In the new digital age, competition for TV channels will come increasingly from all leisure and entertainment brands, including newspapers and other information sources, the Internet and games activities, as well as more traditional pursuits such as sport, restaurants and pubs.
The fact that there is more and more choice available on TV does not necessarily mean that people will watch correspondingly more. In a digital home, when people make the decision to watch, they will be increasingly influenced by exactly the same criteria that inform their choices elsewhere. When the same programmes can be seen on several different channels, branding and identification, as with all consumer brands, provide a clear understanding of the basic offering of each channel and a competitive differential.
We have all seen countless examples of brilliant commercials for consumer products and services, and we in broadcasting are at times only too aware that our industry’s idents and promos are being viewed alongside, and therefore intrinsically compared to, these powerful pieces of brand communication. Many of these commercials use expensive techniques such as 35mm live action shooting, large casts and crews, and multilayered compositing on machines such as Inferno, Flame, Henry and Infinity at high-end post-production facilities.
You could argue that at least they set a standard to aspire to, but is it a standard broadcasters can hope to emulate? In the digital environment, all TV channels need to maximise their exposure and strengthen their own image. Yet the money some of them have to spend on their idents and promos is relatively small in comparison to budgets for commercials, and has to stretch a lot further.
Building a striking on-air presence, with a low budget, in an environment where the entry level standards are high, can be quite a challenge. The fact is that if a relatively low budget piece of work is going to be seen repeatedly, and over a prolonged period of time, it can quickly start to look thin, meaningless, and lacking in originality, unless the right principles are applied in the first place. One of the first principles to obtaining outstanding creativity from a low budget is this: a designer’s skill is a precious commodity, which should be “saved” for where it will produce the strongest impact.
The broadcasting industry sometimes suffers from giving poor creative briefs – an issue which the client and designer need to resolve together.
Branding for a channel demands exactly the same discipline as for any other consumer product. Advertisers spend a long time researching the market and testing the product perceptions against reality and the competition before arriving at a series of strategic recommendations.
Drawing on the same discipline, a good way to start is to ensure that, regardless of the budget, the designers start work on a brand identity project with a clear strategic direction. If you have originated the strategic positioning elements of the project, they will underpin the creative work well, as you will have ensured this as a first priority throughout the development process. If you are working to someone else’s strategy, always interrogate it to see if it meets the criteria you require in order to produce strong, meaningful work. A good brand strategy is one that can be refined to a single-minded, simple thought or positioning statement, which can find a visual interpretation and will ultimately be expressed through the primary creative concept. (Examples of these are: “Discovery – the home of discovery” or “ITV2 – a different view”.) These positioning statements do not have to be expressed literally as copylines, slogans, voice-overs or visual representations, although in some instances they can be. Their function is to provide a benchmark for the creative work to be judged against.
Although designers find that smaller broadcasters can rarely afford the luxury of an intensive planning process lasting six months or more – the norm for many consumer brands – they still have access to a great deal of relevant research and information they sometimes feel should not be shared with their design team. It should be remembered that poor information can lead to shallow and superficial solutions. Designers know that good design is the product of good thinking as well as visual talent. If the budget is simply not there to commission a comprehensive strategic positioning exercise prior to starting intensive design work, a reasonable substitute is to involve the designers at a much earlier stage, seeking their judgement on whether the direction being pursued is actually viable from a design perspective.
Designers like to design. After all, it’s where their talent really shines through. A clear strategic positioning frees them to explore interpretations of the brief rather than being bogged down in working out its parameters. It is challenging enough to develop an immensely imaginative and inspiring piece of work on a restrictive budget without introducing an additional obstacle to circumvent in the form of a confusing or rushed brief.
Of course, many pieces of broadcast design work (particularly at the lower budget end of the scale) come in the form of individual title sequences or promos rather than full-on identity packages. Here the same principles apply. Although there is not the same need in these cases for a rigorous and comprehensive market positioning, the aims and objectives of the exercise still have to be clearly articulated in the form of a clear brief. The simpler and more purposeful the thinking, the easier it becomes to focus on solving the creative challenge.
Formulating great design ideas is a labour-intensive process. A big budget can buy both talent and volume of people to ensure that great creative work is produced in a short space of time. But, if money is tight and these people cannot be bought “in bulk”, more thinking time needs to be allocated. If money and time are both in short supply, it is unrealistic to expect the work to be overwhelmingly effective, successful and refreshingly different. The client’s approach to this process also affects the outcome of the work. The best clients are those which respect the abilities and recognise the core specialisation of their design team, and are able to give them creative licence while maintaining a process of constructive feedback. This is purely down to the attitude, calibre and experience of the people involved, and can apply to the smallest budgets as well as the biggest.
