Doctor Who, the 49-year-old British sci-fi television program, returns to the BBC tomorrow after an eleven-month break. Championed by fans, the popular program can teach us a thing or two about marketing.
For the uninitiated, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a time- and space-traveling adventurer known as the Doctor. Each week, the Doctor faces monsters and other no-goodniks with the help of his human companions, using intelligence (not violence) to right the wrongs of the universe. When the Doctor dies, he can “regenerate” into a new body, allowing multiple actors to play the Doctor during the show’s 49-year history.
So what does a crazy spaceman have to do with advertising?
"No budget" is no excuse.
When the show premiered in 1963, the producers didn’t have much money, so they had to get creative. For example, the Doctor’s spaceship (the TARDIS) originally transformed to fit in with its surroundings. Instead of building a new spaceship every episode, the writers declared that the TARDIS’s “chameleon circuit” was malfunctioning, leaving the TARDIS stuck in one state and eliminating the cost of new facades.
Some of the most successful marketing comes from low (or no) budgets – look at social media campaigns like Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken” or guerilla tactics from Mini. A clear message told in a compelling way can be just as (if not more) effective than a flashy, multi-million-dollar campaign.
Adapt as the market evolves.
After a 16-year hiatus, the Beeb brought the series back in 2005, but with changes. Though the program continued the previous storyline, the BBC called the new series* “series one” to avoid alienating viewers who were unfamiliar with the original. The new Doctor and his companion were younger than previous actors, helping the show appeal to a new, younger audience.
Yet despite these changes, the new Doctor Who has remained true to its original brand: the reboot continues the previous version’s reality, the Doctor still avoids violence, and the writers continue to emphasize story over special effects (even though the budget has increased).
To be successful, brands must adapt to changing audiences while staying true to their identities. Some brands try to adapt but change too drastically (JCPenny and New Coke). Others fail to change until it’s too late (Blockbuster and Kodak). Occasionally, some brands get it right (like Target and its partnerships with designers to separate itself from Walmart and K-Mart). The key is to stay true to the brand while evolving through a series of “just noticeable differences.”
Love your fans.
To address its Who-hungry fan base, the stars of Doctor Who make regular appearances, including visits to San Diego Comic-Con and a special Doctor Who concert. To promote the upcoming series, BBC America hosted a “cosplay” contest, inviting fans to upload pictures of themselves dressed as their favorite Doctor Who characters. The BBC also released five “mini-episodes” to placate fans in the week leading up to the premiere.
As with Doctor Who, brandsuccess comes from reaching out to fans and working to meet their needs. On a basic level, this means responding to praise and criticism, as well as offering “rewards” like coupons or promotions. The best brands interact with their fans in a significant way (like Morton’s Steakhouse’s Twitter response) and actively listen to what their fans have to say (à la Sainsbury’s and Giraffe Bread).
The Bottom Line
As a whole, Doctor Who is a stellar program with a stellar brand. From its humble origins to the phenomenon it’s become today, it’s stayed true to its roots while adapting appropriately. And I’ll be counting the minutes to its 9:00 premiere this Saturday.
*The British “series” equates to “season” in the US.