NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Sci-Fi Channel, the home of "Battlestar Galactica," "Eureka" and "Ghost Hunters," is offering advertisers more than new programming this year. It's offering up a whole new name.
In an effort to tweak its brand perception among TV viewers who associate the name Sci-Fi with aliens and Trekkies, Sci-Fi will rebrand as Syfy, pronounced the same as Sci-Fi. Parent NBC Universal will use the new spelling to launch merchandising and entertainment ventures.
The name will be formally unveiled at the network's upfront presentation to press in New York today, and will transition on-air in July, to coincide with the premiere of a new time-traveling cop series, "Warehouse 13."
The name tweak was long in the making for Sci-Fi, which has been under the leadership of former president and current NBC Universal Cable Entertainment president Bonnie Hammer since 1998, when it was the proud home of "Star Trek" reruns and "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Ms. Hammer said a name change has been discussed since her inception at the network.
"We have looked at this inside and out in focus groups -- online, with 12 people in rooms -- for so many years, but there was never something that was good enough or interesting enough to take the risk," she said.
Selecting a name that was phonetically similar to Sci-Fi was key to the channel's "brand evolution," Sci-Fi President Dave Howe said. "There were a lot of reasons to keep the name -- it stands for something, it has established ratings success, it isn't broken," he said. "But we want a brand we can own, like Coke or ESPN." Mr. Howe's goal is to see Syfy become associated with the word "imagination" the way Coke goes with soda or ESPN is tagged to sports.
But the new handle was met with mixed reviews among branding experts. George Belch, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, dubbed the Syfy name a "little bit redundant" and a bold move for the network. "Anytime you have an established brand name that's doing well and pretty much has a strong identity, tampering with it becomes risky," he said. "Whether it alienates their core fan base with the tweaking they're doing or attracts new viewers will be the ultimate measure."
Scott Davis, a partner at Prophet, a global marketing consultancy, who has worked with Sci-Fi on previous branding initiatives but was not active in the rebranding process, said, "Sci-Fi has really gone from being a cable channel that focused on sci-fi to a relationship- and experience-based brand. When you commit to making a brand of that kind of magnitude, you have to figure out how to make it as accessible as possible."
One sign for Mr. Howe that Syfy could catch on quickly: "We had several people in our focus groups literally tell us that when they text the words 'sci-fi' they spell it 'syfy,'" he said.
To accompany the revised name in July, the network will debut its first tagline, "Imagine greater," and a 3-D logo that does away with the current purple planet icon, to further distance itself from the space-like brand association. "It was so critical to design this in a way that it felt warmer, friendlier, more fun," said Michael Engleman, Sci-Fi's senior VP-creative. "We really wanted to infuse the mark with the same thing we infuse our communication with: fun, whimsy and imagination."
Although Syfy was necessary from a branding standpoint, it was also essential to growing and licensing the brand internationally. The brand name Sci-Fi is used in everything from publishing to comic books to European cable networks. "We needed a brand name we can own, that translates internationally," Mr. Howe said.
Sci-Fi has experimented with broadening its brand perception on-air for the past several years under the direction of former creative chief Adam Stotsky, who created a series of imagination-themed branded interstitials that occasionally served as advertising vignettes for non-endemic advertisers such as Pillsbury, as well as creating a unique brand integration for Unilever's Degree antiperspirant on "Eureka" last summer.
Here, then, is SyFy's Road to the Upfront report card:The Player: Syfy
The Date: March 12, 2009
The Venue: City Winery, New York
Key Execs: Bonnie Hammer, president-NBC Universal Cable Entertainment; Dave Howe, president, Sci-Fi Channel; Mark Miller, senior VP-ad sales, Sci-Fi; Michael Engleman, senior VP-creative; Craig Engler, senior VP-general manager, Sci-Fi Digital; Shari Weisenberg, VP-strategic marketing
The Food: A choice of braised shortribs or grilled chicken as an entree, plus a choice of decadent desserts such as banana cream flambe tart and cheesecake.
The Drinks: Select media-agency partners were treated to private dinners on the Sci-Fi dime to get a peek at the rebranding and the new programming lineup, as well as customize their own wine at City Winery. Media buyers from ZenithOptimedia tasted four reds and a white, and ultimately chose a pinot noir as the wine that best defined the agency. The buyers will then be able to revisit the wine during the next six months to taste its evolution -- just like that of the Sci-Fi brand, natch.
The Swag: A complimentary vial of the chosen wine, a keepsake of future deals and drinks together
The Ratings Game: Sci-Fi is finishing another record year in ratings as the No. 5 network among adults 25 to 54, No. 9 among adults 18 to 49 and No. 10 among women 25 to 54. Live ratings are a challenge, however, as the network is the most DVRed on TV, and sees incremental growth from commercial ratings, online streams and iTunes downloads.
Last Year's Take: Sci-Fi grossed $302.4 in measured ad spending in 2008, a nearly 8% increase from 2007's $277 million take, according to TNS Media Intelligence.