The TCM Film Festival: Sharing the Experience of a Great Brand

One of the benefits of growing up in the New York area was the incredibly wide range of television programming options available to us.  On those rainy days when we couldn’t go out to play and homework was either finished or put on hold, there were seven, count ‘em, seven television stations to choose from!  Outside a handful of major media markets, this kind of choice didn’t exist at the time.  Even after passing over the soap operas on the three major broadcast networks and not even considering whatever “educational” show was on public television, Channel 13, we still had Channel 5 (WNEW), Channel 9 (WOR) and Channel 11 (WPIX) to keep us entertained.

In addition to the Yankee games on Channel 11 and broadcasts of the new, comically inept Mets on Channel 9, these local stations offered a great array of programming just for kids.  Personalities like Chuck McCann, Soupy Sales, Sandy Becker, Sonny Fox, Uncle Fred Scott and others hosted shows that included original skits, Laurel & Hardy shorts, Three Stooges, the classic Looney Tunes characters and other cartoons.

The local stations all ran old movies, with one, Channel 9, I believe, making an attempt to brand old black & white movies under the banner of “Million Dollar Movie.”

Which brings me to the amazing experience of attending the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival in Hollywood last week.

It’s one thing to throw a bunch of old movies on television, slap on a name and make believe the offer is bigger than it really is. The “Million Dollar Movie” name was an attempt to evoke glamour and success, but in reality, it was just a haphazard series of old movies, whatever the station could get their hands on for a reasonable fee, no doubt.  Some of these movies were great, but many were unwatchable. With my degree in Film from Northwestern University still far off in my future when I was 10 years old, I had no frame of reference when tuning in.  One day you could stumble on to The Treasure of Sierra Madre and be completely mesmerized. The next day they might air some awful melodrama from the dregs of Hollywood “B movies.”  Five minutes was all you could stand before finding something else to watch or something else to do.

The thought of a “Million Dollar Movie” film festival is laughable. Images of kids dodging homework, couch potatoes and old people with nothing better to fill their time with come to mind. The Turner Classic Film Festival was something else entirely.

Old movies?  Old anything?  Not at all.  The Festival attracted thousands of people from all ages and walks of life to share a celebration “classic” cinema, Hollywood legend, great characters (real and fictional), inside stories, movie “magic,” their own creativity and the creativity of others, a large dose of escapism, and maybe even a vision, through rose colored lenses, of the world as it should be.

The fact that thousands of people attended from around the U.S. and at least ten other nations from around the world is testament to the extraordinary insights and brand building effort on the part of the Turner Networks.

Starting with the name, a key element of the early vision must have been to elevate “old” to “classic.”  This might seem simplistic – great branding efforts always seem to be obvious in hindsight – but there had to have been an array of positioning choices back in 1994 when the brand was launched.  These may have included concepts that may have been “star based,” ideas geared toward the popularity or box office success of the films, pure nostalgia and more.

“Classic” is a term that is often abused by marketers, but it fits perfectly here, evoking feelings of timelessness and transcendence.  Turner also figured out how to take popular entertainment, raise it to the level of “art” and discuss it in an intellectual framework, all without compromising the popular, mainstream nature of the entertainment itself or alienating its audience.

Most importantly, TCM is not a haphazard collection of films like the old Million Dollar Movie. It is anchored, literally by the film personality Robert Osborne, and conceptually in the high quality films it presents and the shared values of its viewers.

The TCM Film Festival was a particular stroke of branding genius and demonstrated the power of the brand. Think about it. People traveled, many at great expense, to watch movies that they have all likely seen at least several times before. Yes, there were stars on hand to introduce many of the films, live interviews with the likes of the great film scholar and director Peter Bogdanovich, and a rare screening of a full-length version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with a live orchestra. But all of this, to me, is beside the point.

Film is a shared experience. It’s one of the reasons why people continue to go to movie theaters when any film can be eventually be seen in the comfort of one’s home, on a computer or mobile device at a much lower price.  The thrills of Avatar, the magic of Harry Potter or the teen longing of Twilight are best experienced in a crowd of like-minded others for maximum effect.

And so the TCM Film Festival was a shared experience. Working in what could be considered a counter-intuitive, backward kind of way, Turner took films from the small screen to the big screen, from solitary viewing to social viewing.

Beyond the case history in successful branding here, there is another valuable lesson here, a point I like to make often. That is, the more segmented and stratified that our society becomes, the more technology takes over our lives, the more solitary activities are created by iPhones, iPads and iMacs, life is still a shared experience.

People will always crave high-touch, human contact.  (Wonder if TCM is airing Funny Girl anytime soon so we can hear Barbra sing “People. People who need people…”)

Some products are better when shared – a film, a beer, a luxury resort, or an online video game. Other products may be targeted more for individual consumption. Even then, sharing the experience of diverse products such as books (reading is generally a solitary activity), household cleaners, personal financial software or toothpaste can be very powerful.  Identifying the human qualities of your brand along with the universal, shared experience it has to offer will make an indelibly positive impression on your consumers. They’ll feel it, absorb it and bask in the humanity and good vibrations of sharing it all.

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