we thought it worth talking about the 3-act structure in drama trailers. Even if it’s just at an instinctive level, or even to know about it so you can subvert it. This is the 3-act structure for most drama trailers:

-    Setting the stage
-    Presenting the dilemma
-    Intensifying the challenge. 

A perfect example is HBO’s launch campaign for True Detective, while our own team’s launch trailer for BBC One’s dramatization of War and Peace also follows that structure.  First we set the stage (life is full of love and laughter), then we present the dilemma (the first hints of war a third of the way through) and finally we intensify the challenge: ‘In the shadow of war, can young lives shine?’

In part two of our ’20 Lessons’ blog post we’ll look at highlights from chapters in The TV Brand Builders covering the marketing of TV comedy, entertainment, children’s programmes, factual and sport. In part three we’ll look at highlights from the final chapters of The TV Brand Builders covering social media and the future of TV marketing. 

Andy Bryant (Managing Director, Red Bee) and Charlie Mawer (Executive Creative Director, Red Bee)

The TV Brand Builders: How to win audiences and influence viewers by Andy Bryant and Charlie Mawer was published by Kogan Page on 3rd April 2016.