The New Power of Branding

With the cable TV industry a mature marketplace, network executives are turning to a tried-and-true strategy to keep growing: branding, that unique composite of name, symbol, mission, innovation and programming that differentiates one network from the other. Creating, refining or expanding a brand is an ongoing task, executives say, but can make the difference in revenue and viewership.

"I would argue brands matter more than ever," says Guy Slattery, senior VP-marketing for A&E. "There's more and more content out there on television, on cable and broadband—10,000 new hours of programming. Viewers navigate that using a network brand."

Brad Siegel, vice chairman and co-founder of GMC, says, "It matters in everything; the stronger the brand, the better the name, the clearer the communication, the better position you have in the consumer's mind."

The first part of a brand is, of course, its name. Some networks face the challenge of adapting an older brand name as programming and strategies expand or are revamped. New networks sometimes turn to the power of existing brands that can be adapted to the cable universe, while others try to find a moniker that expresses the new network's personality and goals.

"Brand names do matter, but ultimately it is about distinctive and proprietary concepts associated with that brand name," says Linda Schupack, exec VP-marketing for AMC. "You have to stand for something, but it has to be differentiated from the competition and be relevant to your audience. Brand sets up an expectation of a future experience, and it is a space you can plant in people's hearts and minds."

Building a new brand in the mature cable environment is a challenge, and a name is a critical choice in cutting through the clutter. Aspire is one of the four new minority-owned networks that will be distributed by Comcast Corp.The Aspire name reflects the programming and marketing goals of GMC and its partner, entrepreneur and NBA legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Debuting this June in at least 2.5 million Comcast households, Aspire's lineup will include movies, music and inspirational programs targeted toward the African-American viewer.

One of the other new Comcast networks is from rap music mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs, who is fueling a new network he's dubbed Revolt that will debut in 2013 and feature music videos and live performances that incorporate social media interactions between artists and fans.

Two networks that recently celebrated a decade on the dial—Nat Geo TV and Hallmark Channel—used strong existing brand names to help establish themselves with viewers, advertisers and distributors. Following in that vein is Smithsonian, launched in September 2007 as a joint venture between the Smithsonian Institution and CBS/Showtime, and now available in 70 million households.

"Our brand name springs from the Smithsonian Institution, which is one of the most well-known and respected cultural institutions in the world," says Tom Hayden, general manager of Smithsonian Channel. "There is an instant and positive emotional connection to the brand that naturally draws people to our channel."

Smithsonian attracts viewers with regular series, including "Aerial America" and "Mighty Ships," plus marquee specials such as "Titanoboa: Monster Snake" and "MLK: The Assassination Tapes." "Relative to the rest of cable and the networks that we are trying to compete with, we are just starting to make a mark with our brand within the television universe," Mr. Hayden says. "While we aren't there yet, our goal is to be a trusted landing spot for viewers seeking high-quality nonfiction entertainment programming for the whole family."

FOX Movie Channel, an advertising-free home to movies from the 20th Century Fox library, has borrowed the name of a sibling FOX brand. While during the early part of the day the network remains FOX Movie Channel, during the 12 hours beginning at 3 p.m. (ET), the network is running an ad-supported programming block it has branded FX Movie Channel. FXM boasts what it calls "contemporary hits," such as critical successes ("The Departed") and blockbusters ("Iron Man"). Between films, the network features the half-hour "FXM Presents," offering movie industry news and interviews.

The new name clearly plays off the success of sibling FX Network, and the mix of movies reflects FX's personality. On FX, viewers are kept laughing (and crying) with a steady diet of movies, popular reruns and original programming. FX, launched in 1994, is "ambitious, edgy, adult, character-driven, populist, bold and innovative," says John Landgraf, network general manager.

"Some consumers are more brand-aware than others," he says. "All channels try to find programming that is compatible with their existing audience. FX is growing in every demo at the moment, and though it is an unusually male-skewing network in terms of its original series, it is also able to program more female-driven hits."

But for existing networks trying to redefine themselves, a long-standing brand name can present a challenge.

A&E's current tagline is "Real life. Drama." The network began life as the Arts & Entertainment Network in 1984, and the name suggested programs with pristine manners and high-brow sensibility that included classic dramas, documentaries and reruns of top-rated shows. Remember "Pride & Prejudice" on A&E?

Today, A&E is a bastion of Everyman glory with a battalion of reality programming, including "Duck Dynasty," which follows the business-building exploits of a Louisiana family that turned duck calls into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, and "Storage Wars," where bidders clash over abandoned storage lockers that may hold treasure or trash.

A&E came in No. 1 in the variety TV programming brand of the year in the 2012 Harris Poll EquiTrend Rankings. Elements such as familiarity and quality helped determine brand identification with consumers.

"The shows that are on A&E now are shows with big characters," Mr. Slattery says. "Once a show is launched it has its own audience and becomes its own brand. Viewers will be loyal because they watch shows and not networks. But having a strong network brand really enables you to break out new stuff and keep your network growing."

At AMC, the current brand tagline is "Story matters here," which has served as a way to evolve the network beyond its roots. Created in 1984 as American Movie Classics, a home for classic, mainly black-and-white films, the network still devotes much of its programming time to what it considers memorable movies. But the star of AMC's lineup is its growing portfolio of original series.

"Mad Men," now in its fifth season, follows the sexy and stylized exploits of the men and women of the Madison Avenue advertising scene of 1960s New York. "Breaking Bad" is about a chemistry teacher diagnosed with a terminal disease who enters the drug and crime world to secure his family's future. The newest hits are "The Killing," now in its second season, and "The Walking Dead"—which boasted 9 million viewers for its second-season finale in March.

And AMC has acquired "CSI: Miami" for its prime-time lineup, as a lead-in to some of its original series.

"We are telling great stories," Ms. Schupack says. "They're unconventional, they're unexpected and they're really uncompromising. What we're really going for in a lot of ways is 'talked-about' television. We want to have an entertainment experience that really hits people and resonates so they want to talk about it afterward.

"If you're moving in a new direction you have to do something bold that communicates change is happening," she adds. "That's the power of the brand—when a new show comes on, there's a desire to experience it. You want to give it a shot."

Like AMC, GMC has evolved its brand name as its programming mission has grown. Launched as Gospel Music Channel in 2004, the network began evolving in 2010 as metrics provided insight into what viewers wanted. That led the network to use the "GMC TV" moniker as it added a variety of programming that didn't quite fit the original name.

"Our target audience was looking for something more from their entertainment, something more from their music," Mr. Siegel says. "They wanted something more positive, more uplifting, something that affirmed their values."

GMC tags itself "Uplifting entertainment" and says it is carving out a family-friendly space with a multicultural mix of music, movies and original programs, including the Gospel Music Association's Dove Awards; "Heartland," a family drama about a rancher and his two granddaughters; and other original movies and "gospel plays."

"The brand sets the stage for the way we want our viewers to think about us," Mr. Siegel says. "It also provides a filter through which we make decisions about what movies to produce, what series to produce, what music specials to produce and what to acquire."