There is no doubt that a small budget limits the range of options available for the execution of the creative concept. Small budgets mean Mac-based work (resulting in a look that is primarily graphic or typographic) or a creative use of low budget live action techniques. The high-gloss look of big budget commercials can be expensive to achieve, but there are always creative, economical alternatives to be found. The solution and the technique work hand in hand, but the technique should always service the idea rather than being the idea itself.
Techniques evolve all the time and a thorough understanding of all forms of production and post-production is essential for any designer. When creating a design which needs to have longevity, the danger of over-reliance on techniques is that they will wear out as the concept of what is cutting edge evolves. And there are always commercials to remind us of the newest and best applications of “state-of-the-art”. A simple and beautifully succinct piece of work will last for a long time and always seem fresh to new eyes.
Consultancies will always be more expensive for a client than working with an in-house designer. However, the best external consultancies offer an objective, informed perspective. The need, linked to sheer survival, to produce differentiating solutions, as well as the potentially huge commercial impact of these – reflected by increased ratings and market share as well as a gain in advertising revenue, and the like – should be weighed against these higher costs. To get some idea of the impact of a successful broadcast brand, look at Discovery, a company which has built a commanding global presence and has been rated as one of the top five US brands. It is also perceived as being a much larger organisation than it actually is.
Finally, perhaps the most important point about tight budgets is the creative buzz afforded from a really exciting opportunity. It is important to remember that designers are never motivated by money alone. They will give their all if they have the right type of brief and scent an opportunity to do something in a genuinely different and exciting way. A piece of work which sets new standards can attract a lot of attention and win high-profile awards, which will create an aura around the company and lead to interesting new opportunities.
Of course, broadcast brand specialists are always keen to emphasise that branding and identity has a bottom-line impact on the revenues of broadcasters, which should be aligned to the spend in the first place.
But, low budgets do not have to prevent a really great piece of work being conceived and executed, and can deliver results that exceed all expectations.
Context: Launch of Fox Kids France
Fox Kids had to be differentiated from the other youth channels that already have an audience in France. The designers created a branding concept that reflects a child’s view of a hip, exciting environment – and transports them into the programme.
A series of Transfoxers – toys kids can drive – were computer generated, together with 30 fast-moving 3D-animated rides, which open into the channel features.
The branding creates a space which gets the kids involved. The central idea of taking people on a journey is effectively produced with detailed computer graphics. The continuity of thought is very strong and delivered in a compelling way to offer scope for a consistent and vibrant campaign.
Title Sequence:Ice Men
Designer: BDH (UK)
Context: BBC documentary sequence examining the history and heroism of early Arctic exploration and the quest for domination of the North Pole.
In programme making, title sequences have an important role to play. Their role is to interpret as well as illustrate the programme content – and draw audiences in. Ice Men demonstrates just how this can be achieved economically and, more importantly, with great imagination.
The portraits of heroic Arctic explorers convey a real sense of drama. The explorers’ faces were screen printed on to thin plaster tiles and rigged to explode in front of a high speed film camera, giving the effect of crackling ice floes, suggesting an unforgiving environment.
The sequences use very simple techniques that took no more than one day in a pack shot studio to produce. The small budget required imagination in order to realise a high quality piece of work. It was obvious to me that the sequence communicated the programme’s promise in a most compelling way.
Context: Weather idents for a French/German cultural channel
My personal favourite, the weather idents for Arte are a fabulous example of a great idea, simply communicated. Pared down to the minimum, they unveil a different European sky each day – 365 skies for the 365 days of the year. The soundtrack accompanying these images is changed every three months, to correspond to the seasonal cycle.
These beautiful shots of raw nature, just observed and left alone, enhance the poetics of the weather and introduce the slot in a very natural, yet ground-breaking way. All the production required was a digital camera, and very limited editing time.
The idea and techniques involved couldn’t be simpler, but the result is mind-blowing. The idents perfectly echo Arte’s focus on culture and its concept of pushing aside European frontiers… Just perfect in every way.
Channel Branding:Carlton Food Network
Designers: English & Pockett
Context: Channel launch
The challenge was to create a brand identity that would position food programmes in a new and stylish way. Daytime offerings are often seen as down market. So, images of everyday kitchen implements were creatively combined with appetising images of food to convey the idea of ‘lookalikes’ in the culinary world. The natural colours of both food and hardware were broken down and recomposed to create a strong graphic impression.
The design solution matched the character of the channel and added a stylised quality that helped CFN differentiate itself in the cable market. Despite a limited budget, this project won a Gold BDA Award.