Branding a perception

Image-making creates a sum that is a lot larger than the parts

Never once have I gone home, plopped on the couch and declared, "I'm going to settle in for a night of CBS." Or NBC, ABC, Fox or The WB . (Truthfully, I have said that about UPN. There was a time when you had to gird up to do that, and, sometimes, there still is.)

But that's the idea with cable, I guess, and that's the glory of, that's the story of, branding.

It's a word I loathe and simultaneously a concept that's fascinating. Branding: The word is a branding ploy itself. It's language that's just too puffed up, and a lot of older television executives spit it out the way you might if you were forced to call a janitor a sanitary engineer.

As strategy, branding seems to be the best way to make the sum much larger than its parts. For most of television's existence, the mantra was "People watch programs, not networks." Branding begs to turn that philosophy on its head, and that's a lucky thing for the cable industry, which has far more networks on its hands than it does hits.

"That's the dirty little secret of branding," says Rick Haskins, the executive vice president of branding for Lifetime, a thoughtful fellow who somehow takes all this seriously and humorously, too. "With effective branding, weak shows become stronger, and strong shows become dominant. Sometimes, you can get away with schlock." (Not at Lifetime, he's quick to add.)

Truth is, branding often dresses up incredibly ordinary stuff. Take Nick at Nite or TV Land. These are fun cable networks, but, from the time Rich Cronin ran those channels, the part everybody liked was the "Your Television Heritage" promotion. The programs, well, most of them are just as bad as television was for much of the last four decades.

Branding means you don't have to notice.

I don't know how that fits into me watching it, however. I may feel good about TV Land, but, at the end of the day (or actually at 8 o'clock Eastern), TV Land's Emergency reruns are still just as bad as they were the first time around.

Haskins would tell you that, once a product—or a network—gets the "consumer vote of confidence," it's actually possible to fall off the mark occasionally as long as the brand managers don't destroy the bond. That happened a few years ago with Fox, which established a solid male 18-to-34 niche and then, Haskins says, broadened so much it disenfranchised the guys and didn't pull in a new crowd. "Their audience said, 'Hey, this isn't what I'm used to.'"

So branding creates the image from which all things, or not much at all, can spring. It's pretty true that, while somebody might actually choose to watch MTV for a specific reason, it's just as likely they'll go there because they know what to expect. Ditto with everything from E! (bikinis taken seriously here) to History (Hitler). Even if that's not what's on, it's what I think is on. That's branding.

But if you start messing with it, bad things happen. Haskins these days is watching the Gap try to re-establish a brand. It has lost its way by losing its niche: cheap, casual clothing. Likewise, Haskins thinks, you can dilute brands so that what was once exclusive becomes mundane. That, he believes, is the problem budding for Starbucks, with one on every corner.

At Lifetime, the stereotypical joke is that it's the place for victim movies in which ordinary women survive extraordinary horrors. The classic Lifetime movie is something like Sudden Terror. It is the stuff of parody, but, when Saturday Night Live lampoons Lifetime, it makes Haskins happy. It means the network is well-enough established that everybody understands what it does.

That translates into women's using Lifetime as the network they start with every night, even if they don't know why and even if they don't actually stay there. In a landscape of a jillion cable networks, a strong identity doesn't hurt.

Haskins formerly worked at Procter & Gamble, which knows a thing or two about branding, and he has authored Brand Yourself: How to Create an Identity for a Brilliant Career.

Thinking about that the other day, I could think of only one truly defined kind of "brand" person: A Mafia hitman is something I understand intuitively.

My mob mentality got me to thinking about HBO, home of The Sopranos. That's a network where branding is perfectly married to content. When it boasts, "It's not TV. It's HBO," I hate the conceit, but I concede the point: It's got the brand.

Bednarski may be reached at
or 212-337-6965