This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Be original" is more than A&E's new tagline; it's a rallying cry for the cable network. In a bid to reflect the direction of parent A+E Networks' flagship channel, which has shifted to a 100 percent original primetime schedule, the red-hot A&E is rolling out a refreshed brand.
The campaign, which will encompass a new on-air look and website in addition to the tagline, comes as the network best known for ratings smash Duck Dynasty and critical hit Bates Motel is wrapping up its 10th consecutive year of growth among its target 25-to-54 demographic. More than a year in the making, "Be Original" is poised to launch Dec. 11 as part of a Duck Dynasty Christmas special. "We felt like we could really own 'originals' the way USA has managed to own 'characters' and TNT owns 'drama,' " A&E marketing executive vp Guy Slattery tells THR, which got a first look at the campaign materials.
He acknowledges the goal is to distinguish A&E from rivals that rely on sports and off-net repeats to prop them up. While the latter strategy is limited and, increasingly, pricier as demand far outstrips supply, it has allowed a competitor like USA to remain No. 1 in total viewers for nearly a decade in large part due to NCIS and Law & Order reruns. The NBCU cable network depends on originals for only 11 percent of its primetime lineup, according to A&E. And TBS, which is only 7 percent original, has seen its ratings soar thanks to The Big Bang Theory repeats.
"Be Original" will replace "Real Life Drama," which was implemented by A&E in 2008. Although the previous tagline had been key in moving the network past its arts and entertainment legacy, according to Slattery, it no longer is accurate for A&E programming. "The environment is very different than it was two or three years ago in that it's a much lighter, more fun place to come and spend time," he says.
The network turned to Troika -- a Los Angeles-based branding consultancy, which helped rebrand AMC and The CW -- to assist on the campaign. David McKillop, GM of A&E, offers another reason for the change, explaining how the old branding told people "what we do," not "who we are." The latter is important, he argues, when looking to cut through the clutter.
"If people understand why we do what we do as a network and they buy into that, that's a much more powerful emotional connection," he says, noting that many competitors are trying to duplicate the success of Duck Dynasty by seeking Southern men with beards to throw on TV (several shows are in development).
What the knockoffs lack, he says, are characters as authentic as the Robertsons, who regularly lure 9 million viewers to A&E. "They're finding the 'what,' " he continues, "but the mistake they're making is that they don't have the 'why.' "