Discovery Channel

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From Left: Dan Bragg, Julie Willis and Robin Bennefield
From Left: Dan Bragg, Julie Willis and Robin Bennefield Credit: Andrew Cutraro
The Discovery Channel has achieved the kind of pop culture resonance that any brand would covet in today's media-muddled environment. Its praises have been sung in the most unexpected places, like the lyrics of the Bloodhound Gang's early-2000 romp "Bad Touch" ("You and me baby ain't nothing but mammals/so let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel") and more recently, in Tracy Morgan's 30 Rock exhortation to "live every week like it's Shark Week." Perhaps that's because since it was founded in 1985, the Silver Spring, Maryland-based cable network has made science and nature fun, not only through its innovative programming but also in its clever and refreshingly unconventional marketing efforts.

Things got especially interesting this year when Discovery set out to promote the BBC's Planet Earth series—an epic collection of never before seen nature documentary films—and decided to show, not just tell, how unique the program was. "When you tell people they're going to see something they haven't seen before, they don't believe you," says Julie Willis, senior VP-marketing. "You literally have to show them. That sounds like a really simple thing but it helped how we thought about media a buying and meant that our chief goal in our media plan was to get as much footage out there as humanly possible."

In other words, the content drove the campaign, which put "little snippets of the most astonishing footage we could in front of people, to really whet their appetites for what they would see if they tuned in for more," Willis explains. The clips were broadcast not just in cinema and on TV, but also online, in DVD trailers and in an innovative out-of-home push that pumped vivid excerpts through Manhattan bus shelters and also allowed for Bluetooth downloads of additional content.

"Our internal rallying cry was 'Earthling meet Earth,'" Willis adds. "Once you know [video] was our secret strategy everything sort of makes sense." Turns out it worked too, and over the course of the 11-episode series, about 65 million people tuned in to watch, averaging 3.3 million households a night.
Unlike the special event Planet Earth, Shark Week, seven days of programming dedicated to the eponymous fish, has been a Discovery mainstay, running almost as long as the channel itself. To celebrate the week's 20th anniversary, Discovery took a decidedly non-standard tack with the online game SharkRunners. Developed by New York–based game design boutique area/code, SharkRunners puts players at the command of a research vessel with the goal of obtaining data from studying sharks. Players cruise around the California coast, trying to locate and gather data on one of the five sharks in play. Data yields grants, which allow for upgrades of equipment and crew members. The game progresses in realtime, and participants have limited time to respond when their boat is near a shark and they receive an alert via SMS or e-mail. And by the way, the sharks are real.

Based on telemetry (a technology that allows remote info tracking) and GPS data, the blips swimming around on the screen represent precise locations of real sharks. "It seemed like an obvious fit for Discovery," says interactive executive producer Robin Bennefield. "You have a very personal experience with those sharks, like 'This game is talking to me.'" The channel's fans as well as the gaming community at large began listening quickly. As of mid-September, SharkRunners had 359,252 daily unique visitors and 1.5 million page views, with an average player spending 8.5 minutes on the site. "At, we see ourselves as content," says Bennefield. "We're akin to the network producer in terms of thinking about what's going to be the best experience for people online."

Going forward, the network is eager to remain relevant and provide more programs to sate its fans, nicknamed "The Insatiables," people "who are deeply passionate, not just in the intellectual way—people who want to know more, feel more, they want to be immersed,they want to be on the edge of their seats, they want to go on a wild ride," says Willis. It only helps that "we don't present things that make you feel awful, or guilty about the environment or world trauma," says VP/creative director Dan Bragg. "Planet Earth is all about falling in love with the Earth, it's not about what we're doing wrong to it."

Discovery's next step is to take the optimism and passion the channel dedicates to its shows and project it onto a bigger brand voice. "We're going to launch a new brand campaign at the tail end of the year," says Willis—a task the network has given to El Segundo-based 72andSunny, whose charge will be to give folks a reason to love the Discovery brand as much as its programs. "What we learned from Planet Earth is that people don't really come to the network for shows that they really love, they come for a place to really celebrate the world," she adds.
Shark Week Promotion
Shark Week Promotion

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