BBC Choice forces Beeb chiefs to create all-embracing brand

Ten years ago “television” and “marketing” were concepts that collided only accidentally. In a world of just four channels broadcasters competed vigorously with one another and energetically promoted their programmes to viewers – but the relationship between producer and consumer was exceedingly simple.

Things are different now. More channels means more choice means more marketing: more need to create strong brands and communicate more effectively. It’s a rule which applies as much to established channels as to new ones, which is why these days ITV has a marketing and commercial director and why BBC TV now has a controller of marketing.

The controller, Maureen Duffy, arrived in March of this year, and one of her first tasks was to manage something the BBC has only attempted once in the 34 years since BBC2 first went on air in 1964: the launch of a new television channel. Last year saw the start of BBC News 24. Last week it was the turn of BBC Choice, a third general interest channel to sit alongside BBC1 and 2. It’s an early harbinger of the digital television revolution scheduled to begin properly this Thursday when Sky’s first satellite digital receivers go on sale.

Operators in the multichannel world already know the importance of marketing. A channel like Bravo or MTV is a distinctive brand, almost regardless of what programmes it carries. In a multichannel world those channels which flourish are those with strong and identifiable branding.

That posed little difficulty for the BBC’s first venture into niche TV broadcasting, News 24, which has few conventional programmes and an eminently simple programming proposition. But BBC Choice presented a problem: a niche channel but one drawing on programmes from BBC1 and 2, including some (like Watchdog, Match of the Day and Crimewatch) which are themselves strong brands.

Early attempts to devise a consumer proposition which did justice to this hybrid character appear to have been unsuccessful. The BBC was clear the channel would offer extended coverage of sport and events like Glastonbury, for which the BBC had rights it couldn’t fully exploit on BBC1 or 2.

It would also offer another chance to see BBC programmes: that week’s or programmes from the archives. But Katharine Everett, the channel’s head of programming, describes the original schedule as “something put together by a committee with some idea of what might be lying around already, but no real idea about the available audience.”

That audience, she decided, would be predominantly young people with families: the typical early adopters of multichannel television. Programme strands would be designed especially to appeal to them.

Something would also have to be done about the widespread perception among viewers – especially younger viewers – that, while BBC programmes might be popular, the organisation itself was daunting and stuffy.

But devising a coherent brief proved difficult. Duffy says she found Everett’s team working with a definition of their new channel – something like “A new take on television for people with a fresh outlook” – which, while it might have rung the right bells internally in the BBC, was unworkable from a marketing point of view.

“When you’re crafting a consumer proposition it has to be something that communicates a proper consumer benefit,” she says. What’s more, though research might suggest BBC1 and 2 were unapproachable, to sell BBC Choice on the basis that it might be more “accessible” risked denigrating the two existing channels.

The eventual consumer proposition – that BBC Choice “makes more of what you already enjoy on BBC1 and 2” – finds expression in a series of channel idents which aim to be witty and warm, while encapsulating the idea of choice (the buzzword which has become ubiquitous in digital television).

So one ident plays on the idea of a channel for fans (with images of a football fan, a paper fan and an electric fan), one on a channel with punch (a bowl of punch, Mr Punch, a boxer’s punch), one on a channel for the mouse generation (a toy mouse, a computer mouse, a real mouse).

The use of a trio of images in each case is a subliminal reference to the fact that this is the BBC’s third general interest channel – although “BBC 3” was rejected as a possible name since no-one was sure a network with such slender budgets could deliver viewers’ expectations.

Besides generic trailers on BBC1 and 2, the new channel will be supported by a poster campaign and cross-trails on the digital versions of BBC1 and 2.

With the launch of Choice Auntie has had to learn new tricks, skills which she will need to deploy more often in the digital world. The BBC is planning the launch of a new education service next year, BBC Learning, and it’s part way through an attempt to reposition BBC1 and BBC2.

It’s had to devise an over-arching channel brand which can embrace and sustain the subsidiary brands of popular programmes.

And its broadcasters have had to learn not to take a back seat to the marketing department, but to talk to their audiences not merely through their programmes but as part of a coherent strategy.

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