NEW YORK Spike Television finally is getting some. Action, that is -- at least, from new advertisers, if not necessarily new viewers.
The reason has much to do with Spike's two-year-old effort to rebrand itself as a channel that offers more than beer and babes to its target audience of men 18-49. This effort was highlighted most recently by "The Force of July," a programming and promotional stunt unveiled earlier this month to help hype the showing of all six Star Wars movies, which for the first time have been put in a single package on basic cable. The network, which outbid NBC and Turner to win the rights to the franchise in 2006, began broadcasting the movies in April.
"Force," created in partnership with Mother, consists of a series of humorous promo spots, including one of Darth Vader on a golf course willing a ball to drop into a hole. It's the second phase of a campaign, "There's much to be learned," centered around the Star Wars franchise. The first phase, launched in March, included a variety of out-of-home elements.
Ad sales were slow to take off when Spike launched in 2003 as a network focused on men's entertainment. (Since the network's creation in 1983, it has undergone several ownership and name changes; just prior to Spike, it was The National Network.) From 2005 to 2006, ad revenue was up 2.8 percent, grossing the channel $369 million, according to Derek Baine, a senior analyst at media research firm SNL Kagan. But from 2006 to 2007, the network saw ad revenue grow 11.8 percent, grossing $412.8 million. Projected figures for 2008: a 10.4 percent increase, grossing $455.6 million.
Baine explained that while the industry as a whole is growing near the 10 percent range, larger networks that are fully distributed -- including Spike -- are not growing as quickly. "For a more-mature network like Spike, getting double-digit growth is good," said Baine.
Network execs admit that it's taken Spike several years to find its true voice, as exemplified in its wide variety of programming. So in 2005, corporate brass surveyed Madison Avenue to determine how the network was presenting itself to the outside world.
"What we actually found out, which was really eye-opening for us, was that they didn't perceive us the way we perceived us," said Kevin Kay, president of Spike.
While the network saw itself as offering a variety of male-focused programming, from leftover TNN shows including Baywatch and Star Trek: The Next Generation to original series such as Pros vs. Joes (in which professional athletes compete against "regular" folks), it was perceived by ad agencies as offering primarily lowbrow and often violent entertainment. Still others assumed the channel "played cops all day," said Niels Schuurmans, svp of consumer marketing and executive cd at Spike.
(Granted, in 2005 Spike had launched the short-lived Stripperella, an animated, adult-oriented series about a stripper/super agent named Erotica Jones. That year the network also launched The Ultimate Fighting Championship, a program focused on mixed martial arts.)
Spike execs also found that many of the comments were not based on firsthand knowledge, but on word of mouth. "It was kind of like, 'We have a perception of what you are, but we have no idea who you are,' which I thought was really interesting," said Kay.
Bottom line, there was no real connection to the brand. Kay said after reviewing all of the comments, "We all had our heads on our desks. It was a collective 'that-was-the-worst-focus-group-ever' and we were really kind of set back by it."
Interestingly, consumer research -- which the network has been doing since 2003 -- also showed a misperception. "Guys loved us," said Schuurmans. But some said, "'You've got gorgeous women all over the channel.'" While execs were glad to hear from a loyal fan base, it was clear, he said, that many viewers were also not aware of the variety of programming being offered.
In early 2006, Schuurmans spearheaded an effort to clarify the brand across all media. "We wanted to answer the question, 'Who is Spike?'" he said.
The goal was to speak to men in an authentic "guy" voice. The personality they devised, based on consumer research, was "loyal, confident, funny, action oriented ... and no bullshit. [Basically], unapologetically male," according to Spike's internal manifesto.
"We really put that [voice] in our creative filter," said Kay. "If it doesn't feel authentic ... it's not for us."
To achieve this, the network in part came up with a new, edgier logo, introduced at the 2006 upfront. Following that, in June 2006, with the launch of its original Blade: The Series programming -- now off the air, it was based on the Marvel Comics' character and films -- the network introduced the tagline: "Get more action." This was incorporated into its logo as well as all advertising.
"We knew ['Get more action'] would be a tangible calling card for sales. But we also knew we could own action where nobody else was owning it," said Schuurmans.
As a pod-busting technique, the network also created "The Men of Action" series, ongoing promotional spots with integrated sponsorships that parody action movies and "classic action moments." Subsequently, Spike TV also created the "CSI guys", another set of promo characters, in the same vein. For Schuurmans, this was critical in the network's ability to attract more advertisers.
