Funny about HBO . . . it works

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For a number of years, Home Box Office has excelled in putting bright, funny commercials on the air.

This past year, however, the perennial home to the best TV on TV also excelled in marketing its original series. And as such, HBO is the Advertising Age runner-up for Cable Marketer of the Year.

HBO rarely has had so many successful series on at the same time, including "The Sopranos," "Arli$$" and "Sex in the City."

" `The Sopranos' is an example of a show that is also an acquisition tool for us," says Eric Kessler, HBO's exec VP-marketing.

This year, the critics started the ball rolling with warm, glowing reviews about this fictional mafioso family led by Tony Soprano, king of the garbage men.

MARKETING GROUP SINGS

It was Mr. Kessler's group, though, that set the tone for this dramatic comedy.

"We had to explain what the series was about, so we used the line, `If one family doesn't kill him, the other will,' " Mr. Kessler says.

In January, new episodes will hit, and HBO's marketing machine already has swung into action. A teaser campaign on HBO started last month, and an off-air tease campaign began last week. One fun aspect of the new campaign will be trucks rolling through about 40 cities labeled "Tony Soprano Waste Management."

"We'll create an event," says Mr. Kessler.

Special events to promote HBO's original series has become the pay channel's hallmark. To facilitate the endeavor, Mr. Kessler's marketing group has developed a creative relationship with HBO's corporate communications department that is much closer than in most companies.

"We have a remarkable collaboration with Eric's marketing group," explains Richard Plepler, HBO's exec VP-corporate communications. The relationship is more than a division of labor to gain access to paid vs. free media, says Mr. Plepler. "It's really about how we can best elevate our brand and our product so that as many different audiences as possible are aware of what we are doing."

He cites a strategy HBO PR used for the launch of its comedy sensation "Sex in the City." With its cable partners the subscription networks created "Sex in the City" parties that built huge word of mouth for the show.

GENERATING BUZZ

"In places like Atlanta and Miami we'd find where the buzz-gathering places were for 20-something women," Mr. Plepler says. "The hip hot spots. Then we partnered with the cable operator in that area to get the right hip, hot people to screenings for a few episodes of `Sex in the City' at these places. Then there'd be a little dinner party there. This got us local press and local word of mouth. And it enabled me to call up The New York Times and suggest to a reporter that outside of New York the show had a buzz. Then, once we got a front page style piece in The Times about that, it encouraged other reporters to write about the show."

Mr. Kessler says this strategy is essential. "We need HBO to be part of the popular culture. We need people talking about HBO. We always need HBO to be hot. And even if someone is not watching a show on HBO, we want them to have heard about it. Thus that makes our publicity department integral to our marketing."

The HBO marketing chief says HBO is different than most other cable and broadcast networks in several key ways.

"We are not an advertising driven business. We don't rely on the number of people watching a particular show so we can charge higher advertising rates and generate revenue that way. We rely on subscriptions."

HBO also is differentiated from most other networks in that people can buy the brand.

"People do not buy NBC," Mr. Kessler notes. "They don't buy any of the broadcast networks. They don't buy any one basic cable network--they buy a package of them. But they can buy HBO."

Furthermore, the point of purchase is through the cable operator. So the cable operator also is an integral part of HBO's marketing machinery.

BRAND HBO

The result of all this, Mr. Kessler says, is "the brand itself is very critical. Most TV networks promote a show so you will watch that show. We promote a show to help sell the network. That's a big difference. So we have to make sure there's a message about the brand within any given promotion for a show."

That's because each and every month, HBO has to convince its 23.9 million viewers that the network is worth paying for. To that end, the company has had remarkable success, especially in the last year, in getting people to pay up because they believe it's not TV, it's HBO.

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