Nets Branding Efforts Move Beyond the Box

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Today's enterprising consumer no longer needs to watch television to get their fill of cable networks.

This summer, a family could visit a Discovery Channel Store to shop for dinosaur figurines; take the kids to see a midday performance of Nickelodeon's Lollapalooza for Kids stage show; grab some lunch at an ESPN Zone restaurant; or check for rain on their wireless phone through The Weather Channel's www.weather.com.

It's no secret that over the years, cable networks have devoted much energy to extending their brands beyond the TV screen. Lately, the scope of their marketing efforts has blanketed the whole of the merchandising and cyberspace universes.

As clutter escalates and the competition for eyes and ears continues to soar, networks find it increasingly necessary to market their brand images more diligently, and creatively, to foster recognition outside the home and cultivate a greater audience base.

Networks seem to be playing the brand extension game in several ways, affixing names and logos to properties ranging from books, toys, video games and lines of apparel to movies, stage productions, restaurant marquees, radio programs, and content for handheld computers and the Internet.

At a time when competition for television viewership is at its peak-and the challenge of busting through clutter has never been greater-extending one's brand is a matter of simple survival, said Animal Planet executive vice president and general manager Clark Bunting.

"The question is, 'How do we become more relevant and contemporary and more a part of people's daily lives?' instead of just a place they stop while channel surfing," Bunting said. "We believe that putting our brand out there helps connect us to people's lives as well as to their heads. It's not selling individual products, but increasing the value of the whole brand that truly matters."

PLANET-WIDE REACH

Few networks have marketed their brand as quickly, widely and effectively as Animal Planet, the Discovery Communications Inc. network whose penetration has soared to more than 60 million households in a mere four years.

Animal Planet and Toys 'R' Us Inc. forged a licensing agreement in February that placed the network's line of branded toys and merchandise into some 1,500 Toys 'R' Us Kids 'R' Us, Babies 'R' Us and Imaginarium stores worldwide. In each Toys 'R' Us store, the network-themed area features a few hundred products and covers 36 feet of retail space.

Animal Planet is also marketing a new line of toys based on top-rated series The Crocodile Hunter. A Crocodile Hunter-themed summertime tour of shopping malls will also feature live crocodiles, under the watchful eye of a well-trained animal handler.

The channel also projected 100-foot-high images from Crocodile Hunter onto office buildings during its June "Croc Week" promotion, and did the same inside Yankee Stadium on "Animal Planet Day" at the ballpark.

"And we're looking at a Summer 2001 release date for our Crocodile Hunter movie," Bunting added.

Animal Planet has a precedent for its ubiquitous brand placement. DCI's flagship net, Discovery Channel, is known for having spread its brand into almost every nook and cranny of the Internet and retail world.

There are about 160 Discovery Channel Stores nationwide peddling Discovery-branded trinkets and wearables; a Discovery Channel Exploration Toy line and stand-alone boutique at Target stores and selected FAO Schwartz outlets; a line of Discovery Channel Video titles marketed under the brands Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, Discovery Health and Discovery Kids; and a partnership with Random House, forged in 1999, to publish nonfiction books.

The good news from the perspective of Sheila Arnold, president of Discovery Channel Retail, is that there is no evident cannibalization problem stemming from the company's high-profile Web site (www.discovery.com).

"We also find a bounce-back factor from all of our extending of the brand," Arnold said. "Customers who buy, say, a video in a Discovery Channel Store will go back and watch the TV screen.

"One seems to feed the other," she added. "Traffic at the stores winds up bringing viewers to the network. And it's not just the stores.

"I walked out of a restaurant in San Francisco the other day, looked up into the sky-and there was a spotlight patterned in the Animal Planet logo. Creating multiple impressions for people to digest is key."

Kid-targeted Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have likewise recognized the value in stretching their brands into domains beyond the conventional TV realm.

There are Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. print magazines and home-video lines; a theme park presence at Universal Studios Florida; books based on the Good Burger live-action series; and a food line that includes Catdog Cheese Nips, Rugrats macaroni and cheese and Rugrats vitamins.

And Nickelodeon has plenty more brand extensions in its future arsenal. Included are a second Rugrats feature film, Rugrats in Paris-The Movie, coming this fall, the traveling "Lollapalooza for Kids" live show and a Nickelodeon stage extravaganza in Branson, Mo.

A direct-to-video full-length Blues Clues movie, Blue's Big Musical, is planned for a fall release, while a second Nick Movies animated feature, Jimmy Neutron, is set to hit theaters in late 2001. Nickelodeon has also licensed Mattel Inc. to create a full line of toys that tie in to both the film Rugrats in Paris and the network's animated series The Wild Thornberrys.

