Until that day, any time anyone in the area wanted to know the time or weather, they just looked toward midtown and found the information on the big Hitachi sign located on a building rooftop on Broadway.
But on that July day, the big sign was then graced by a single word -- Biography. Amazingly, the new sponsor drew almost universal recognition instantly.
In recognition of A&E's dynamic and dominant branding campaign, Advertising Age has named the cable network as its 1997 Cable TV Marketer of the Year.
A&E BRANDS BIOGRAPHY
In the year's most effective cable marketing effort, the A&E network has built a wholly integrated branding campaign around a single series, "Biography." It has presented a clear image to advertisers and the public alike, and led to a strong cost per thousand and record ad revenues.
Furthermore, parent A&E Networks conducted a branding effort for the fledgling History Channel that has positioned it so strongly with both Madison Avenue and the public that cable operator executives say it is one of the most asked-for new service requests.
Credit these branding efforts to A&E Networks President-CEO Nickolas Davatzes and the team led by his longtime associate Whitney Goit, exec VP-sales & marketing.
IT'S ALL IN THE BRAND
In explaining how A&E decided to use a single series as the linchpin of a multimillion-dollar branding effort for the entire network, Mr. Goit says it began as the marketing team saw an increasing number of viewing choices available to the public.
"We knew we needed a clear, strong brand. But for a horizontal network like ourselves, that's not easy. We don't have the critical noun in our name," says Mr. Goit.
Mr. Goit is referring to the defining word or concept with names such as The Weather Channel or The Travel Channel.
In fact, the lack of a clear noun is the primary reason the erstwhile Arts & Entertainment Network became A&E.
"The word 'arts,' in regard to television, has associations such as 'sometimes elitist,' 'sometimes boring,' 'sometimes overly refined' and 'doesn't translate well to TV,'" says Mr. Goit. "Even the arts patron often finds arts on TV not as satisfying as it should be .*.*. And the word 'entertainment' is too vague. Therefore, much like ESPN uses its letters rather than what they stand for -- Entertainment Sports [Programming] Network -- we decided to go to just A&E."
A BRAND AUDIT
But the problem is that A&E doesn't say anything to the viewer.
"We needed to develop a clear, well-defined image that people can easily associate with, develop an affinity for and therefore develop, loyalty," says Mr. Goit.
The first priority was to conduct a brand audit to see what advertisers, viewers, cable affiliates and the press thought was working best on the network.
"We found that 'Biography' was a leader as an original, powerful programming concept with a very powerful association with what A&E delivered to the audience," says Brooke Bailey Johnson, exec VP-general manager, A&E Network.
As a result, the "Biography" campaign was born. The tagline was slowly refined, from "the people you thought you knew" to "there's no better way to look at people."
'TIME WELL SPENT'
Simultaneously, A&E got a tag itself: "Time well spent."
"Intellectually, 'Time well spent' defines a comparison between those who view a lot of television as a wasteland, and their acknowledgment that there are good things on TV and that they'd like to watch more thought-provoking TV," says Mr. Goit.
"So, we said since our target audience tends to be, broadly speaking, somewhat more affluent and somewhat better educated, and if they do find value in TV that has some inherent learning, then 'Time well spent' is a good way to describe that."
Then last year, A&E decided to air commercials for the network on broadcast TV in local markets.
In addition, the cable network developed a host of brand extensions for its 'Biography' show, including a section in booksellers in Barnes & Noble, a magazine with a circulation of 200,000 and a recently announced line of books from Random House.
A&E is not an overnight marketing success. The effort has taken the better part of two years, culminating this year with the recognition that it's working. Currently in more than 70 million homes, the network is expected to pull in about $241 million in gross ad revenues, up from $207 million last year, according to Paul Kagan Associates.
A NETWORK WITH AN IDENTITY
Says one agency media buyer: "A&E's never tried to sock it to us on CPM increases. They have a reputation of being very fair. What excites me about them is that they now really stand for something in the viewer's mind. USA Network could really learn from them, because there's a network that doesn't really have an identity. I think the 'Biography' campaign's been great. They really plugged 'Biography's' 10th anniversary this year, and that worked."
"Time well spent" is now being reinvigorated with a new tagline, "Escape the ordinary." According to Michael Mohamad, A&E's VP-marketing, because of the almost continual brand audit exercise, "we wanted more energy, more excitement in the way people described us. So we came up with the new tagline. While everyone else on the dial seems like they're dumbing down, we're entertaining up."
Mr. Mohamad will be buying ads for the new campaign in such upscale publications as Architectural Digest, The New Yorker, Town & Country, Travel & Leisure and Vanity Fair.
Concurrent with the A&E Network effort has been a successful brand campaign for its sister network, The History Channel.
"We've raised awareness of the channel from 50% to 80% of the public," says Dan Davids, the channel's exec VP-general manager. "We broke in the top 10 in the Equitrend survey of recognizable networks for the first time."
Equitrend surveys consumers about brand awareness.
"We've been able to communicate that The History Channel is a way to experience history, not be lectured about it," adds Mr. Mohamad. He credits ad agency, Moss/Dragotti, New York, as a big help in the History effort.
CONSISTENCY BREEDS SUCCESS
On the A&E side, ad agencies include Grybauskas Beatrice, New York, and Smash, Boston.
One of the most striking aspects about both the A&E and History branding efforts is the consistency of the message.
"A major aspect of successful branding is having a well-integrated effort so messages that go out to affiliates, the press and consumers reflect the same attitude and same style," says Mr. Goit. "You look for a diverse array of communications vehicles -- tune-in and paid brand ads, your stationary, outdoor ads, radio messages, sales materials, the way you answer the phone -- it all needs to be aligned.
"I describe good branding as being analogous to good customer service. The devil is in the details. It's a continuous dynamic state of mind. It's not a project; it's not a goal. It's much more an approach, an attitude, a rigorous commitment. And you have to be nimble so you can respond to the marketplace in terms of how you're being perceived and what your competition is doing. Make sure the connection between the product and the marketing is fairly fluid and is comfortable and easily understood by the consumer."