"Directly at the Time of Desire": Brand Entertainment Goes Shopping with Consumers
In the early 90’s, so-called place- and retail-based media was all the rage, based on introducing advertiser-supported video and TV-style programming into environments rich with “captive” consumers.
Active still today, the most prominent success from that era is the pioneering CNN Airport Network. Launched in 1992 by Turner Private Networks, the network currently broadcasts news and entertainment features to some 46 airports across North America.
Many more such ventures failed. Turner’s CNN Checkout Channel, adapting the airport model to grocery stores, quickly folded, as did Point-of-Purchase Radio (P.O.P. Radio) and the CNN-produced Axolotl’s Accent Health Waiting Room Television Network.
Shopping centers caught the fever, briefly. Making the business case that mall-goers come with money in hand intending to spend but not always with specific purchasing in mind, Food Court Entertainment Network (FCEN) created an in-mall network called Café USA. Hosted by TV personality Sarah Purcell and featuring an ad-supported mix of original and licensed (MTV, Sesame Street, others) content, the 30-minute program was broadcast from TV monitors suspended from the ceilings of in-mall food courts.
FCEN was a bust. Who wanted to watch the same continuously looped 30-minute program, played off a laserdisc and refreshed only once a month?
There were crazier schemes yet, such as the plan to plaster Grand Central Station in New York and Union Station in D.C. (all those commuters and travelers with money in their pockets!) with video screens, zipper boards and other display hardware for an all-out media onslaught.
Why I am giving you this ancient history?
Because while the execution invariably went awry, the concept was not only sound, but it anticipated the “brands as media” ecosystem that we live in today. Those place-based media pioneers did not take their frontier arrows in vain, either. In the funereal wake of Café USA, for example, content marketers learned how not to be timely, relevant and engaging. CNN Airport Network, meanwhile, gives its bored, impatient, stressed-out pre-flight passenger the right content for the right moment—news, entertainment, sports, weather, distraction.
As the new media, brands must offer quality content to pull in an audience that's fickle, jaded with standard TV but always with delivery devices at the ready.
Old Café USA would be proud of grandkids like Walgreen’s mobile check-in solution, that communicates deals and product info to customers walking the aisles, or the QR- and SMS-enabled mobile bar codes throughout Bloomingdale’s recently launched iPad catalog, retailers are increasingly connecting with shoppers on the go.
IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative tells retailers to “capitalize on the smarter consumer” by putting their brands “wherever a customer might be shopping: on partner websites, social networks, blogs or mobile stores.” Noted by an industry insider of Bloomy’s catalog, “Bloomingdale’s is giving the opportunity for the consumer to interact with the retailer’s brand directly at time of desire.” Nothing says it better than “go shopping.”
Jeff Heilman covers business, marketing, law and travel for a range of custom and trade publications. Also an award-winning photographer and copywriter, he ghostwrote Courageous Counsel, a book on the history of women general counsel in the Fortune 500, published September 2011.