Industry experts call it “Peak TV” – a title that acknowledges both the quality and quantity of scripted series currently airing across established networks and upstart streaming services alike. For viewers at home, it may feel impossible to keep up with the sheer number of “must watch” shows. That’s an understandable feeling. FX Networks, which tracks the series currently on the air, notes that 342 individual scripted series have aired so far in 2017, making it the biggest year on record for TV programming.
For producers and marketing departments, this glut of content creates a mandate: stand out from the crowd or fade away. As a result, some of the strongest brands around right now belong to TV shows. In the age of Peak TV, what can show brands teach us about storytelling and audience engagement?
Creating & Connecting with a Rabid Fan Base
Standout brands have existed on television since the beginning of the medium, reaching greater prominence as more and more American households became plugged in. Saturday Night Live created an enduring brand identity by consistently bringing the best names in comedy to our TV screens, and the various iterations of the Star Trek or Law & Order franchises kept viewers engaged through a longstanding commitment to on-brand storytelling. These days, streaming services compete with traditional networks to find an audience for hundreds of brand new shows each year.
The only way to survive in today’s oversaturated TV environment is to create and cater to a specific fan base, living up to the expectations of those who are invested in a brand without alienating newcomers. While the medium may be different, it’s a struggle that’s all too familiar to marketers and branding experts in any industry. Here’s what we can learn from TV’s most successful brand builders:
Breaking Down Barriers
One major challenge for most TV shows is that they’re seasonal products, airing only for a few months out of each year. The shows that succeed over multiple seasons find ways to keep the magic alive during the “off-season,” building anticipation and excitement.
The Walking Dead, an ongoing hit for AMC, engages fans year-round through appearances at comic and horror conventions, as well as strategic leaks and hints about the upcoming season. Breaking through the TV screen with online content and creating year-round buzz through in-person appearances built a brand strong enough to warrant a successful companion series, Fear the Walking Dead.
Netflix recently made news (and caused delight for diehard fans) when its legal department issued an on-brand cease-and-desist letter to an unauthorized pop-up bar that co-opted its popular Stranger Things series brand. While legal jargon would have sufficed, Netflix turned an obligation into an opportunity to break barriers by crafting a letter full of references familiar to fans of the show.
“My walkie talkie is busted so I had to write this note instead,” they wrote. “I heard you launched a Stranger Things pop-up bar at your Logan Square location. Look, I don’t want you to think I’m a total wastoid, and I love how much you guys love the show. (Just wait until you see Season 2!) But unless I’m living in the Upside Down, I don’t think we did a deal with you for this pop-up.”
Ultimately, instead of coming across as pushy or overprotective, the letter endeared Netflix to fans and received positive press, all while reminding viewers to tune in to the upcoming Season 2.
Building Fan Communities
Earlier this summer, The New York Times reported on a lesser-known brand, BBC America’s Orphan Black, which maintained a rabid fan base that supported the show for five seasons despite subpar ratings. Through social media and other online platforms, producers engaged with the #CloneClub, a group of superfans who evangelized the show across the internet. Instead of policing fan art, plot speculation, and even video content created by online fans, Orphan Black empowered their creative engagement by featuring fan art in marketing campaigns, inserting bits of fan-created dialogue into scripts, and even polling the #CloneClub about what kind of food a character would eat onscreen. As a result, fan communities are still creating brand content even after the show’s run ended this summer.
Creating a Visceral Response
One TV brand with particularly strong and adaptable visual branding is FX’s anthology series, American Horror Story. While the storyline and content differ from season to season, each new theme is teased for months in advance with creepy posters and video teasers. Fans speculate wildly about each new bit of information, lighting up the internet with guesses, conversations, and arguments.
As a horror brand, American Horror Story knows the way to its fan’s hearts is through revulsion. Previous season’s marketing images have played on phobias such as insects, clowns, and snakes. For the current season, images that intentionally triggered trypophobia (the fear of small, irregular holes) made a big splash, causing such a visceral response that some argued the brand had gone too far. However, the season premiere was the second most-watched cable television event of 2017 so far. Brand builders who know their audience know how to keep them on the edge of their seats.
While Peak TV offers too many options for viewers to keep up with, it gives marketers the opportunity to speak directly to their core demographics. Smart brand builders break down barriers, engage with fan communities on their terms, and provide on-brand, visceral content to keep their fans constantly engaged. All we have to do is watch and learn.