Cover Story: Inside Syfy Channel's Rule-Breaking Rebrand - Event Marketer

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Cover Story: Inside Syfy Channel’s Rule-Breaking Rebrand

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From the October issue—When the Sci Fi Channel became Syfy in 2009, people went bananas. From the mainstream media to the social networks, opinions raged and insults flew. Why did they spell it that way? Was it really necessary to change it? And why, for the love of Spock, would you distance your brand from loyal fans of the science fiction genre in the first place?

“The genre of ‘science fiction’ was never going to be ownable for us,” says Dana Ortiz, vp-marketing for Syfy at NBCUniversal (pictured, right). “We needed to create a brand that was our own and encapsulated the broadness of what we could offer.”

And so it did, creating original content like sci-fi/fantasy mashup “Warehouse 13,” paranormal favorite “Ghost Hunters” and reality show “Face-Off,” a movie makeup competition. Syfy has made itself the television home of global phenomenon, the WWE. And need we mention “Sharknado”?

Anchoring the rebrand was “Defiance,” a show about a future Earth that has been ravaged by an alien invasion and, now that the wars are over (sort-of), follows how our species manages to share the planet semi-peaceably. The show is married to a cross-platform video game with many of the same plot elements, and some crossover characters. But the real game changer, so to speak, is this: The two inform each other. In real time. So, as events unfold on the show, features and plot twists affect the game. And as players of the game change and evolve the world around them, the show is scripted to accommodate those changes, too. Back and forth. Back and forth. Boom! Syfy just blew your mind. You’ve never seen anything like this before.

“Whenever we went out there with social media, we never started from zero,” says Dana Ortiz, vp-marketing for Syfy at NBCUniversal. “The conversations never stopped, so when we came out for a live execution it was all about amplification.”

With “Defiance” clearly set free from the constraints of linear storytelling, and its brand set free from the constraints of the sci-fi genre, Syfy set itself free, too, from the constraints of traditional TV marketing and instead threw itself headlong into experiential marketing.

At high-profile press and influencer events with a heavy focus on “content as entertainment” including E3, Comic-Con, TED and South by Southwest, the network activated stunts, press and blogger events, sponsorships and consumer experiences designed to generate awareness and drive viewership during the run up to its April premiere. Ingenious social media strategies threaded into and between each event generated buzz and brought the concept of “transmedia storytelling” out of the academic and esoteric realms and into every conversation about the nature of content. Most importantly, it brought “Defiance” top of mind, eventually making it the channel’s most-watched scripted series premiere in seven years.

Indeed, the rebrand wasn’t just about saying goodbye to sci-fi as we knew it. It was part of a long-term strategy for the new Syfy, designed to set it up as the preeminent television home for speculative fiction. Where live events are leading the way.

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The Future is Here

The “Defiance” franchise’s development has been the largest and most comprehensive in Syfy’s history, Ortiz says, beginning with show creators Rockne S. O’Bannon, Kevin Murphy and Michael Taylor and culminating in the work of David Peterson in 2009. He’s an alien language linguist, (uh huh, that’s a thing), and he created the original cultures within the “Defiance” universe, and crafts the stories and narrative threads that weave through both the game and the show.

syfy_cover_set_2013Marketing began at the E3 gaming convention in 2011. Syfy revealed “Defiance” as a whole product—not just the game for the gamers, but the whole beast all at once. Stars Grant Bowler and Stephanie Leonidas, who play lead roles in both the show and game, made their first appearances as Nolan and Irisa to answer questions and introduce the concepts to the audience and the global entertainment media. The idea was to immediately cement the unified platform in the minds of potential fans, Ortiz says. “It’s a game and it’s a show and taking part in them separately is OK, but together is much more powerful,” she says. “What we didn’t want to do was project that it was a game based on a show, or vice versa. We needed them to know that both platforms were being built concurrently.”

The booth immersed attendees in the alien life gamers and viewers would find in the world of “Defiance,” and crawled with renditions of Hellbugs, Raiders and Biomen (all enemies and alien races) and futuristic weapons and technology.

After getting the ball rolling with p.r. and media attention at E3, Syfy didn’t stop the train as it rolled into 2012 and aimed straight at pop culture Mecca, Comic-Con International in San Diego. “We don’t usually have such a long on-ramp for a new show, but we decided it was important to go at ‘Defiance’ with singular focus,” Ortiz says. “This was going to be the tent pole priority for the whole year.”

E3 also kicked off the “Defiance” social strategy, implemented by Naked Communications, New York City, which was designed to keep fans engaged on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other social channels, in addition to the Syfy “Defiance” home page. On Tumblr, Syfy introduced followers to the in-world mythology, weapons and aliens months ahead of launch, so that the most hard-core fans could be fully versed in what they were going to see. The brand teased bits of content, screenshots from the game, and other conversation starters, building excitement to fever pitch between live activations that would bring “Defiance” into mass media, and which drew new followers and fans on social platforms in an endlessly growing wave. All combined, the effort led to the network’s most socially-driven program launch in history. But that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

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Comic-Con was Syfy’s first chance to get broad public attention outside of the media and gaming communities, and it was not going to waste the opportunity. The show took over the whole city of San Diego, from partnerships with Hudson Paper at the airport to fully wrapping a downtown hotel in “Defiance” branding. But passive branding is bush league, and only the beginning for Syfy. Inside the ‘Con proper, “Defiance” had a standing-room-only session in the main speaker hall where the stars and show creators talked about the new concept and the world of “Defiance” and took dozens of fan questions. The Syfy booth in the exhibit hall was completely dedicated to “Defiance,” contrary to previous years when the network had split its focus across several new properties. The spotlight and the attention was on the show, and Syfy wasn’t hedging its bets.

