Stern Look

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Cable TV is going back to its marketing roots, signing the agency that created the “On Time Guarantee” campaign and other image spots in the early 1990s to design a major national ad push set to launch this fall.

As cable chiefs publicly criticized the industry’s marketing acumen at the CTAM Summit here last week, their marketing heads brainstormed at a closed-door meeting on the new national commercials being designed by New York-based ad agency Shepardson, Stern & Kaminsky.

SS&K founding partner Lenny Stern, who designed spots that compared cable installers to reliable Fed Ex and United Parcel Service drivers for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s On Time Guarantee campaign, said the spots would tout the benefits of cable such as video-on-demand while poking fun at satellite and telco competitors.

“What we’ve been asked to do and are in the midst of doing is developing work that will break through the clutter and grab people’s attention,” Stern said in an interview Friday. “Finding a compelling way to break through, make them pay attention, make them laugh, make them smile — I think that’s what we’re attempting to do.”

In addition to designing TV spots, Stern said his firm will develop print ads, radio commercials and outdoor advertising materials for the campaign.

The Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing signed Stern’s firm after an agency review in February, CEO Char Beales said. SS&K replaces Philadelphia-based Red Tettemer, which designed spots for the industry’s Only Cable Can initiative that debuted last fall.

TAGLINE MIGHT CHANGE

While Beales said it’s possible that the Only Cable Can tagline won’t be included in the new commercials, she said the overarching theme of those ads — which tout cable’s ability to deliver video-on-demand, local HDTV channels and high-speed data services — would continue.

Cox Communications Inc. senior vice president of marketing Joe Rooney said the campaign will turn up the heat on the competition.

“I would call them breakthrough competitive-positioning spots for the industry, and they will really promote cable’s competitive advantages over RBOC and satellite competitors,” Rooney said.

Unlike previous national ad campaigns such as the On Time Guarantee, which were designed to help repair cable’s image, the new spots are designed to help sell new cable products such as on-demand programming and cable modems. The spots are also scheduled to run at the same time that cable nemesis DirecTV Inc. is expected to launch a major marketing campaign with its new ad agency, BBDO.

“We want to be out there in the fourth quarter, when [HDTV] set sales are strong, and we want to get people our on-demand [services] at a time when television usage goes up,” Beales said. “And we want to sell more high-speed modems at a time when the broadband marketplace is very strong, so getting out there in the fall is a great time.”

Teaming up as an industry to market products is a new strategy for the 10 top MSOs that have participated in the Only Cable Can campaign, and which will also team up this fall to run the SS&K ads.

'LONG WAY TO GO’

Some top cable executives here proved to be tough critics of cable’s efforts to market new services to consumers.

The summit’s last big panel featured both Glenn Britt, chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable, and Bill Schleyer, chairman and CEO of Adelphia Communications Corp., lamenting cable-operators’ spotty record explaining offerings like video on demand and digital video recorders to the public.

“Service is a lot better than it was 10 years ago,” Britt said during a panel session last Tuesday. “On the marketing end, I think we have a long way to go — sorry to everybody out there.”

Cable operators need to establish a greater retail presence so they have a platform to explain their more complex offerings, according to Schleyer.

“We do a lousy job communicating with consumers,” he said. “We just can’t sit back and have a [customer-service representative] explain this stuff. We’ve got to get more [of] a retail presence. With all these products, it takes a lot of explaining. We, as an industry, have to be a lot more proactive in developing retail.”

Cable is launching a host of new services, according to Britt, and it needs to focus On the consumer benefits of these new options.

“Somehow we assume that consumers absorb this, what we’re talking about,” he said. “Try explaining to a regular person what a DVR is.”

Rainbow Programming Holdings CEO Josh Sapan, also on that Tuesday panel, said cable companies have had a tougher time marketing their products because they are individual companies without a national footprint, a benefit that direct-broadcast satellite enjoys. “Not having it [marketing] be national is a terrible limitation.”

Through CTAM and the Only Cable Can initiative, the top 10 MSOs have attempted to bolster national marketing efforts through spots that have run on NBC and national cable networks.

The major MSOs also teamed up this year with Samsung Consumer Electronics and Panasonic to run HDTV ads that offered consumers $100 in discounts on their cable bills if they purchased an HDTV from the television manufacturers.

Beales wouldn’t disclose how many consumers responded to the Samsung campaign, which ran in March in conjunction with CBS’s coverage of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 men’s basketball tournament.

She also said it’s too early to gauge the success of the current Panasonic campaign, timed to entice consumers to order HDTV ahead of NBC’s coverage next month of the Summer Olympics in Athens.

The national marketing campaigns illustrate how the cable industry is firing back at DirecTV and EchoStar, which have steadily eaten into its subscriber base.

At the summit, it was disclosed that Philips Consumer Electronics cut a deal with Charter Communications Inc. to jointly sell HDTV sets through a co-branded Web site.

The arrangement will see Charter collect a commission on every TV sold through the Web site, Philips vice president of business innovation Julia Langley said. .

CHARTER HDTV SETS?

The agreement could make Charter the first cable operator to sell HDTV sets directly to its subscribers. In January, EchoStar announced a deal with Philips to sell EchoStar-branded HDTVs directly to its customers for just $999.

CTAM said it drew 2,768 attendees last week in Boston, up from the 2,364 that attended last year’s convention in Seattle.

The conference moves to Comcast’s hometown of Philadelphia next year, and will run one week later, from July 24 to 26. CTAM will return to Boston in 2006. The group is still negotiating a site for the 2007 convention, Beales said.

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