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Trying to build brand identity in a crowded cable environment with more than 200 digital channels is difficult enough for mainstream, established networks. But independently owned, startup services targeting minorities find it extremely difficult to get their messages heard by consumers, given the noise generated from competitors tied to big multimedia conglomerates.

Networks such as Colours Television, Black Family Channel and ImaginAsian TV are hoping to reach their respective target audiences the old-fashioned way: by going directly to the consumer with a traditional grassroots marketing effort.

Those networks are reaching out to the African-American and Asian-American communities by sponsoring community events, targeting niche publications, and rolling out network-specific tours in an effort to build awareness of their channels as they negotiate with operators for vital carriage deals. The networks hope that their marketing efforts eventually will create a groundswell of consumer support that will help convince operators to launch their services.

“The objective is obviously to develop that sense of demand from the consumers, so you try to create some consumer pull to show the MSOs that there is a warranted demand for this kind of programming,” says ImaginAsian vice president of marketing and strategic development Michael Huh. “In order to do that you need to create some programs that will increase your awareness and some sort of call to action.”

That tactic is the best way of counteracting the chief competition — Comcast Corp.’s AZN Television, among Asian Americans, and for African Americans viewers, Viacom Inc.’s Black Entertainment Television and Comcast’s TV One. Those networks are able to take advantage of distribution and marketing synergies from their conglomerate parent companies to gain a channel slot on most cable operator programming lineups.

Reminiscent of the “I Want My MTV” 1980s consumer marketing campaign, minority-oriented network executives say they have to focus nearly as much effort on trying to curry favor and momentum for their respective channels within the communities they serve as they do winning the hearts and minds of operators.

“Our first priority is talking about the network to our affiliates, but the external communications to our consumers as well as advertisers, influencers and decision makers outside of the industry are just as important,” says Colours TV president Tracy Winchester. “If the affiliates think there is brand recognition going on within their communities with their consumers, then that encourages them to launch the service. It’s very important to simultaneously work on three fronts: affiliates, consumers and potential advertisers.”

Local Media Push

In lieu of cross-promotional spots on cable systems, the 11 million-subscriber Colours — which provides a mix of programming targeted to the African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic audiences — is attempting to achieve those goals through placing ads in ethnic-targeted periodicals, including community newspapers, church newsletters and local radio spots in markets where it doesn’t have carriage.

ImaginAsian TV is among those networks that are taking a more community-inclusive approach to gorilla marketing by embracing and sponsoring community-based events such as local Asian film festivals in New York and San Francisco.

The network, currently in 2 million homes, has actually established a major presence within the New York Asian-American community by purchasing a local theater. Dubbed The ImaginAsian, the theater is home for first-run Asian and Asian-American films that ordinarily wouldn’t find a home in mainstream theaters, notes Huh.

In addition, it houses several film festivals, including last month’s New York Filipino and Asian Film Festivals.

Such efforts help insolate the network within the community it serves, says Huh. “The concept of developing this network in the first place is that we’re trying to service ourselves,” he says. “Being Asian ourselves, it lends some legitimacy to what we’re trying to do, and the response from the community has been, 'Hopefully you’ll grow and tell us what we can do to help you.’”

Huh says the theater has already benefited the network’s cable fortunes: In collaboration with the theater’s summer Hit Asian Film Festival presentation, Time Warner Cable’s New York system in May launched ImaginAsian-branded video-on-demand content that will run through July.

“We were able to leverage the appeal of the theatre by having a film series at the theatre in conjunction with Time Warner’s [Asian Film Festival] movie on demand offering,” Huh says.

Executives say finding opportunities to partner with affiliates and potential affiliates through various community events and services can serve the dual purpose of introducing the network to both systems and consumers in the market.

Community Services

Atlanta-based Black Family Channel, through its ongoing “Building Families and Communities” campaign, often teams with affiliates serving predominately African-American markets to sponsor information-rich events featuring services from free blood pressure tests to information on buying a home, all under one network-branded tent, according to the network’s vice president of marketing and promotion, Lisa Talbert.

The 14 million subscriber network has also partnered with non-cable organizations such as colleges and universities, which focus on Black students to provide counseling and information to middle school and high school students seeking information on preparing for college.

Black Family’s focus on community services, in addition to its entertainment-based cable programming, has opened up distribution opportunities with various MSOs.

“We’ve gone into markets where the systems have said, 'When you guys were here the phones started ringing,’” recounts Talbert. “We’re providing something that the community is looking for — vital information and services as well as a cable network that targets families that’s responsible, relevant and real.”

But the grass-roots effort doesn’t stop at the consumer and operator level. Executives say an effective way of getting a cable operator’s attention is to lobby local government officials and civil-rights organizations.

Colours’ Winchester notes that the network’s appeal to the Congressional Black Caucus several years ago prompted that group to author a letter of support for the channel that she says prompted carriage talks with satellite distributor DirecTV Inc.

BFC’s Talbert adds that getting recommendations from organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and even local churches give startup networks some credibility and clout within the communities they serve.

Budget Limitations

But these grassroots efforts aren’t cheap for cash-strapped startup networks. Executives say they have to make tough decisions between funding such marketing efforts to appeal to consumers and developing quality programming that will catch operator and advertiser attention.

“You can only do but so much,” says Colours’ Winchester. “If you try to do it all, then you end up bankrupt, unless you have some very deep pockets behind you.”

One way of subsidizing promotion and programming costs is to utilize original programming as part of the network’s overall marketing and branding effort. Black Family Channel will put the concept to the test in September when the network takes its $1,000 Spelling Bee series on the road to several African-American-targeted markets, including Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Black Family Channel will work with a local cable system in each market to produce and promote the show, which awards $1,000 per show to each contest winner. The local affiliate will choose the school that the student participants will originate from, as well as contribute the production costs of the show, Talbert says.

“We’re using either the affiliate studios or utilizing state-of-the-art schools, so the partnership works where we’re spending the least amount of money that we need to,” she says. “There are also local and national advertisers that want to buy into the [tour], because this is all about education, and organizations want to help and encourage people to learn.”

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.