The Untitled TV Title Piece

I like branding exercises where you get to demonstrate the success rate of brand names. My favourite game is to project success rates of TV shows based on their title in relevance to their (perceived) quality. What does this have to do with branding, you ask? Everything.

First and foremost, a TV franchise is a brand in itself. Just look at “The Simpsons”, “Friends” and “Sex and the City”, three successful shows that all became household names and hold great cultural value of the era they represent. Exactly the definition of a great brand. In addition, a TV show has many success factors, but they can simply be grouped into two: Quality (of story, actors, production etc.) and branding (title and visual style). That means that we can identify the two value groups. And since TV shows are ranked weekly, we can also see how popular this particular brand is. Now, if the quality of the show is high, why do some shows still fail? My not too serious hypothesis is that the title plays a huge role.

Consider the following shows: “The Sopranos”, “Game of Thrones”, “True Detective”, “Homeland”, “Modern Family”, “Orange is the New Black”, “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men”. Great shows with equally great titles. And all of them huge successes in their own right, and dominant in today’s or recent popular culture. Then look at some other quality shows, that were either cancelled or had poor ratings throughout its run: “Boss”, “Freaks and Geeks”, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, “The Wire”, “Halt & Catch Fire” and “Episodes”. All of them great, high quality shows (and some of my personal favourites), but they are not getting their fair share of viewers. Of course, there are factors other than title (network, time slot, stars etc.) that makes or breaks a show, but if we isolate one thing in common for all of these shows, it is that they have titles that are less than inspiring.

Take “The Wire”. One of the best TV shows ever made. But its success came after the 5 seasons were over, and we can only thank HBO’s strategy for continuing to air it, despite low-ish numbers. The name is not bad, but it gives no feel of what the show is about. The fans love the title, but if no one has heard of it, it will not succeed. If the viewer, when reading the listing goes “hm, don’t know what that’s about”, then it fails. “Boss” is another, but sadder example. The show had everything; a great premise, a superb plot, Kelsey Grammer in the role of his lifetime and one of the best opening sequences on TV. Yet, it got cancelled after two seasons, because no one was watching. The fans and critics loved it, but no one heard about it. In fact, I personally thought it was a reality show the first time I heard about it. The last example is a bit more complicated. Freaks and Geeks is actually a brilliant title. But only if you start watching it. The growing-up in the 80s drama comedy featured now superstar performers like James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, but despite brilliant writing and a realism that people like me who grew up in the 80s can approve of, it got cancelled after 11 weeks (the rest of the original 18 episodes were eventually aired on another network). Freaks and Geeks? Not appealing enough.

Ok, so let’s get back to the successes. Sopranos, a great show indeed, but the premise of a mafia boss with psychological issues is not very intuitive. But the title had a ring to it. Breaking Bad? Must be interesting, even if the first two episodes were very hard to watch (actually half of first season was hard to get into). We wanted to know what Breaking Bad meant. Game of Thrones. Now, there’s a title! It almost forces you to watch. Imagine if the title was the same as the book series (A Song of Ice and Fire). I can guarantee that the viewership would be a lot lower (at least in the first season). And, of course Mad Men, a dark show on a smaller cable network, about a man who works in an industry most people don’t care about. Not riveting stuff on paper, and if the name was Ad Guys, we’d never watch it. But Mad Men got us hooked. Of course these shows are truly brilliant, and the main reason for their success is the quality, and recommendations from friends is becoming more and more important, but I don’t think we would have given them a chance if the title wasn’t great as well.

To learn something from this, I guess it has to be that every element in a brand, whether it’s the name, the logo, or the tone of voice in marketing must generate an interest for people to find out more. If not, the audience would just ignore it. Way too many new brands get their names by finding an available URL. That is the wrong way to attack it. Sometimes quirky names work (Fargo and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in the TV universe), but most often a name that both stirs interest and intrigue wins. And if you don’t want to learn anything from this, but just came for the show recommendations, watch Halt and Catch Fire, The Americans and those two amazing seasons of Boss. You can thank me later.

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo from Sopranos, copyright HBO]