Digital World Savvy: Brand For The Buck

Forget the Olympic ratings; we knew they would be through the roof. One of the goals of NBC Universal's Olympics was reestablishing its brand in a global media world in which fickle consumers pass click-quick judgment on content and multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns based on impulse and their cyber friends.

Branding just isn't what it used to be.

With Yahoo beating NBC most days in viewed Olympics-related online video and NBCU-owned cable networks sharing the TV platform, there's a good chance that fans will only remember the competitive moments rather than the branded venue. In a multi-platform media world cluttered by sights and sounds, NBC's far-flung "Chime-in" mass-marketing campaign--which touts its new prime-time stars and series-- may fall short of delivering monumental extended ratings results.

That is why the prospect of ESPN snaring future Olympics Games rights in the U.S. would be especially potent, reinforcing its global pure sporting brand.



Despite the success and controversy of its Olympic Games coverage, NBCU finds itself in the same dilemma as its advertisers and program sponsors. It uses television and the Web to distinguish itself from the clamoring pack--not just for the moment, but the long-term.

The problem for all media giants that once relied on the aura of their acronyms (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox) is that their brands no longer command the cache they did in analog times. Arming consumers with the digital weapons to access and respond reinforces the notion that media is all about content--not brands. More than ever, consumers lap up their favorite programs regardless of their host TV networks or general online aggregators of streaming video. (The obvious exceptions are the pure breeds, such as Disney, ESPN and CNN, that are reliably associated with a genre or mission.)

Efforts to prevent consumers from eliminating or fast-forwarding integrated commercials are an absurd alternative to being able to match target consumers to content and products they want. Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama qualifies as one of the swiftest brands to emerge from nowhere, going from a virtual unknown to a virtual wonder within 18 months. People know he stands for change, even if they aren't sure who he is or what change he's promising.

Effective digital-age branding of people, content products and services demands skilled consumer engagement, relevance, function, convenience, peer socializing and applied value--for just 30 seconds or as long as it lasts. That is what makes Apple's vibrant revitalization so remarkable. The i-ecosystem (of iPods, iPhones and smarter Macs) has reinvented the Apple brand by leading the charge of interactive consumers. The products, customers and culture are bound at the core. That is why it is going to take more than a newly launched $300 million advertising campaign starring Microsoft founder Bill Gates and comedian Jerry Seinfeld to reverse the negative image of Windows and other company-branded products.

The commodity of interactive choice means that even successfully creating brand awareness and loyalty can be fleeting. American Airlines' announced selective in-flight Internet access is a positive lift to the ravaged airline brand, at least until another price hike in tickets or checked baggage.

So it is with NBCU's Olympics ratings and brand gold: The tangible return on investment is an estimated $150 million in profits, based on nearly $1.1 billion in ad revenues and $700 million in the sale of security and other products by corporate parent General Electric against $894 million in domestic rights plus production costs. But the jury is still out on NBCU's brand for the buck. Such big live events, like theatrical blockbusters, are as good as marketing awareness gets--and then more for the specific content than the carrier.

The new tenets of digital branding surely defy rituals such as prime-time premiere weeks (complete with pedestrian companion Web sites) and even resurrecting vintage product icons like Speedy to bolster the sales of Alka-Seltzer.

The so-called six "Cs" of social influence marketing--content, customization, community, conversation, commerce and commitment--have radically altered the way we communicate and brand, according to Emerging Media Vice President Terri Walter, writing in Avenue A-Razorfish's Digital Outlook Report. One of the best examples surfacing from the Olympics is not even an advertiser. The 25-year-old Kinesio muscle and joint tape has become an in-show $15-a-roll wonder as a favorite with physical therapists, coaches and athletes in Beijing. The company has developed organic, viral relations without spending a dime in marketing. Its Olympics branding success is right up there with Speedo's new ultrasonically bonded LZR Racer swimsuit.

Clarity and creativity of branding in a digital world is that simple and that complex. It essentially means comprehending, bonding and relentlessly responding to your niche constituents. And that begs contemplating the fate of sprawling entertainment gatekeeper brands, such as NBCU and the other television network companies. The volatile stock market has peeled value off of stand-alone CBS. Even paying $1.8 billion to place CNET under its umbrella shows no early signs of reversing its overall fortunes, which are heavily rooted in television. It is partly because the CBS brand, at least defined on the stock market as a bottom-of-the-barrel 8-times PE, just doesn't translate in one felled swoop to the new media world.

That changed branding dynamic is something to think about before the ailing broadcast networks spend millions again this fall on campaigns proclaiming: "We're Still the One."

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