"Yeah, we're keeping pretty busy here with our branding," said Nickelodeon president Herb Scannell. "We're expecting especially big stuff from the Rugrats film. The first one we did became the first non-Disney animated movie to hit $100 million in domestic box office [receipts]."

RATINGS DRIVEN

Though Nickelodeon has a long and successful history of circulating its brand, Scanell sounded a familiar refrain: "It's still all about putting bodies in front of the TV set. And I have to think that extending our reach leads straight back into ratings."

Would it matter to Scannell if outside branding didn't help Nickelodeon's ratings?

"It wouldn't deter us from our plan," he said. "The story for us on branding goes back to the early 1980s.

"MTV Networks was founded on the principle that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. In a world where it's hard for people to memorize the schedules of three networks-much less 100-you had better take steps to support your name and help define yourself outside your typical channel marketing strategy," he added.

Cartoon Network has certainly struck brand-extension gold with its breakout animated hit The Powerpuff Girls. Cartoon executive vice president Tim Hall boasted that retail sales from licensed Powerpuff Girl products in 2000 would exceed $100 million.

The 75 licensees include merchandise ranging from a musical CD to be released in July to bath crystals, talking dolls, games, T-shirts and shoes, backpacks, Halloween costumes and a line of home videos. Nintendo Corp. of America games loom.

Even as Powerpuff Girls spawns a cottage industry for Cartoon Network, it is also finalizing plans for consumer goodies based on original programs Johnny Bravo, Courage The Cowardly Dog and Dexter's Laboratory.

But it's Powerpuff's surprisingly swift popularity and merchandising might that has Cartoon Network executive vice president Tim Hall salivating.

"When you latch onto a property like Powerpuff Girls, you don't look at it as a way to make a quick buck," Hall said. "You position it as the beginning of something that will take your network identity up to the next level."

That mindset helped fuel ESPN's brand expansion and enhanced name recognition via its ESPN Zone sports bars and restaurants (now in Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Washington and Atlanta).

ESPN Zones are cavernous food and beverage hangouts equipped with multiple monitors tuned to ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic and ESPNews.

"It's all part of our brand communicating an attitude," stressed Tom Clendenin, ESPN's marketing vice president. "We have always fancied our network as being the world's biggest sports fan. We take our sports seriously, but not ourselves. There is a cheeky element in everything we do that extends everywhere we slap our brand."

BRANDING A LIFESTYLE

To underscore that irreverent element, Clendenin points to the ESPN Zone outlet in New York. The walls there are adorned with what he calls "sports replicas done in the style of the masters." Among them is a portrait of boxer Evander Holyfield done in the style of Van Gogh. "One of Evander's ears is missing," Clendenin noted.

The network also builds its image as the sports authority through its slick monthly, ESPN The Magazine, and the national ESPN Radio Network, which delivers National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball events, among others, to a national audience.

ESPN's headquarters in cyberspace, ESPN.com, is not just a popular destination for sports fans, it's the No. 3 cable network site on the Internet. "The Web site adds value to the core brand itself," he added. "One enhances the appreciation and enjoyment of the other."

Perhaps the clearest example of cable network-Internet synergy and interactivity involves the Weather Channel and its enormously successful cyber offshoot, weather.com. The weather.com site ranks alongside MSNBC.com as the No. 1 TV-network companion site.

Weather.com president and CEO Debora Wilson maintained that her site and the Weather Channel "are an excellent example of how to do this right. Our intent is to mirror one another."

The Weather site is taking further steps to ensure it stays prominent in the coming age of wireless Internet access. Negotiations are underway with wireless carriers and telephone companies for distribution of weather.com through wireless providers and handheld devices.

Deals are already in place with Palm Inc., AT & T Wireless Services, Nokia Corp., and Sprint PCS Wireless, as well as with Arch Communications Group Inc. on a co-branded pager agreement.

"We will accept nothing less than being the universal weather link to a wireless world," Wilson said. "That would position us perfectly as a content provider for the wire-free revolution. Wherever people are, they'll have instant access to weather information for any region around the globe."

Weather.com is one of the world's 25 most-visited Internet sites, with more than 300 million page views a month. Yet Wilson believes it doesn't cannibalize Weather's TV-viewing audience.

"When you have two branded elements working hand in hand like this for the same common goal, the end result has to be beneficial overall," he said.

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