National Geographic Channel

Steven Schiffman, executive VP, marketing

The National Geographic Channel debuted four years ago with an unusual problem: The management concluded that the 117-year-old National Geographic Society’s namesake magazine struck many cable viewers as rather dry compared with, say, Animal Planet or even Discovery.

But Executive VP of Marketing and New Media Steven Schiffman tapped into what he learned as brand manager at Kraft Foods in the 1990s to fashion a new identity for the network that makes it distinct from the magazine.

“When you think of the hundreds of brands on the cable dial and thousands of Internet options, the parallels in terms of selection and choice are not too dissimilar to going into a grocery store and trying to sift out what [brand] you want to take off the shelf,” Schiffman says. He leveraged Nat Geo’s name recognition and improved it through ads on outlets owned by majority partner Fox Cable Networks. And he got the word out: This was not a video version of your grandfather’s dusty collection of National Geographic magazines.

Key to Schiffman’s marketing strategy has been to give Nat Geo a contemporary feel while emphasizing the word “channel.” He and his team did that in part by incorporating brighter onscreen colors—adding a red logo while retaining National Geographic magazine’s traditional and iconic yellow border —and, perhaps most indicative of the network’s identity, adding the tagline “Dare to Explore.”

The changes, put in place early last year, were crafted in large part from work Schiffman and his team undertook with San Francisco-based research firm Odyssey. The studies measured consumer attitudes to better understand who were most likely to watch the nonfiction programming the channel airs.

Findings from the research were used to group consumers into six categories. Among those were the New Enthusiasts: people interested in adventure programs that make up much of the National Geographic Channel’s lineup.

Schiffman says it was from listening to the New Enthusiasts that Nat Geo’s fresh look and tagline were developed: “What we’ve done with this attitudinal segment is that we’ve learned how to screen for New Enthusiasts in focus groups, and we get feedback on programming and marketing ideas so we can get smarter about the type of tone, content and messaging that’s relevant to them.”

And programming more originals, such as this month’s Inside the Mafia, has boosted Nat Geo’s audience. In the first quarter, its prime time audience in its core 25-54 demo was up 99% from a year earlier, to an average 133,000 viewers. Nat Geo reaches 63 million homes.

“We wanted a salient idea that was aggressive, challenging and straightforward, right in their face—'Dare to Explore,’” says Schiffman. “We created a campaign that I think is very different, where we market the channel as a destination and not simply a collection of shows, series, specials and stunt weeks that have no consistency.”