They All Laughed When Sci Fi Switched to Syfy

But NBC Universal Network Now Has Reason to Smile

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LOS ANGELES ( -- When it comes to rebrands, few were more ridiculed in 2009 than the Sci Fi Channel's much-ballyhooed switch to Syfy, a respelling that prompted an outcry of negative feedback from hardcore fans and marketing gurus alike (including our very own Adages, which asked, "Is Arnell involved in this somehow?")

But unlike the ill-fated redesign of the Tropicana logo that Peter Arnell oversaw last February and that Pepsico eventually pulled, the switch to Syfy is so far a success, with the network logging its highest-rated year, quarter (fourth) and series ("Warehouse 13") ever after its July 7 rebranding. The newfound ratings momentum also seems to have had a halo effect on its ad dollars, which were already up to $264.8 million by November 2009. That means the network is on track to surpass the $274.9 million logged in measured ad spending it recorded for all of 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Two newly promoted executives will be charged with overseeing the next phase of Syfy, as the new brand continues to court advertisers domestically and expands to other territories in 2010. Michael Engleman, Syfy's head of creative who spearheaded the name change, becomes senior VP-global brand strategy and creative. Blake Callaway, Syfy's previous VP-brand marketing, is now senior VP-brand and strategic marketing, taking over some of the duties previously held by Shari Weisenberg, a 2009 Woman to Watch, who recently became senior VP-integrated marketing at Sundance Channel.

Mr. Engleman, along with Syfy president Dave Howe, initially took a lot of heat for paying multiple consultants and branding firms to find a new name, considering several dozen before opting on the respelling. So receiving such positive audience feedback, as well as anecdotal fan support, was a bit of a surprise this early in the brand's new life.

"You can't just change a few letters and expect to win an audience," he said. "The hard work and the interesting work is creating context and creating an environment that will allow people to sample a show and say, 'This is for me.' Then they stick around and sample something else."

As if one name change wasn't enough, Mr. Engleman will initially be charged with the rollout of the Syfy brand in 50 other territories this year, beginning with Syfy France this week. The Sci Fi name wasn't easy to license or own in foreign markets let alone the U.S., so finding a brand that was unique globally was key to Syfy's long-term success.

"That was the calculated risk in converting -- ownability and international play. But for anyone who thought July was the launch, they're sadly mistaken," Mr. Engleman said.

The biggest new domestic audience for Syfy has been women 25 to 54, who grew 8% in fourth quarter, enough to rank Syfy in the Top 10 most-watched cable networks for the demo and even outrank old standby Lifetime in prime time. That broader fan base has become a valuable sales tool to Mr. Callaway, who helped bring new advertisers like Hershey's, Ameritrade, BMW and Apple onto the air this year on the strength of the network's new viewers. Additionally, Verizon Wireless will sponsor the limited commercial premiere of "Battlestar Galactica" spin-off "Caprica" on January 22, while Hershey's brand Twizzlers will be integrated into a key plotline in the second season of "Warehouse 13" this summer.

"It's like we got this fantastic haircut, and people are saying, 'What did you do?' We're giving advertisers a new way to look at us," Mr. Callaway said.

Other brand extensions for Syfy include a sponsorship of the current Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which Mr. Engleman said lined up nicely with where both brands are trying to go creatively.

"Tim Burton never really allows himself to be defined by any one genre, but he loves science fiction, fantasy and knits it into everything he does. We love those genres too, but always want to push the boundaries and find new ways to tell stories," he said. "The partnership has been really interesting because it allows people to take a second look at Syfy and see us in a different light, beyond some of the perceptions as a narrow genre play."

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