Quietly Breaking Through the Clutter: How Fox Killed Firefly and Brought Universal Serenity

September 29, 2005

A lot of marketers these days think that they have to be as loud and flashy as possible in order to “break through the clutter,” which is only there in the first place because everyone is trying to be loud and flashy. Smart marketers recognize that when a product or brand is of a clearly superior quality, and has gained loyal supporters, the noise can be turned way down and focused creative communications can be most effective.

In 2002, Fox Television horribly mishandled a gem of a program called Firefly. The program featured superb dialogue, fleshed-out characters, suspenseful plotlines, and a singular respect for the intelligence of the audience. The challenge for Fox had to do with the fact that Firefly, which was created by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), lacked a definitive genre or a single well-known actor (unless you count Ron Glass who played Detective Harris on Barney Miller in the 1970s); however, the network should have been capable of overcoming these challenges and their ineptitude has become well documented in the ensuing years through a fanatical blog-savvy fan base.

To make a long story short, when it came time to air Firefly, a sci-fi/western-themed drama/comedy, Fox made three easily avoidable tactical errors:
1. They decided not to air the two-hour first episode in which the storyline and characters are established.

2. They showed the episodes out of order during its 11-week run.

3. They promoted the show as an action-comedy rather than an ensemble character piece.

Because the networks have delivered a mind-numbing array of drivel over the years, it has become challenging to effectively market programs that do not fit neatly into any single genre (i.e., Firefly is sci-fi, but not sci-fi, a western, but not a western, funny, but not a comedy, far flung fantasy but hyper-realistic characters and dialogue). In the end, despite being hailed by critics and beloved by a small but intensely fervent fanbase, Fox cancelled the show after 11 weeks.

In the intervening three years since Fox cancelled Firefly, an intensely loyal group of fans first urged Fox to bring the show back and then lobbied anyone else who would listen to give the show another chance in any medium. These pleas were ultimately answered by Universal, which gave Mr. Whedon a $50 million budget to shoot a feature film version of the program. The film, titled Serenity, is set to open on Friday, and I’m willing to bet that it’s going to be a great success, and here’s why:

1. The Ascent of Quality: Simply put, Firefly/Serenity is objectively better than most other things that are out there. Companies talk a lot about how good their products are, but the ability to back up such claims is exceptionally difficult. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter; one company’s products may or may not be better than another’s, but the range of quality is rarely so extreme so that a consumer would notice. This is where “branding,” where companies attempt to distinguish themselves from others through positioning, messaging, visual imagery, and the like, becomes important. When one company or one product rises to the top of the heap on the merits of its own quality, when consumers stand up and take note of that quality, traditional marketing and branding strategies cannot save the competition. Google is an example of the ascent of quality. Through minimal marketing efforts, Google was able to build its brand based on the quality of its Internet search.

2. Power of the People: Firefly/Serentiy has a smart, fervent, and loyal fan base. These days, it is getting harder and harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes. People talk, they chat, they blog. Truth may be subverted, facts may be averted, realities may be converted, but there is no denying the power of the people in defining what they like and don’t like. Today, when groups of people share strong beliefs about something, and when they mobilize effectively around those beliefs, they have a great ability to cause change and bring unexpected results. In the case of Firefly/Serenity, the fans were unable to save the television program, but they did manage to squeeze 50 million bucks out of a major studio to make their film.

3. Peace, Love, and Understanding: Universal has run an unusually quiet marketing campaign for Serenity. Most marketing campaigns these days are run like blitzkrieg warfare. Outrageous sums of money are spent to bombard the public with information about the latest and greatest thing that they must have. Once the public is saturated, purchase decisions can be affected, and campaigns are hailed as successful. In circumstances where cross-brand differentiation is minimal, where individuals can barely notice the quality of Brand X over Brand Y, this sort of aggressive marketing style can be successful. In circumstances where levels of quality are discernable, products are best promoted through gentle peaceful treatment of the established customer base. Their ability to recognize quality should be rewarded, and their love should be fostered. Marketers need to understand these loyalists, and allow them to spread the good word. Apple had such success with iPod (limited advertising) for the first couple of years.

While trailers for Serenity started appearing in theaters a month ago (and online before that), a less traditional approach was taken to promote the film. Universal had several semi-secret showings of rough-cut versions of the film that were announced on fan sites. These showings sold out, and have raised the level of loyalty and fever pitch among existing fans to extreme levels. I was lucky enough to stumble into an advanced screening of the film last week and had the dumb luck to sit next to two 20-somethings who had wandered into the theater without a ticket. “This looks so #$%!@ stupid!” one of them announced before the lights went out. “I saw the preview for this and it looks horrible” she went on. I was dreading sitting next to these people for the film, but all the other seats were taken so I toughed it out. Within ten minutes, both of these audience members were laughing out loud and squealing with delight. When it was over, they both said that they thought it was great and they were going to tell their friends about it. Quality had ascended. People had the power. The studio’s peace, love, and understanding is sure to pay off.

- Barry Cowan bcowan@corebrand.com

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