The CMO Interview

Bravo's 'Buzz Marketing' Keeps Viewers Tuned in

CMO Stone Says Connection to Its 'Affluencers' Helps Network Thrive in Ratings, Consumer-Products Venture, DVD Sales

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"Watch what happens" isn't just a popular late-night talk show on Bravo, it's a guiding principle for the channel's Ellen Stone.

Ellen Stone
Ellen Stone
Ms. Stone, Bravo's senior VP-marketing, oversees creative strategy for the Comcast-NBC Universal cable network, keeping up with the highly influential audience that Bravo has built its brand on since 2003. That's the year the network premiered "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," a reality makeover show that reinvented the former arts network into a lifestyle network focused on the show's five brand pillars of food, fashion, beauty, design and pop culture. In fact, Ms. Stone doesn't consider Bravo a TV brand -- she describes it as a "buzz-marketing organization."

"We really take a deep dive into our audience and find out who they are and what they're talking about," she said.

That incessant devotion to understanding its audience -- whom Ms. Stone and her peers dub "affluencers" -- has helped Bravo achieve five consecutive years of record ratings growth, including its best quarter ever in the first quarter of 2011. The network has suddenly become a major player in cable prime time, where it ranked No. 11 among adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's thanks in large part to hits such as its successful "Real Housewives" and "Top Chef" franchises. Bravo also has an emerging consumer-products business comprising everything from "Top Chef" knives and cookbooks to a TV-on-DVD partnership with Target .

And yet in 2010, Bravo spent just over $10 million on measured media, according to Kantar Media. Under the guidance of Bravo President Frances Berwick, Ms. Stone is encouraged to take risks with her media strategy to find first-time and exclusive marketing partnerships in social media, where her viewers are among the first to adopt new apps and platforms. Media agency-of-record Fallon helps Bravo execute major pushes in TV, print and outdoor, while Ignited assists with digital strategy; Wiredset provides social-media insights; and 360i works with the network on search and social initiatives.

Ms. Stone joined Bravo in 2006 from Lifetime, where she served as director-consumer marketing. She spoke with Ad Age about where to find Bravo's affluencers, the importance of a brand filter and why her network's brand has just as much in common with JetBlue and Skechers as it does E! or MTV.

Ad Age: You've built the Bravo brand on being influential. How do you find your audience these days?

Ms. Stone: We're always looking to find brand ambassadors through social media. Our audience is some of the most-engaged viewers in entertainment. Social-media promotions take them out of the home and wherever they need to go. Over the summer we did Groupon initiatives where people could get "Top Chef" discounts at our chefs' restaurants in all 12 markets [that they represent]. It allowed people to experience "Top Chef: Masters" food at a more reasonable cost than they normally could.

Another example is the launch campaign we did for "Top Chef: Just Desserts." The day of the premiere we went out with three wrapped trucks in New York, L.A. and Chicago and gave away free desserts. The night before the event, we sent out a tweet to find out on Twitter where the trucks were going to be. And we had lines of people -- no matter where the trucks found themselves, our people came and they were waiting for the trucks to get there. And people started going viral with it.

Ad Age: In 2009, you dropped your 3-year-old tagline, "Watch What Happens," in favor of "By Bravo." What does the Bravo brand mean to your viewers?

Ms. Stone: Whenever they see it, they understand it's going to be creative, give you something fun and entertaining and give it to you in a way no other network is going to give it to you. A Bravo show is literally a Bravo show. It doesn't easily translate to other networks. That's been really important in terms of creating the brand and putting it out there.

Ad Age: Given that you're chasing influencers beyond just the TV landscape, what other brands or marketers do you consider part of your competitive set?

Ms. Stone: While we definitely look at TV brands and we look at Food Network and VH1 and MTV and E! and all those brands, we look at seeing how other people are finding success in their genres. Like if JetBlue is innovative with Twitter, or Virgin America, we look to see what they're doing. While they're not competing with us in terms of market share, what we're competing with them on is to make sure our brand is as relevant and resonant as theirs are. We're trying to make sure we are thought of as the most-innovative marketers and brands that fans can have.

Ad Age: Is it easier to be innovative when you're marketing entertainment?

Ms. Stone: I don't think it's an inherent advantage to a marketer that they're promoting content. It's the job of the marketer or the producer to have to make sure the consumer is going to want it. Skechers is a great example. They found interesting, viral ways to get the product out there and they have good content. Bravo has content people want. I do think there are a lot of opportunities for us, but like anything else, you have to make your own opportunity. You've got to have an idea of what to do with it in a way the audience is going to be happy and excited about and ultimately [use].

Ad Age: Has the Comcast-NBCU merger affected your job or the structure of your team at all?

Ms. Stone: We have not changed the structure of the team. We have a consumer-marketing department that has six people, which is not big. We're scrappy. We really have to figure out how to be big with less. It was how the "Just Desserts" social-media day happened. In the last four years we have really solidified ourselves with the ad community, and our ad-sales-marketing team has been amazing in taking the Bravo brand and translating to that audience. In that group there's more, maybe eight people. On the creative on-air and off-air team -- that's a huge team. We have about 20 to 30 people. And then there's talent relations, which also helps us a lot.

Ad Age: How do you centralize your messaging for so many shows?

Ms. Stone You have to think in headlines. If my team can't tell me what the headline takeaway from the media community or the audience, then the idea dies a slow death. It's also a philosophy in how you think about marketing. A headline is quick, it's to-the-point and it's catchy. All those things let us break through the clutter.

Ad Age: What's your biggest challenge as a marketer?

Ms. Stone: My biggest challenge is constantly being innovative and relevant. You should never put innovation out there without relevance. If it's not relevant, where are you? And do more with less. We are really good at figuring out ways to start a conversation and spending dollars against it. Print and digital are all significant marketing tools, and we also look at ways to create viral sensations to use social media in different ways. That goes hand-in-hand with our PR and digital team to create real opportunities.

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