In general, the rebranding effort, say many industry execs, has been a success. Francois Lee, vp and activation director at Publicis-owned MediaVest, said, "When they came out in 2006 and gave a focus to the network, it really helped define what Spike meant to advertisers."
The "Men of Action" series especially has met with enthusiasm. Upon launch, the network attracted some obvious advertisers (e.g., in the mobile and energy drink categories). But of late, it has broadened its appeal, thanks to the ad vehicle. Lamisil, for instance, debuted on the channel earlier this year in "Men of Action." In its segment, a duo sparring in a martial arts match stopped mid-fight as one complains to the other of athlete's foot. His opponent, having just been kicked in the mouth, proceeds to explain the benefits of using Lamisil foot remedy.
Kay Jewelers also began doing integrations on the network this year. Anne Clark, director of media for the company, said it likes to find programming environments that speak to both men and women "because men are buying and women are the recipients." Spike's "Men of Action," in particular, Clark added, speaks to Kay Jewelers' target male audience. "The 'Men of Action' vignettes are a humorous take on what guys do," she said. "It has a little bit of an edge, but it's attractive to our customers."
In one of the Kay Jewelers segments, two men are about to have a drag race to see who can win over a woman they both want. Before the race begins, however, one man presents the woman with a ring. Game over.
Tim Sullivan, director of media and Hispanic marketing at Domino's Pizza, went as far as to say Spike is one of the leaders in sponsored integrations. (One of Domino's integration spots featured Spike's CSI guys at a crime scene; one uses the dead guy's phone to order pizza.) There are certain networks, he said, that "get it" when it comes to these types of deals, while others feel they need to participate to grab their share of ad dollars without knowing how to pull it off.
"To Spike's advantage, they know who they are, who they want to be and are partnering -- at least in our viewpoint -- with brands consistent with their target audience. We share like minds in that respect," said Sullivan.
To support their sponsors' needs (content with which they feel comfortable) without reneging on the promises it made to consumers, particularly on its being "unapologetically male," Spike relaunched spike.com (formerly spiketv.com) in May as a place where risks can be taken.
While the Web site shares the same spirit of the overall brand, according to Erik Flannigan, evp of digital media at the MTV Networks Entertainment Group (which, like Spike, is owned by Viacom's MTV Networks), the two differ in a variety of ways. Racier content, for instance, lives on the site, such as a dedicated channel called Girls that houses categories such as Bikinis and Nipple Slip. Spike.com also includes video game, movie and music content.
Deirdra Bodkin, vp and group media director at Zenith Media, another Publicis shop, whose client HP has worked with Spike in various sponsorships, said she feels more comfortable running ads with this channel as opposed to other Viacom properties like VH1. She pointed to down-and-dirty primetime reality shows on VH1 such as I Love Money and I Love New York as the reason why.
"Don't get me wrong, people are watching [them], but it's not content we would be comfortable running next to," said Bodkin. "While there are some things to watch out for on Spike, as far as the comfort level ... we're able to find more places to run."
Spike executives said they're pleased with the apparent progress they've made, even as ratings have only incrementally increased. According to the Nielsen Co., daytime viewership has risen to 695,000 in 2008, from 625,000 in 2006. For prime-time, viewing has climbed to 1.3 million in 2008 from 1.2 million in 2006. The 2008 figure applies from Jan. 1 to July 13.
"The goal is to ultimately get more viewers, but you also want specific loyal viewers," said Schuurmans. "We're growing the audience with new programming, and when they come to us we want how they experience our brand to be positive and memorable."
"They've had great momentum with their brand," said Christine Olson, vp, activation director at Publicis-owned Starcom USA. "We've seen advertisers embrace that in Spike. They just have to keep it fresh, especially with the young male audience."
Schuurmans agreed. "Our whole philosophy is, 'What else can we do?'" he said.
The immediate answers are live commercials and a live two-minute game show, both of which are debuting in September. The trivia game show, 120 Live -- which will run both on-air and online -- will reside inside commercial pods attached to a sponsor. Advertisers will take center stage, with questions crafted around each marketer's business and category.
"The idea is we always want to reinvent and come up with new ideas that create buzz so there's constant attention to this brand," said Schuurmans. "But, it's always about the consumers and our advertisers."