Outside, the network took over the well-known Maryjane’s coffee shop attached to the Hard Rock Hotel in the GasLamp district, transforming it into the “Defiance” Need/Want bar for the duration of the ‘Con. The Need/Want is a sort of general store for vice in “Defiance,” where characters can buy drinks, contraband, sex and almost anything else they might need… or want. There, it hosted a press breakfast with the cast and hosted hundreds of Comic-Con attendees throughout the events (Sub Rosa, New York City, handled).

syfy_cover_menu2_2013After Comic-Con, the social teams didn’t rest on their laurels, setting monthly goals for each platform, which they never failed to meet, and a very ambitious 250,000 “likes” goal on Facebook by the April premiere. “In order to make ‘Defiance’ a pop culture hit, we needed to invest in pop-culture events,” Ortiz says. So, Syfy made traditional media buys teasing the show and the game during other speculative television premiere events—even on other networks. It tweeted to CES attendees about tech from the year 2046, when “Defiance” takes place; tapped into Oscar coverage with piggyback posts about “Defiance” characters’ takes on nominated films; leveraged Super Bowl coverage with television spots and social media tie-ins; and attached the property to every major event of the year before the premiere.

“Whenever we went out there with social media, we never started from zero,” Ortiz says. “The conversations never stopped, so when we came out for a live execution it was all about amplification.”

The next opportunity for that was at TED in February 2013. Syfy had been a sponsor for several years, but because of TED’s strict rules about sponsorship activation Syfy had never gone experiential with the partnership. That changed this year. David Peterson was selected to speak about the process of creating language, and to host a private workshop with the TED translator corps. Although the relationship was kept subtle, according to the TED audience’s preferences, the network and “Defiance” were associated with TED’s aura of innovation and cool, which punched the social media excitement up just in time to push the biggest activation yet: SXSW Interactive in Austin, just a month before the premiere.

Living Large

syfy_defiance_1_2013It was time to bring this heady entertainment franchise to life for the people to see, so the brand created the “Defiance” Container Village, located at San Jacinto and 4th Street, live from March 8 to 11. Inside, guests could play the game, have some refreshments, catch some music and even live there (in one lucky blogger’s case) in a container hotel room, complete with all the amenities. The pop-up hotel had three functioning rooms that featured minimalist industrial design, 24-hour concierge service, round-the-clock security, bathroom and shower facilities and twice daily maid service. The three people who lived there were “Defiance” cast member Jesse Rath; Jeff Bercovici, who covers media and technology for Forbes; and Curt Johnson, the blogger who earned his room through a Klout competition where people were challenged with sharing “Defiance” content. The BestMoviesNews writer made 14,000 retweets during the three-day competition.

“We needed a hook that was press-worthy, and we had to set the mood for the show,” Ortiz says. “That hook was figuring out what people were looking for at South-by. What do they need?”

syfy_cover_room1_2013Which leads us to the highlight of the village: the Need/Want Social Bar. The Bar was a semicircle of tarnished chrome and rusted steel, covered with offers for various Needs and Wants. The key feature was the mobile app that allowed visitors to tweet to the Need/Want hashtag the stuff they wanted (water) or really needed (bacon). The app then aggregated the collective results and posted them to the bar’s interactive wall and the individual attendees’ social feeds. Then, throughout SXSW, Syfy fulfilled several of the Needs and Wants that were posted on Twitter. The brand also partnered with a local Korean barbeque food truck for a “tweet to eat” promotion. Hungry folks took to Twitter, used the hashtag and begged for teriyaki. And got it.

And so the show premiered on April 15. The numbers tell the story: “Defiance” was the channel’s most-watched scripted series premiere since 2006 with 1.3 million viewers. The game was the first ever to launch simultaneously on PC, Xbox and PlayStation, and since launching worldwide, it has seen players log more than six million hours of gameplay.

The series was in the top five scripted cable shows in social activity on premiere day, with 59,000 social exposures, which made it Syfy’s best series premiere day and its most social scripted telecast ever. In fact, it outperformed HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “The Newsroom,” FX’s “The Americans” and TNT’s “Falling Skies” on each of their respective premiere days. Not that they’re bragging.

Online, “Defiance” was Syfy.com’s best series premiere day ever in terms of unique visits and page views, and was the top-performing section of Syfy’s Digital Portfolio across several key metrics, which made it the most popular content the network produced and made available online for its website for the duration of its first season run. “Defiance” was NBCUniversal’s biggest day-and-date launch ever, premiering in over 55 countries including the UK, Canada, Germany and France.

And that’s not it, either. The momentum continues, even now that the first season is over. The network is getting ready for season two next year, and you can bet that they’ll keep the heat on. “You need to maintain these shows week-to-week and between seasons,” Ortiz says.

Well, we’re watching, Syfy, and we like what we see.

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