The Art of Branding With Crown Media Family Networks' Susanne McAvoy

By Charlene Weisler WomenAdvancing Archives

Susanne McAvoy, Executive Vice President Marketing, Creative and Communications at Crown Media Family Networks, has worked for some of the top media corporations including Turner, Comcast and MTV. She knew that she was interested in a media career when her mother, sister and grandmother became stuck in a Red Army camp while traveling to China when Marshall Law was declared. "I became fascinated when I saw a photo of my mom flashing the peace sign in the air," she said. "I wanted to go to Asia. During my senior year in college, I interned at CNN in Washington, DC, which became my foray to get into television. I eventually went to Asia working for CNN in Hong Kong after I graduated."

In this interview, McAvoy talks about her role in overseeing Crown Media Family Networks'  cross-departmental marketing, creative and communications initiatives as well as the social media marketing strategies for Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. She explains the concept of brand essence and how branding over the air synergizes with digital. In addition, she offers her insights on mentoring, work/life balance and how she sees the media industry evolving over the next five years.

Charlene Weisler: Tell me about how you moved from television news gathering to become a leader in marketing and branding. 

Susanne McAvoy: I worked for CNN during the Clinton election in the booking department as a college intern. It was an interesting learning experience and when I graduated I went to Asia for one year working for CNN Hong Kong. That was in the early '90s. By the time I moved back to the United States I was working for Turner in Atlanta and they began their cable roll-out. I became interested in the marketing area of sales at that time. From there I moved to MTV in New York where I was immersed in the brand side of affiliate marketing, working with some of the top marketers in the industry at the time. I learned about brand fillers and the essence of where the brand should be and should not be. It gave me a great perspective. This was the heyday of MTV and VH1 and it taught me to be a brand marketer. Then I moved to Oxygen which was very much a start up in those days. We had to figure out what Oxygen was -- and this was when there was a lot of buzz about digital. From there I moved to Comcast where I did brand work helping to create Comcast Spotlight. The interesting aspect to that branding effort was to carefully consider how a name change can impact legacy brand values.

Charlene: What is brand essence? Is it difficult to change?

Susanne: I have found that over time, branding has become more important -- as is the need to stay relevant and current. Some brands have evolved successfully and others have not. USA Network, for example, had a dated logo and wanted to see how they could progress. They were able to maintain the strength of the brand and made it relevant to today. Eight years ago Hallmark was very new on the scene and still trying to forge a distinct identity. The programming strategy was a work in progress and the content didn't yet have the signature characteristics that the network is so well known for today. We have come a long way since then and the network has become an extremely established brand. We looked closely at the essence of that brand and kept coming back to the idea of "the heart of storytelling" in a warm, celebratory and familial way. So rebranding Hallmark Channel to "the heart of television" was a natural and organic fit. Brand essence is to say what the brand is and have it mean something to somebody. You need to be clear over clever. If you have to explain it then it will take longer for people to understand.

Charlene: How did you turn the Hallmark brand around?

Susanne: I hired Lee Hunt who was very involved in helping with the branding. It was an 18-month testing of various taglines. We found that some taglines were trying to be too clever. What we realized is that we are all about emotional storytelling -- coming from the heart. So we developed a wide range of colors and palettes because emotions run the gamut. Also as part of the research effort we conducted a segmentation analysis for the Hallmark Channel to see what our viewers looked like and consumer focus groups for Hallmark Movie Channel. The consumer focus groups were a tough recruit. It was hard to find Hallmark Movie Channel-only viewers.

With Hallmark Movie Channel we found that the brand did not represent the programming on the network -- there were movies, but it wasn't all movies. So we looked to see what performed on air and discovered mysteries did well. The challenge from a branding perspective was that our corporate headquarters felt that Hallmark and mysteries did not work well together. We eventually convinced them that while Hallmark Channel is warm emotional storytelling, Hallmark Movie Channel is hard-hitting emotional storytelling.

Charlene: A rebranding is sometimes like trying to turn around a battleship. Is it that hard to do nowadays?

Susanne: Yes and no. If the brand is well known it is easier. If the brand is not known, it is harder. It does not work like a light switch. How you position yourself to consumers matters. Take, for example, Under Armour which is highlighting female athletes to make it accessible to consumers everywhere -- relevant and easy to understand. This is an example of successful rebranding of an established brand.

Charlene: Tell me about your mentoring efforts.

Susanne: I am very active in WICT, joining the organization while at Turner. Since then I have been the President of the New York Chapter Board and then their National Board. They do a great job in their educational program. I feel that it is very important to mentor and bring young women into the industry. And I also learn from them -- I learn their video habits. It is a win/win effort and the best of both worlds.

Charlene: How do you attain work/life balance?

Susanne:  I try to turn off e-mail on the weekends and focus on family. At home it is all about the family and the kids. When I am at work, I work. I have two cellphones to keep things separate. And I am lucky to have a supportive boss who has four kids of his own and a very supportive husband. I am fortunate that all of the pieces fit together.

Charlene: Can you give me some predictions as to how you think the media landscape will look five years from now?

Susanne: The landscape will definitely be even more fragmented and more programmers will be hesitant to sell content to other platforms. People will continue to watch linear but the use of DVRs will become even more prevalent. Lastly, I hope that programming content will become less violent in the next three to five years.

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