Building a Digital Brand That ‘Gets Us’

Herb Scannell is reaching out to the burgeoning Latino market as CEO of digital media company Mitú. A veteran programmer, Scannell is no stranger to building brands geared to passionate audiences. In the 1990s he headed up Nickelodeon and oversaw the kids-targeted network as it expanded to become the category’s leading international brand. More recently, he led cable channel BBC America until its equity purchase by AMC Networks in 2014.

Scannell spoke with Multichannel News about his vision for the Mitú brand — which he said reaches 90 million people a month on social media with original long- and short-form programming — and the opportunity to serve an underserved audience of younger Latino viewers.

MCN: After a long career in the traditional television arena, what drew you to the digital space and Mitú?
Herb Scannell:
The Latin space has always been of interest to me. One, it’s personal: My mother is Puerto Rican, and I grew up in a household with 14 cousins, all on my mother’s side and none from my father’s side, who was from Boston, so you know how we swung.

Then professionally, I always thought this was an audience that was under-realized in media. There were the monsters of Spanish language in Univision and Telemundo and then everybody else. When I left the BBC, I looked at a number of startup companies and I liked this company because it had an audience connection. Our audience is the younger generation: Eighty-three percent of our fans and followers are under 35, and they’re 100% Latino-American. It’s that duality that defines them and they live comfortably between the two. It’s a source of both pride and a source of humor, and the brand takes on that identity.

We can create programming that’s humorous and we can also cover the latest on DACA. It’s a lot like the MTV brand when we had the “Choose It or Loose It” campaign alongside Beavis and Butt-head, or the Nick brand with Nick News and Ren & Stimpy. Those are great brands that had breadth, and that’s what Mitú has.

The words that best describe the brand are to elevate and celebrate Latino talent, stories and audiences to their rightful place front and center in American popular culture — not on any Latin tier, but front and center.

MCN: How does Mitú differ from other Latino-targeted brands in the marketplace?
The Mitú brand gets who the Latino audience is in a real and authentic manner with the breadth and topicality that it can cover. The brand promise of this company is around the idea that traditional media doesn’t get us; they don’t create stories about us. We tell stories of us in short form and long form; we package shows to third parties and sell stories of us to advertisers who want to connect with us. We’re also smarter than anybody else about us because the data we collect off of our social streams informs what we do on our brands and what we can do for marketers. 

So that’s the position that the brand has. Right now we have a legacy position on YouTube; last year, we joined the Snapchat Discovery Group and we’re daily connecting with audiences. When you have an audience that you can connect with, they want a piece of you literally in many different ways. So, the future of this company is to offer more touch points on social media; to create and sell content to third parties; to leverage our fandom into subscription businesses, from which you can ultimately create more brand relationships.

MCN: You mentioned Nickelodeon. Do you liken the path of Mitú to that of Nickelodeon in terms of reaching an underserved audience through a relatively new distribution platform?
The truth about my time at Nick was that it was a mission-driven company, and the results were pretty apparent. The network knew what it wanted to do and knew who its audience was and knew the audience better than anybody else. All those kinds of earmarks are here in this company.

So I think the honest answer is, the best place to connect with audiences right now is digital. The cable universe is too big, and if you end up with a relationship with a niche audience on cable, you end up on channel 199. If you’re on digital first, the onus is on you to make those connections, and that’s where data comes in because data informs choices that attract audiences.

The nature of this audience is that it over-indexes watching video on devices. The lifeblood of a Latino is their phone — if they’re young, they’re like a typical millennial, and if they’re older, they probably didn’t have a landline. It’s always been their media center. So they over-index on social media usage; over-index on sharing; over-index on buying.

The sweet spot for this audience as an anchor is social media, so that’s where the brand lives comfortably. When you’re there you’re not relegated off to the side like cable; it’s your job to be in the middle of your audience. So I see many parallels in that when you connect with an audience, it’s really the No. 1 thing that makes for a good brand. And that’s why I’m here because I think this is a brand that matters.

MCN: What is the network’s original programming strategy?
There are probably two areas of opportunity. One is never dismiss any chance to connect with your audience, so feeding your feeds is essential because that’s how people really get to know you and then seek you out in other places. The other is to find ways of telling your audience’s story. Our brand promise is to tell the story of us.

In 70 years of television there are only what we call six stories of us. I Love Lucy — I used to describe my mother and father as Lucy and Ricky in reverse. Chico and the Man — [Freddie Prinze] might have been a game-changer, but he died young. Dora the Explorer, which made a gazillion dollars for Viacom. George Lopez was on for years and still has a presence on television. Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin. In 70 years, just six shows. 

It’s not that much different than the experience of African-Americans on television, but if you were to chart the same thing with African-Americans, you probably have a lot more shows over 70 years. So there’s a lot of opportunity in telling the stories of Latinos, and that’s the path that we’re on.

We’re in conversations with third parties for longer-form shows and we are selling content to some of the digital players, including Facebook Watch. We have a pilot that we’re doing with Paramount Network called Browntown. So we’re just starting to look at the opportunities both for and beyond our feeds.

MCN: How do you see the Mitú brand developing a year from now?
We’ve just begun in terms of providing opportunities to touch audiences. Right now we have Mitú, which is the mothership brand; we have the nascent brand called Fierce. targeting women on our social feed; and we have an even more nascent brand for men. I’d like to fuel all those brands.

I also want to look at creating a food brand — food is a major part of this culture. Music is also blowing up in pop culture, so instead of having one major vertical on social media we’d have multiple verticals. I’d like to see us bring more stories of us to third-party platforms and populate them with stories anchored by Latinos. Dora was very informative to me because this is a show that was clearly anchored in Latin culture, but it was huge because it was for everyone. This is the brand that I think could sustain its own position in the marketplace.

Pictured, Top: "What's Good in Your Hood?"

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.